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David H. Price

St. Martin’s College


This paper was presented at a special Presidential Panel held at  the Annual Business Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, San Francisco,  CA, November 16, 2000.  Panel discussion of paper by: Robert Fernea, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Janet Levy, William Peace and Joe Watkins.


My interests in tracing anthropologists’ historical interactions with intelligence agencies are two fold: my primary interest is in the epistemological examination of relationships between Cold War infrastructure and anthropological theory and practice, my secondary interest stems from personal concerns with the ethical dimensions of intelligence agencies enlisting the services of anthropologists. 


In many ways the epistemological issues are easier to confront than are the ethical ones—though it is the ethics of all this that cuts to the heart of basic assumptions of who we are, what we stand for, and why we do what we do. Tonight’s paper presents a summary of a full-length article based on archival and Freedom of Information Act research that examines how the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association came to enter into a covert relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1950s.  I believe this history is important to us for a number of reasons, but most importantly because it can inform us of the need for ethical guidelines limiting our interaction with military and intelligence agencies.  


In March 1951 AAA Executive Secretary Frederick Johnson informed President William Howells and the Association’s Executive Board that several governmental agencies were requesting a detailed cross-indexed roster of the Association’s membership.  Johnson wrote that these agencies were growing “justifiably impatient” and he stressed his belief that they “should in some way pay for the roster”. 


This interest in compiling a detailed membership roster had its roots in the great mobilization efforts of the Second World War.  With America’s entry into the war, the Office of Coordinated Information (later to become the OSS) had scrambled with some difficulty to locate individuals with the specific cultural and linguistic knowledge needed for the war effort.  Without a centralized database it took some time to locate anthropologists and other scholars with the requisite knowledge. As the war ended, and the Cold War began, it became obvious to the intelligence community that such geographical and cultural expertise would be an important commodity to track and acquire. Thus, the Association was approached to help coordinate this enterprise.


After researching options for compiling a roster Johnson told the Executive Board that working with the Central Intelligence Agency offered the best opportunity for the Association this despite the CIA’s insistence on secrecy, requiring that no one learn of its participation.  Part of the attraction of working with the CIA was its access to computers that could compile and sort this database of anthropologists’ expertise. 


In February 1951, the Board voted on a proposal authorizing Johnson to begin negotiations with the CIA to produce a membership directory. This ballot item stated that: “The final agreement will be based on the idea that the Anthropological Association will sponsor the roster and the CIA will do the technical work connected with it.  The [Central Intelligence] Agency will be allowed to keep one copy of the roster for its own use and it will deliver to the Association a duplicate copy..“ The Board voted to approve the motion.


Historical Context: 

To understand the actions of the Board in this instance it is vital to note that the public’s perceptions of the CIA and intelligence work in general during this period were significantly different from contemporary views.  So many Anthropologists had spent the war years doing intelligence work that such arrangements seemed natural.  Indeed, during the war the individual members of this Executive Board had worked for the War Relocation Authority, the Board of Economic Warfare, Office of Naval Intelligence, the State Department, and the OSS.  It must be remembered that the early Cold War was an era where the career column of the Association’s Newsletter contained notices by anthropologists proudly announcing their success in cycling through the revolving doors of the State Department, CIA and various universities.


Most Americans in the early 1950s had not heard of the CIA and those who had generally understood that it’s mission was primarily to gather intelligence, rather than using covert means to dictate policy or subvert democratic movements at home and abroad.  None of this is to argue that in its early years the CIA was somehow a benevolent, law abiding organization, or that the Executive Board made the correct decision when they chose to deceive the Association’s membership. It wasn’t, and they didn’t.   With the distance of history we now know that even from its earliest days, the CIA had a mandate under the 1947 National Security Council Directive 4/A to engage in interventionist covert actions both at home and abroad, and that it had already violated the OAS Charter on multiple occasions by the time the Board approved this collaboration.


Acknowledging that the Executive Board did not fully understand who the CIA was does not alleviate the Board of responsibilities for its actions--but it does highlight our need for clear prohibitions against intelligence work.  As Sir James Frazer or Leslie White’s writings on taboo argue: we need prohibitions not for things that are repellent to us, but for things that hold natural attractions.


Well, Contra to such presentivist sensibilities, President Howells was enthusiastic about working with the CIA on this project.  He wrote Johnson that, “The CIA proposal is ideal.  We should go along with it, with the understanding that they give us duplicate IBM cards and duplicates of the questionnaires, which they can easily do; they are great at reproducing things.  If a reasonable questionnaire, suitable to both parties, can be worked out, we will both get what we want.”


Of course just what the CIA wanted from all this was never explicitly stated during these correspondences—though institutional histories of the agency clarify they were after linguistically and culturally competent contacts who moved freely in and out of Africa, Asia, and South and Latin America.  Howells informed the Board that Johnson would work closely with the CIA—and CIA anthropologists—to develop a questionnaire that would serve both the needs of the Agency and the Association. 


At Johnson’s suggestion President Howells began selecting anthropologists who could serve as permanent liaisons between the CIA and the AAA.  Howells sent Johnson a list of  seven respected anthropologists he believed well suited for this work, but Johnson fired back a concerned letter noting that only one of the anthropologists named by Howells met his criteria of individuals who would work well at CIA.  He felt most of those suggested by Howells were too “narrow”, “over-rated”, or too “restricted” in their outlook.  Johnson instructed Howells to select a group of conservative anthropologists from the four sub-fields who were heads of departments, and to instruct them to “select from their advanced students people who will do the work under supervision”—thus these young anthropologists could advance in their careers with one foot in the Academy and the other surreptitiously within the walls of the Agency.  As Johnson developed plans for working with the CIA, he worked closely with CIA anthropologist Jim Andrews [James Madison Andrews IV] and other anthropologists on CIA staff.


It is presently not clear what became of this plan to establish a CIA liaison position, but this exchange illustrates both: the Association’s role as intermediary linking the intelligence community and our membership; as well as the extraordinary influence held by an un-elected member of the Board in establishing significant Association policy. 


Archival correspondence between Frederick Johnson and Howells indicates that Johnson had acted in violation of the Association’s charter when he (a non-voting ex officio member of the Board) improperly moved that the Board vote on the proposal for a cooperative secret agreement with the CIA.  Johnson privately confided to Howells that, he had done this frequently and that “this is against Robert’s Rules of Order”.  These  charter violations raise many questions—questions that take on an increased significance when one considers the ease with which Johnson traveled in and out of CIA circles.


On April 17, 1951 Johnson sent a memo to the Board announcing that negotiations with CIA had been completed, writing that: “The C.I.A. will compile a preliminary questionnaire.  The people who will do this have had experience with the rosters being made by the [National Security Resources Board] and they will be advised by anthropologists on the C.I.A. staff.”


While the military-intelligence applications of the roster were privately discussed by the Board, these were explicitly downplayed and removed from more public presentations of the project.  The AAA Archival documents contain a copy of the CIA’s early proposed draft of the Roster.  Using FOIA I also obtained a copy of the final draft from the FBI (The FBI were of course spying on the CIA and various members of the AAA—and had determined that the roster’s questionnaire “may have been initiated by some Governmental agency, such as CIA, for the express purpose of obtaining intelligence data.”). A significant difference between this early draft and final document is the removal of language describing this as part of a national security preparedness program.  The final version of the questionnaire de-emphasized talk of national security needs, instead stressing that, “the data compiled from this Roster will be used in the analysis of manpower problems and for possible placement…purposes”, creating an appearance that the roster would be primarily used for more academic employment goals.


Seven pages of the roster’s questionnaire were designed to compile a detailed profile of the Association’s membership,  collecting information on: citizenship status, foreign research areas, language proficiency, honors, professional memberships, military status, travel habits, employment status, professional experience, income levels, areas of professional specialty and various non-work activities—many of these items would appear to be of interest to the CIA’s purpose, and of marginal value to the AAA.


Frederick Johnson published an announcement of the forthcoming questionnaire in the January 1952 Association’s News Bulletin.  It is important to note what this announcement did and did not disclose about the roster.  First, it did identify the ACLS as the only non-AAA organization involved in the project.  As per secret agreement, there was no mention of the CIA’s involvement in the production, analysis or consumption of the final product.  The announcement did however state that the roster was being compiled for various reasons including possible defense mobilization, though this announcement stressed that the roster would be used to guide “the activities of the Association and… affiliated societies.”



Unfortunately, the documentary record of these events ends at the point that the membership was mailed the roster questionnaire.  No copies of the final roster have been located at various archives, and the Central Intelligence Agency has not been forthcoming with a copy—so, many questions dealing with the meaning and outcome of these events are left hanging, though not all questions remain unanswered. 


The CIA has actively resisted legal efforts to determine if a copy of this roster still survives in the CIA’s library or archives.  The extent of Frederick Johnson’s work with the CIA is not fully understood, and there is little information on what became of the Executive Board’s plans to establish an anthropology liaison position within the CIA—though the last mention of this in the Association’s records finds the program advancing forward. The CIA acknowledges it collected and has destroyed some records relating to the AAA—though it does seem likely some records linking the Association and the Agency may still exist.  It is not known to what uses the CIA put this completed roster, though we know from the Church Hearings that during the early 1960s “CIA funding was involved in nearly half the grants [made by agencies other than the Rockefeller, Ford & Carnegie] foundations during this period in the field of international activities”.  It is not known what role this roster may have played in linking unwitting or witting scholars with the research funding opportunities that had been arranged by CIA, for the interests of State—though we do know that the CIA did use such funding fronts to finance apparently unwitting anthropologists during this period.


Even with these unknowns we still do know what CIA wanted, and what they got. They wanted a detailed summary of our membership, our contacts, military profiles, travel habits, research interests and linguistic abilities—and that is exactly what they got.


These members of the Executive Board have not been the only anthropologists working with intelligence agencies such as CIA, this is only one event in a complicated but little studied history. As I point out in an article in the current issues of The Nation: it is a central part of our discipline’s collective lore that Franz Boas was censured by our Association when he complained about the impropriety of anthropologists using their research positions as a cover for espionage—but our histories have often ignored the implications of the fact that during the next great war, Samuel Lothrop (one of the spies who had been confronted by Boas in the first World War), returned to his spy work without hesitation or adverse consequence.  Elsewhere I have documented many other instances where anthropologists have worked for military and intelligence agencies with impunity.  It is my view that these are acts that threaten the legitimacy and security of us all when no position is taken by our Association prohibiting such practices.


It is curious how little anthropologists have written about or studied these secret sharers from the military and intelligence community who have perched at the edge of our research arenas and shared our classrooms in language training institutes and area study centers.  Our (secret) history suggests to me that without specific prohibitions of covert research we do not deserve the default trust of those we study. Our field’s past betrayals of these assumed trusts requires that we specify an unequivocal commitment to full disclosure and non-alignment with military and intelligence organizations.  Our Principles of Professional Responsibility needs to clearly and unambiguously declare that it is inappropriate for anthropologists to work with intelligence agencies.  It is not that I naively believe that individuals could not violate such commitments: it is simply that no one we study should assume we aren’t spies unless we at least declare we aren’t.  While there are multiple anthropologies, we need to assure the world we study that we have limits—and these limits include assurances that we will not work with such agencies as the CIA.


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