Neuroscience, Special Forces, and Ethics at Yale

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Last month, a proposal to establish a US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Center for Excellence in Operational Neuroscience at Yale University died a not-so-quiet death. The broad goal of “operational neuroscience” is to use research on the human brain and nervous system to protect and give tactical advantage to U.S. warfighters in the field. Crucial questions remain unanswered about the proposed center’s mission and the unusual circumstances surrounding its demise. But just as importantly, this episode brings much needed attention to the morally fraught and murky terrain where partnerships between university researchers and national security agencies lie.

A Brief Chronology 

Let’s start with what transpired, according to the news reports and official press releases. In late January, the Yale Herald reported that the Department of Defense had awarded $1.8 million to Yale University’s School of Medicine for the creation of the new center under the direction of Yale psychiatrist Charles Morgan III. Descriptions of the proposed center’s work revolved around the teaching of Morgan’s interviewing techniques to U.S. Special Forces in order to improve their intelligence gathering. To heighten the soldiers’ cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity, Morgan reportedly intended to draw volunteer interviewees from New Haven’s immigrant communities.

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Torturing the Truth and Whitewashing Hell

GTMO

The controversy continues regarding retired military psychologist Larry James, who is seeking an executive director position in the College of Education at the University of Missouri. As one of two finalists for the position, last week James participated in a public forum at the university. Many of the questions following his formal presentation were about his work a decade ago at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba, where hundreds of men and boys from Afghanistan and elsewhere were imprisoned and interrogated as part of the U.S. “war on terror.”

James avoided answering several of these probing questions posed to him at the event. For example, he didn’t address concerns about the sexist and homophobic descriptions in his book Fixing Hell, and he chose not to clarify whether he knew that he was violating international conventions against torture when he participated in the “disappearing” of three Afghan juveniles. But in responding more fully to other questions, James did make claims that merit much closer examination.

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The Torture Debate Echoes: An Army Psychologist's Job Search

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For all of the wrong reasons, torture has been in the national news this past week. First, President Obama nominated John Brennan as the new director of the CIA, a man who embraced and defended the Bush Administration’s use of torturous “enhanced interrogation techniques” (before joining the current White House and becoming a leading advocate for drones and extrajudicial assassinations). Second, we observed the eleventh anniversary of the opening of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where over 100 of the men and boys brought there as part of our “war on terror” still remain — abused and indefinitely detained without trial in the military prison despised around the world. And third, the controversial hunt-for-Bin Laden film “Zero Dark Thirty”, which promotes the view that torture produced valuable intelligence, received multiple Academy Award nominations and was #1 at the box office last weekend.

Away from the national spotlight, in Columbia, Missouri — home of the University of Missouri — a related story is also unfolding this month. According to recent local news reports in the Columbia Missourian and the Columbia Daily Tribune, one of the two finalists in the job search for division executive director at the university’s College of Education is Dr. Larry James. What’s of particular note about James is that he’s a retired Army colonel and military psychologist who held positions of authority during stints at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo.

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Dr. Frankenstein and the APA's Decade of Monstrosities

No-Torture

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written nearly 200 years ago, a young scientist brings to life a hideous monster made of body parts collected from slaughterhouses, dissecting rooms, and graveyards. Dr. Frankenstein is immediately horrified and sickened by what he has created, and he abandons the creature. Alone and shunned by society, the monster later returns and pleads with the doctor to create a mate for him. The remorseful Dr. Frankenstein hesitantly consents, but he stops his work when moral qualms and fears of unknown consequences intercede. Vengeful and enraged, the monster returns again and murders the doctor’s new bride on their wedding night. Dr. Frankenstein vows to spend his remaining years tracking down and killing his grotesque creation, but he himself dies before achieving this final goal.

Sadly, there is no shortage of arenas where the tale of Frankenstein — of science unmoored from values, of ambition unrestrained by conscience — resonates powerfully today. One that stands out for many psychologists is the American Psychological Association’s (APA) ongoing, decade-long embrace of “war on terror” opportunities that have placed U.S. psychologists at the center of coercive interrogations and other human rights abuses.

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The Army's Flawed Resilience-Training Study: A Call for Retraction

(NOTE: My thanks to co-author Stephen Soldz.)

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Ten years of continuous war — characterized by multiple deployments, elusive guerilla adversaries, and occupied populations seemingly more tilted toward resentment than gratitude — have taken a significant toll on US troops. In addition to those who have been killed, physically maimed, or neurologically impaired by combat, many soldiers have experienced debilitating psychological disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Large numbers are on antidepressants and other psychotropic medications, while the suicide rate among troops has risen to alarming levels.

The sobering realities of the psychological effects of war pose a serious challenge for the US military tasked with simultaneously fighting multiple wars and anticipating years of “persistent conflict” ahead. The good news is that key sectors within the military have now identified the mental health of our troops as a major issue that must be addressed. Indeed, in addition to treatment for those suffering psychological impairment, the military leadership is pursuing intervention efforts aimed at preventing such adverse outcomes by increasing soldiers’ psychological resilience to combat exposure. The largest of these new initiatives is the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program, launched in 2009 and based upon the “positive psychology” framework of psychologist Martin Seligman. And that brings us to the bad news: despite the over-hyped claims of CSF’s leading proponents, at this point there is little evidence to suggest that CSF works.

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Four Psychologists at the Gates of Hell

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

– Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

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This is a story of four siblings with improbable names: Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective. Just as improbably, they all grew up to become psychologists, each with a different area of professional focus. Over many years of independent practice, the four gained considerable recognition for their expertise. Eventually, they joined together to form a high-profile, all-in-one firm in which each sibling’s specialized contributions complemented the others.’

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Protecting Psychologists Who Harm: The APA’s Latest Wrong Turn

No-Torture

Shortly after learning about the American Psychological Association’s (APA) new “Member-Initiated Task Force to Reconcile Policies Related to Psychologists’ Involvement in National Security Settings,” I found my thoughts turning to the School of the Americas, Blackwater and, perhaps even more surprisingly, the Patagonian toothfish. Those may seem like a strange threesome, but they share one important thing in common. All have undergone a thorough repackaging and renaming in a marketing effort aimed at obscuring — but not altering — some ugly truth.

The School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, had become infamous for training Latin American soldiers who would return home and engage in repressive campaigns involving rape, torture, and murder of political dissidents. To combat its negative image, the school was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but the nature of its activities remain largely unchanged. During the Iraq War, Blackwater, a private military company supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. government contracts, gained international notoriety on many counts, including its use of excessive and often deadly force against Iraqi civilians. The company therefore renamed itself — twice — first as Xe Services and then again as Academi, with essentially the same core businesses. As for the Patagonian toothfish, it’s wrong to blame the fish itself. But in an effort to spur sales, merchants renamed it Chilean sea bass (for similar reasons, the slimehead fish is now known as orange roughy instead).  

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