Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Picasso Pelton: Old Blue’s Paint By Numbers

We are going to play a paint-by-numbers game. I’m going to lay out the lines with the facts that I know, and I’ll supply the paints. You just paint by the numbers, and we’ll see what picture presents itself by the time we are done. This article includes a basic description of the Human Terrain System and why it is important to the counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, and series of related events that may threaten the program at a critical stage in its development. This will show that Robert Pelton's business partner approached HTS with a proposal to sell intelligence to the program, and failing that, Pelton sought an embed, marketed his own services directly to ISAF without the knowledge of those who had gotten him cleared to enter the country, and then wrote a scathing article about the program.

Overview of the Human Terrain System

The Human Terrain System is a $132 million program that provides social science information to the United States Armed Forces to assist them in understanding the populations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They map out the social networks in areas of operation, provide context about the concerns of the local population, and assist the military staffs with understanding the human elements of the local environment providing valuable information to commanders on the ground. This assists the commanders in working with and around the populations. It helps the Army to stay population-centric in the solutions that it arrives at when selecting courses of action. This means more effective counterinsurgency strategies. The efficient operation of this program is in the best interest of the Army, and therefore the nation. It is an item of public interest.

Anthropology not being an Army branch, the social scientists have in most cases been civilian contractors. This has provided for the social scientists to be very well compensated, making it a bit more worthwhile to subject themselves to the rigors of combat zones.

The program is not without its critics, both within the Armed Forces and without. The American Association for Anthropology has a very vocal minority that cries out that the program is an unethical use of anthropological science. They claim that anthropologists are using the data to target individuals for death. Commanders who have actually used the output disagree. COL Schweitzer, Commander of the 82nd Airborne's 4th Brigade Combat Team had this to say:

Schweitzer was unequivocal in his support for the HTT. He was conscious of how that might sound to his peers—“whacked,” was how he put it. But he assured me his enthusiasm was grounded in facts. Since February, his brigade had reduced kinetic operations by 60 percent in favor of “non-lethal forms and sets of maneuver,” which had reduced both American and Afghan casualties. More than one third of the districts in his area of operations pledged their support to the Afghan government for the first time. ~ Steven Featherstone, “Human quicksand for the U.S. Army, a crash course in cultural studies,” Harpers Magazine, September, 2008

Delicate times for HTS

HTS is in part comprised of Human Terrain Teams (HTT’s,) of which there are 20 in Iraq and 6 in Afghanistan. The Army has orders for 13 more teams in Afghanistan. Due to the new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in Iraq, civilian contractors will be subject to Iraqi law and under new regulations will not be covered for basic health care by military doctors at military installations. This has forced the HTS to convert the HTT personnel who are currently contractors to government employees. Many of the social scientists are finding themselves looking at pay cuts that in some cases work out to about 70% .

“It’s the only thing that we could do for the long term health of the program,” says a senior program official at the HTS. “I know it’s hard for individuals because it’s not as lucrative, but in the coming weeks we are going to see many programs affected by this making similar choices.”

The $132 million program, a significant enabler of COIN in-theater, is making its way through some rocky parts in its road, perhaps facing the greatest challenges since its inception. There is another challenge.

Eason Jordan markets intelligence to HTS

In the summer of 2008, Eason Jordan, former Chief News Executive at CNN and a partner in two intelligence ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, approached COL(R) Steven Fondacaro of the Human Terrain System (HTS) with a business proposal. He wanted to sell HTS-related intelligence provided through Praedict in Iraq and AfPax Insider in Afghanistan/Pakistan to HTS. Not having any way to verify information provided through such an outside contract, Fondacaro politely declined.

Pelton seeks an embed

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Montgomery McFate co-author of FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, was approached by a journalist, Robert Young Pelton, at a social function. Pelton sought to do an embed with an HTT in Afghanistan. Through Dr. McFate, Pelton was then introduced to Steve Fondacaro. Fondacaro, who describes himself as, “the operational side of HTS,” and Dr. McFate as “the social scientist side of HTS,” agreed to embed Pelton with one of their teams.

“We had no idea at the time that Pelton was associated with Eason Jordan,” Fondacaro told me. Eason Jordan’s partners in IraqSlogger, Praedict, and AfPax Insider are Ted Turner, GEN(R) Wesley Clark and Robert Young Pelton.

Fondacaro and McFate approved Pelton to the Army PAO (Public Affairs Office,) which then completed the necessary steps to certify Pelton for the embed. Pelton was put through the process, including signing agreements to abide by the Army’s terms, including agreeing to comply with Army directives while embedded with American units, including a prohibition on gambling, pornography, extramarital sex and alcohol. These are the prohibitions of “General Order Number 1” which apply to all American forces in the theaters of combat. Finally, the embed was cleared.

Pelton travels alone, markets to ISAF

“We planned to take Mr. Pelton on a planned official visit to Afghanistan with us,” Dr. McFate told me, “but then he called us and told us he had found his own way to Afghanistan. We didn’t think much of it.” Pelton arrived in Afghanistan days before the embed was to begin. He spent this time in Kabul, marketing his intelligence services to International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF, commanded by GEN McKiernan.

On September 17th, 2008, Pelton called a member of a team at Bagram Air Field (BAF,) according to insiders. In notes on the conversation, it is noted that Pelton, “bragged about his intel/HT (Human Terrain) consulting contract with ISAF,” says a source who declines to be named, citing security concerns. The source goes on to say that the contract Pelton bragged about included, "cultural advisors, area specialists, polling, and other services." Pelton, the source explains, “claimed he wanted to see how HTS was operating and that writing an article about us was the best way to get that information.”

The embed

When Pelton joined the team days later at Bagram, arrangements had been made for him to participate in a scheduled mission “outside the wire.” Pelton missed the movement and was left behind while the mission was performed. The team went to great lengths to arrange an ad hoc mission so that Pelton would get a chance to go on a mission. This was when the trouble began.

“I had to tell my interpreter not to interpret his questions to the locals,” a team member reports. “Every time I spoke with an Afghan civilian, he would inject himself into the conversation.” He goes on to say, “He kept asking where the Taliban were. We never ask that. It interferes with what we really need to know. During one engagement that was going well, he blurted out, ‘Ask him where the Taliban are!’ The elder we were speaking with clammed up after that and wouldn’t speak to anyone.”

Pelton was asked repeatedly to cease such activities by 1LT Jones, the military team leader for the mission. At the end of the mission, 1LT Jones complained to his leadership about the trouble that Pelton had given him out in the field. 1LT Jones would later pay the price for his professionalism.

The article

Pelton wrote the article published in Men’s Journal trashing the team with which he was embedded and the HTS in general. He cast 1LT Jones as an idiot. In the final stab at the young First Lieutenant, Pelton claimed that Jones had shared some of the contraband whiskey that Pelton had smuggled into FOB Morales-Frazier. 1LT Jones is now undergoing an investigation into the allegation made by Pelton in his article. The Army had no choice but to investigate such a claim.

The article itself painted a bizarre picture of places, and of operations the types of which this writer is intimately familiar with. Pelton’s article just did not carry the ring of truth. Blogger Tim Lynch stated in his blog, Free Range International that Pelton appeared to be trying to capture the surreal character of Michael Herr’s Dispatches. His description of places and the behaviors of the Soldiers and Marines conducting operations in these places bore little resemblance to what my direct experience would lead me to find believable.

Pelton’s description of the HTT at Bagram was even less kind. Pelton nitpicks the team to pieces in a few sentences.

“What I find most disturbing,” Dr. McFate says, “is that he can take a man who has devoted twenty years of his life to studying Afghanistan and call him a Laotian DNA expert. I don’t understand why he would describe LTC Rotzoll as if he didn’t know what he was doing. LTC Rotzoll is on his fourth tour in Afghanistan, and he is very professional. The team that Mr. Pelton described in that article bore no resemblance to the team that I know.”

This writer took Pelton to task for his article, and in response received a barrage of emails from Pelton containing threats to sue for libel.

Threats to the blogger

If you do even the slightest bit of research on my background you will understand why your unfounded insults will not go uncorrected. I can also tell you that without an earnest attempt on your behalf to correct your malicious actions, the appropriate corrective and punitive relief available to me will be fully enforced. If you choose to be unresponsive, I will take that as proof that you choose to ignore polite requests to mitigate the damage. I strongly encourage you to consult your lawyer and have him define the term "libel" and its potential impact. I will print out a pdf of your website and other comments at exactly 9pm tomorrow evening Pacific time. (from an email dated February 19th, 2009 to me from Robert Young Pelton)

Mr. Pelton bragged on his own site about the tactics of intimidation.

...of all the things on the planet that need to be written about and the last person on earth you would want to call out... Most bloggers can't actually pay up but the cost of defending themselves (whether they are right or wrong) is enough to convince them that their economic model is going to get a whole lot costlier if they can't back up their statements. … often its the only way people realize the gravity and cost of the mistake they have made.

The mistake he’s talking about is pointing out something potentially unflattering about Mr. Robert Young Pelton. He was pointing out that his deep pockets make him right, and he’s not afraid to use them.

Questions raised

These very aggressive emails sent to a relatively unknown blogger caught my interest. It wasn’t fear of a lawsuit as much as curiosity as to why such a vicious response would be directed over a criticism of an obviously flawed and at least partially fabricated story in a second rate men’s magazine. As curiosity took hold, bits of what Mr. Pelton’s disjointed and rambling emails said made more sense.

Pelton even tried to lead me to believe that Fondacaro and McFate had approached him, as if they were begging him to do the embed:

Despite this one embed to satisfy Steve and Mitzi's request…

I talked to Fondacaro and McFate and discovered not only that Pelton had approached them, but also that his partner Eason Jordan had preceded him, a fact that came to light unbidden.

The discovery that he had bragged about marketing his services to ISAF made this passage from a separate email sent the same day as the one quoted above seem to make more sense:

You may not tell people that I work directly for the highest military command in Afghansitan and that my embed was set up at the highest level...but more importantly you need to respect that I busted my ass to see how this program work and it was a fucking disaster at every level. Jones, Rotzell, Fondacaro and McFate believe in this program passionately but are faced with almost insurmountable problems. This article clearly sends a message to the public, congress and the military that people like LT Jones (at 30K a year) do the heavy lifting while lazy anthros cost our government half a million dollars each and do fuck all.

A quick read of the article itself shows no evidence of attempting to show that 1LT Jones was even trying to do his own job. 1LT Jones’ behavior and professionalism was cast into such doubt by the fallacious article that his very career as an Army officer is subject to being ended. The end result of the type of investigation he is being subjected to as a result of Pelton’s writing is a Court Martial. While the assertions of holding 1LT Jones up as a shining example are obviously false, the email does seem to confirm that Pelton feels incredibly empowered and in control of the situation. It also begs more questions.

Assuming that every other person, or even most of them involved in this story may be truthful, Mr. Pelton’s story is slanted in general and at times flatly untrue. Is it possible that everyone else is lying and Pelton alone is telling the truth? If one is to doubt Mr. Pelton’s veracity in the article, which is a conclusion that is reasonably reached, then what is the purpose of, “This article clearly sends a message to the public, congress and the military…?” What message? Why sell this message so strongly in the public forum? What is the goal? Why defend it so viciously against question from even a blogger who is unknown to the general public? What is worth such a ferocious defense?

Would it make his own intelligence services more marketable if HTS and its management were discredited? Was this article written to assist in furthering his business objectives?

Dr. McFate says, “I don’t feel proprietary about this. I believe in the concept and I want the Army to be successful. If Mr. Pelton feels that he can do this properly, then he can try. It’s a lot harder than it looks.”

Asked about the disturbance caused to the HTS at a very delicate time it its young history, Dr. McFate says, “It’s upsetting if this is an attempt to damage the program. This is not in the public interest.”

The picture

I’m calling this one a duck. You can rest assured, based on his previous behavior, that Mr. Pelton will bluster and bully and call it an eagle. He will demand retractions and apologies and insist that I print an apology and call it an eagle. It looks like a duck, it walks like a duck, and it quacks just like a duck.

Once you’ve filled in the numbered areas with the paints provided, tell me what picture you come up with. I bet it’s a duck.

You can vote at the top left of this page.


  1. I came up with a picture of fried chicken. Does this mean I don't win the prize?

    In all honesty, this was very interesting, and much more interesting than what seemed to be the wild aspersions you threw about on my blog (not that I care, it's just a blog).

    My single little question to you is this: Why are Fondacaro and McFate speaking through you here, instead of posting this same information in public, for themselves, when they formally responded to Pelton in what you call a second rate men's magazine?

    By the way, what would a first rate men's magazine be? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Seriously, I am worried now, for you actually. The fact that they chose this indirect method suggests that they implicitly agree with RYP's understanding of libel.

    Just so you know, I will defend your freedom of speech as I would defend that of the most radical leftist rat bastard (i.e., myself).

    Take care...and I think Ky Woman meant "duck!" in more than one way.

  2. You make the assumption that Fondacaro and Dr. McFate are "speaking through" me. I sought them out to ask them their side. They were speaking to me, not speaking through me. I am no one's mouthpiece in this.

    There is some information in this post that they had not assembled, such as the fact that Eason Jordan and Pelton are business partners. It was a casual reference in conversation that brought that about. There is other information which was not in their response, or was not correlated to the other information. This post brings that information together, and an interesting pattern came to light; a pattern that needs to be shared.

    I do expect to take fire. Some things are worth taking fire for. I've had some assistance from professionals who have helped me to avoid any issues that would leave an opening for being successfully intimidated.

    I'm not HTS' hero. This is less about them than it is about principles and the capability of the Army as a whole. I spent a fair amount of time tracking down the people that I spoke with concerning this post. They did not seek me out to speak for them. The information was all there, it just hadn't been assembled. I'm just laying out what I found.

    Thank you very much for your comment, for defending my freedom of speech and for your expression of concern. You take care, too.

  3. Thanks very much. You're right, and now I understand it more clearly, you were not speaking at their behest but rather because you sought them out for the purpose of research. That's fine, and beyond question.

    I also asked the opinion of a colleague about what he thought in terms of any potential threats/intimidation, and I think that he would concur with those who advised you. You can read his comment here:


    Personally, I would much rather that RYP simply addressed the issues openly, explain what his side may be in this, and not immediately resort to legalisms and threats. He has answered others, he should make an effort to answer this article. I do agree that his business angle appears to very much taint the contents of an article that, as you know, I cited approvingly, which creates the opportunity for some (further) embarrassment on my part.

    Thanks and best wishes.

  4. Quite the contrary, I meant exactly the one word I typed. Duck... the feathered flying fowl, surely you know of them.

    Duck...The resulting image I saw after reading all the information that was gathered and presented by Blue.

    Duck...They are also known to be very tasty as a main course once cooked. As in Duck under glass.

    I'm sure Mr.Pelton will understand the term.."your goose is cooked." (Goose-a close cousin to a duck.)

  5. I am posting as a guest, bumped over here from http://www.neptunuslex.com/. I hope my comments are welcome.

    About a year ago, maybe a little longer, I saw HTS up and running as an example of a work in progress. Data overlays and the sheer volume of information amassed was astounding. A wonderful tool for the Afghanistan Government to use to try and rebuild a destitute and broken society. It is a herculean effort, to be sure.

    Mr. Pelton sounds like so many others I saw over there in that he wants a piece of the pie, damn the impact on others. ISAF has it's own issues with a desire to contribute and a smaller budget than the US DOD and probably didn't or couldn't commit to anything Mr. Pelton was hawking. Braggards, with one "mission" outside the wire were and are a dime a dozen. Were Mr. Pelton on a mission with me and he insulted the honorable elder of a village I would have put him back in the truck with orders to be restrained if he tried to further dishonor the coalition forces efforts in Afghanistan. Formal report to superiors and a CC: to the US Embassy would have followed. But I have more experience that our heroic 1st Lieutenant. I feel for him deeply.

    Is there alcohol over there? Yes. In limited quantities. Do US forces use it? Probably. There are rule breakers in every walk of life. But, I didn't see it and I walked that land all along the Pakistan border and throughout Kabul and Baghram. However... the ISAF forces are allowed to consume and they have a little cantina they are allowed to use. So what?

    Mr. Pelton is clearly one infatuated with himself and thinks he has power he can wield to clear what appears to be a financial grab for part of a $132M pie. Let him bluster and threaten all he wants. I bet there are those who saw him consume alcohol, endanger a mission and pedal his product who wouldn't mind seeing a miscreant fall. AND libel is a damn hard case to win. Just ask Oprah W. Mr. Pelton should watch what he posts. Already his bragging appears to countermine his libel threats and could be damning in any court silly enough to actually go far enough to hear arguments from legal council.

    And where in the heck is the FBI in all of this? Have crimes been comitted by Pelton that impact National security? I ponder?

    Not only is it a DUCK but it is lame to boot.

    Mr. Pelton has, hopefully, slammed the lid on the future chances of him and his constituents profiteering from the HTS program.

  6. Bravo!!! Game, set and match in this round of B****slapping. I’m actually a lot more articulate than this, but I can’t say it any better then it’s been said. So I will just S (squared) as they say in certain circles and leave it to the real pros who clearly have the number of a pathetic wan-na-be. Hey, time to rewind and watch "Full Metal Jacket" again, a great piece of "entertainment" (read: not to be confused with real life). Except of course for GySgt Hartman, hoo-rah!!!!!!!!!

  7. Old Blue, what you just wrote is a perfect example of Old School Investigative Journalism. There were questions and you sought answers. They might not be clear ones, but there are enough ties to make one wonder exactly WHAT Pelton is hiding. Great job!!

  8. It's great that you have fans who respect your work, but on further examination, I have a dissenting opinion that might make you, Old Blue, reconsider some of your lines of argument here. I don't think you should feel ready to shout "bingo!" just yet, and the champagne bottle may need re-corking.

    My response is at:
    Questions and Allegations about Robert Young Pelton’s Reporting on a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan.


  9. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 02/24/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  10. I come up with "SCHMUCK".

  11. It's a duck. I know the HTS people both named and unnamed; the Pelton article was a crock on its face. Not even I call Fondacaro and McFate "Steve and Mitzi," for crissakes! Charles

  12. I've responded to "Openanthropology" over at his site.

    In other news, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the House of Representatives have all visited today. Just sayin'...

  13. Thanks for your response by the way, much appreciated. Just to summarize here, I think your contribution raises lots of questions, makes the discussion much more complicated, and those are good things. But without further evidence, and more input from Pelton, I think we will reach a standstill. In fact, if I were in jeopardy, that might be my strategy: go quiet, let discussions hit a brick wall, people will move on.

  14. Maximillian just clued me in to the fact that the Praedict website has changed (since yesterday) to drop the part about being cheaper than "a single seasoned intelligence analyst." Fortunately I keep my feathers numbered for just such an emergency. Here is the cached page that does show it. (Google is so cool!

    If that, too, somehow goes bye-bye (you know, like normal system maintenance, stuff like that) I've got a screencap of it in jpg format if anyone needs it.

    Thanks a million, Maximillian!

  15. John Stanton here: HTS 2007 brief is now online.

    Human Terrain System Update
    For LTG Kimmons By Bob Reuss & Dan Bourgoine, 31 Jul 07.


  16. Thanks for the obviously well-researched response to Robert Pelton. Given his poor grasp of the use of facts, it is no wonder he has to resort to carrying around fifths of whiskey to ply on people. People like you should be out doing embeds, not unethical shmucks.

    My question is that if HTS is full of smart people, how were they unable to put together a more convincing response to the Men's Journal article?

  17. The HTS is a young program and any startup is going to have problems. Throw in the fact that it does not consist of, in the main, experienced military people and the resistance of the American Association for Anthropology and you've got a young program with startup problems and a vocal opposition. Toss in a few people like the commenter who posted above you (who writes for Pravda) and you've got a PR nightmare.

    Steve Fondacaro and Dr. Montgomery McFate are up to their eyeballs in alligators on a daily basis. They are not PR people and were caught just as flatfooted as Erik Prince of Blackwater by the schmoozing of Pelton. Pelton can apparently be very engaging, and his MO is to make an initial approach at a social function. Disarming, Pelton is able to convince the leadership that he is not a bad guy and then do what he planned to do.

    So what you are left with is a sincere but not publicity savvy response, written by a program manager and a social scientist, not a skilled PR person. How good would any of us be at defending ourselves against such dreck?

    And then Pelton gets the last word anyway... it's Men's Journal, after all.

    Thanks for the comment and the question!

  18. Standing Scroll to Scroll with you: http://waronterrornews.typepad.com/home/2009/03/an-imaginative-journalist-threatens-the-warrior-that-calls-him-out.html

  19. Concerned American Citizens stand with you Old Blue: http://concernedamericans.multiply.com/journal/item/14

  20. Sir,

    I am a social scientist on an HTT in Jalalabad. I know Tim Lynch and found your blog linked to his. Just know that those of us in the program trying to do our jobs in the midst of all of the program's own shortcomings and unfounded criticisms appreciate your defense of our program, it is a welcome change in the weather. Thank you!

    The revelation that Pelton is attempting to better his company's position by using his professional capacity to slander HTS indicates a
    near complete lack of ethics. I have my concerns with HTS, to be certain; however, to refer to social scientists as a bunch of "lazy
    anthros" when three of my counterparts have found themselves in the middle of kinetic activity within weeks of arriving in country, in
    addition to the three that have already been killed, is a slap in the face. We're outside the wire more than most military personnel, trying to learn so that we can improve the military's understanding of Afghanistan. Concerned parties within the HTS program are constantly making changes and recommending ways to improve. All the while, we go out and do our jobs. Mr. Pelton is fortunate that he can spend a few days with a team, go on a mission or two, and somehow be considered qualified to break down the entire dynamic of a team. Perhaps we can arrange for an HTT to follow Mr. Pelton around for a week or two, and determine the social network that motivates him to slander our
    program. Then we could go to ISAF, and, because we are non-kinetic in nature, recommend that they dissasociate with him completely, and
    focus on other groups that will be of more benefit for the Afghan population and counter insurgency effort.

    A nation that draws too broad a difference between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting
    done by fools. -Thucydides

  21. Anon: I appreciate your voice in this debate. I took a visit over to the "open anthropology" site and was saddened to find not the scientific discourse I had expected but petty rumor-mongering and gossip of conspiracy theorists unconcerned with mature debate.

    Our Troops have become the scholars, but that does not mean we do not welcome the scientists from outside our experiences.

    Feel free to contact me via my page. And thanks for the work you are doing to bring peace to Afghanistan and safety to our shores.

  22. A $132 million program for providing social science information to the United States Armed Forces ? Talk about crisis in USA and they spend this kind of money for that.


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