from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2015, Issue No. 34
May 13, 2015

Secrecy News Blog:


Last month, the U.S. Army issued a new doctrinal publication entitled Cultural and Situational Understanding. This month, the publication was officially withdrawn by the Army after numerous instances of plagiarism were identified throughout the document.

Prof. Roberto J. Gonzalez authored a blistering critique of the publication (The US Army's Serial Plagiarists, Counterpunch, May 1), providing one example after another of pilfered text that had been incorporated without acknowledgment or attribution to the source.

"As I began reading, I found the sections to be oddly disjointed; grammatical structures varied wildly. Perhaps my teaching experience made me suspicious," wrote Prof. Gonzalez, who teaches at San Jose State University. "I decided to investigate."

"Within half an hour I discovered four plagiarized passages. Soon after, I found ten more instances in which sentences or entire paragraphs were snatched from books, articles, or online sources without quotation marks or citations."

Upon inspection of the document, it is not hard to confirm and extend Gonzalez's analysis by doing an online search for some of the distinctive phrases or formulations that appear in the text.

So, for example, paragraph 1-57 of Cultural and Situational Understanding begins: "When cultures evolve into civilizations, one of the systems of social organization that typically develops and grows in complexity is government."

A search for this sentence yields a nearly identical source in an online publication from 1997 called "What is Culture?": "As cultures evolve into civilizations, one of the systems of social organization that typically develops and grows in complexity is government."

It might be argued that an Army manual is not an academic publication, and that it is exempt from the canons of scholarly ethics, such as acknowledgment of sources. But probably not even the manual's authors believe that. By taking the trouble to make insignificant word changes in many of the plagiarized passages (such as replacing "when" with "as" in the sentence cited above), they indicate an awareness of what they are doing, and perhaps also a bad conscience about having done it.

The Army document "disrespects the scholars whose work it has expropriated," wrote Prof. Gonzalez. "It disrespects those peoples and cultures that appear as little more than means to the military's ends. It disrespects American taxpayers who unwittingly finance such work. And it disrespects countless soldiers who rely upon its 'expert' knowledge."

To its credit, however, the Army has now recognized the problem and it has acted on that recognition.

Last week, Gonzalez noted that Cultural and Situational Understanding (designated as report number ATP 3-24.3) had been taken offline.

This week, an Army spokesman confirmed that it had been formally withdrawn.

"After taking a closer look at the content in ATP 3-24.3, we have pulled the ATP from circulation and it is no longer an approved doctrine publication," said Bill Ackerly, a public affairs officer for the US Army Combined Arms Center.

"The ATP will not be re-released until the content issue has been resolved," he said via email yesterday.

An archived copy of the original, now-disavowed text of Cultural and Situational Understanding, ATP 3-24.3, remains available on the Federation of American Scientists website.


The Congressional Research Service (CRS) will continue to be barred from releasing its reports to the public, the House Appropriations Committee said yesterday in its report on legislative branch appropriations for the coming year.

"The bill contains language which provides that no funds in the Congressional Research Service can be used to publish or prepare material to be issued by the Library of Congress unless approved by the appropriate committees," the House report said.

Because Congress prohibits CRS from publishing its own reports, most CRS reports are only available to the public from non-governmental organizations that take the initiative to gather and publish them. Many such reports can be found in a collection that is maintained and regularly updated on the Federation of American Scientists website.

In the new spending bill, the House Committee ominously rejected a CRS request for a $5 million budget increase in 2016, and allocated $107 million, the same as the 2015 level.

"The Legislative Branch must set itself as an example for fiscal restraint while continuing to serve the Nation. This bill will require strict fiscal discipline on the part of all congressional offices and all agency heads in the Legislative Branch," the report said.

But from another perspective, "this bill falls short in providing Congress with the resources needed to fulfill its constitutional duties," said Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Nita M. Lowey in minority views. "The Legislative Branch bill provides another year of flat funding, the third in a row."

In a move that is perhaps even more worrisome for CRS, "The Committee directs the Library of Congress to commission an independent survey of all Members and committees of the House of Representatives to ascertain their fundamental and optimal requirements for services and support from the Library of Congress and especially the Congressional Research Service."

The problem here is that the CRS services that congressional offices are likely to find most "useful" are not necessarily those that are most "valuable."

What is often deemed most useful is having CRS analysts assist congressional staff in responding to constituent mail, including eccentric or demented requests for information.

Why is the US Postal Service "stockpiling ammunition"? That sort of question helped lead CRS analyst Kevin Kosar to leave his job, he explained in an article in the Washington Monthly earlier this year ("Why I Quit the Congressional Research Service," Jan/Feb 2015).

What is most valuable, by contrast, is not necessarily of immediate use to individual Members and Committees. That is the kind of in-depth policy analysis that can only be helpful to those whose policy preferences are not predetermined by ideology or affiliation. CRS reports are now cited ever more frequently by reporters and others trying to come to grips with complicated policy issues that entail both costs and benefits.

This particular function, however, may not be considered a "fundamental and optimal requirement" by every member of the House.

"Even when we did find time and space to do serious research, lawmakers ignored our work or trashed us if our findings ran contrary to their beliefs," wrote former CRS analyst Kosar.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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