When I had a 45-minute conversation with a senior Department of Defense official about the Pentagon's new Minerva initiative, I found that Project Camelot was on his mind as well as mine. He had been reading about Camelot, he told me, trying to understand why it blew up in the Pentagon's face and how to ensure the same fate did not befall Minerva.
Project Camelot was a 1964 research initiative, run by the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) at American University and funded with $6 million from the U.S. Army as seed money for a larger initiative. This was, at the time, "the largest single grant ever provided for a social science project."1 Against the backdrop of powerful insurgencies led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and, on another continent, Ho Chi Minh, the purpose of Project Camelot was to mobilize leading social scientists to understand the sources of revolutionary movements and insurgencies in Latin America and to develop strategies of what the SORO called "insurgency prophylaxis." Six countries had been selected for study, the first being Chile. According to its defenders, the research envisioned under
Versions of this article were presented at UCLA, at Duke University, and at Rutgers University. My thanks to all who gave feedback at those venues, and to my colleagues in the Network of Concerned Anthropologists (http://concerned.anthropologists.googlepages.com/) for their continuous intellectual and political comradeship. A few passages in this article are indebted to chapter 2 of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists' Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual(Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009)
Project Camelot was not greatly different from open research already being done by various social scientists pursuing their own academic interests; the Army was just planning to formalize scattered research into a more coherent program, increase its volume, and bring in some more prestigious social scientists to juice it up. Despite allegations at the time that Camelot was mobilizing social scientists to engage in covert espionage in Latin America, Project Camelot was, in fact, not classified and its researchers were to be free to publish in the open literature.2 A 1964 Project Camelot working paper presented Camelot as an enlightened effort to achieve development and reduce violence, saying "it is far more effective and economical to avoid insurgency through essentially constructive efforts than to counter it after it has grown into a full-scale movement requiring drastically greater effort."3
Project Camelot self-destructed when the anthropologist Hugo Nutini, a Chilean who had become a naturalized U.S. citizen, misrepresented Camelot to Chilean colleagues he was trying to recruit, concealing the U.S. military's financial backing of the project. This deception was publicly unmasked by the Norwegian researcher Johann Galtung, who decried the "imperialist features" of the project. Once the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Chile said they had been kept in the dark about Camelot, the project was widely denounced in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America. Latin American academics felt betrayed by their American colleagues, wondering which of them could be trusted, and politicians—especially those on the Left—were quick to join in the chorus of condemnation. In the ensuing commotion about social scientists [End Page 5] as spies, Project Camelot became publicly framed as a covert research program on insurgency and counterinsurgency in Latin America, often in ways that were less than fully accurate. President Frei of Chile protested the project to Washington, and Congressional hearings were held during which Camelot was denounced by Senator Fulbright among others. By 1965 Camelot was cancelled, though other counterinsurgency projects that used social scientists would continue. These included Project Troy, Project Simpatico, Project Revolt, and Project Michelson.4
Many American social scientists who worked in Latin America found their research damaged by political shrapnel from Camelot's implosion. One doctoral student had two years of data on social stratification in Chile seized by the Chilean government and, for years afterwards, U.S. researchers reported that many Latin American collaborators became distant, research visas or other tokens of official cooperation became problematic to obtain, and so on. As a 1967 article in Science put...