WASHINGTON — The Army appears to have revived a controversial program that sent social scientists to battlefields and became mired in fraud and sexual harassment, according to documents and interviews.
The Human Terrain System spent at least $727 million to deploy anthropologists and other social scientists to Iraq and Afghanistan between 2007 and 2014. In June, the Army confirmed that the program had been killed because commanders no longer required advice from civilian anthropologists. However, a program with similar components, titled the Global Cultural Knowledge Network, appears to have taken its place within the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, according documents and emails obtained by USA TODAY.
A critic of the program, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, demanded answers about the program from Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy in a letter sent Monday. Hunter noted "striking similarities between the two programs" and called on the Army to explain how the Global Cultural Knowledge Network differed from Human Terrain System. He also asked for an accounting of its cost and the number of people it employs.
"Unless the Army can show real differences between programs, then there should be no doubt that this constitutes a blatant attempt to rebrand and reboot a failed program under another name and a launch it with a reworded mission statement," Hunter told USA TODAY on Tuesday. "What's obviously lost on the Army is that it wasn't just the implementation of HTS that was the problem, it was the whole thing, to include the program's intent and objective."
The Army acknowledged receiving Hunter's letter and will respond to him after reviewing it, said Cynthia Smith, an Army spokeswoman.
The Human Terrain System, or HTS, had earned praise from top Army officials, including former secretary John McHugh. The program's aim had been to provide commanders with information about local populations in war zones to help them avoid needless bloodshed. The teams of social scientists had provided information that had proved "actionable and useful for decision-making," according to McHugh, who retired last year.
But HTS had also experienced serious growing pains as the Army sought to expand the number of teams it deployed to combat zones during the peak of fighting — and military spending — on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A USA TODAY investigation of the program uncovered an internal Army investigation in 2010 that had found HTS had been "fraught with waste, fraud and abuse."
Some HTS members, according to documents obtained by USA TODAY, filled out fake time sheets at the urging of supervisors to pad their paychecks. Some took home $280,000 per year for work that investigators doubt was done. Team members, who worked as federal government employees, were entitled to six months of paid leave when they returned home.
Sexual harassment was also rife, according to a survey of HTS employees. One team member wrote that "sexual harassment is prevalent, and sexist behavior is an everyday occurrence; I was sexually harassed in the field repeatedly; sexual comments and jokes are rampant; nearly every female in the program faces some form of sexual harassment."
The Army retrained members on filling out time sheets properly, and fired a contractor it found responsible for sexual harassment.
Last July, shortly after Army officials said the program was no longer necessary, officials within Training and Doctrine Command were discussing how to revive portions of the Human Terrain System within the Global Cultural Knowledge Network. They also talked about how to rebrand the effort as the "Global Social and Behavioral Sciences Network," according to internal emails obtained by USA TODAY.
One official also suggested trying to sway Hunter, noting his opposition to the program as reported by USA TODAY. The email states that "work clearly needs to be done to, if not change Congressman Hunter's mind, then at least move him into the neutral category for future endeavors."
Hunter's chief of staff, Joe Kasper, called the move by Army officials an inappropriate attempt to avoid congressional scrutiny.
"The intent to be persuasive appears to be less about justifying the program and more about getting Representative Hunter to a neutral position to avoid expected criticism," Kasper said.