by Wikipedia Commons--Public Domain
Last month, a proposal to establish a U.S. 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.
Such details typically become public only after a university center has been formally established and its funding officially secured. In this case, however, the early news reports -- which included statements from director-to-be Morgan -- quickly led last month to a widely circulated Yale Daily News op-ed, an online petition, a Facebook page, and protests by students and local groups outraged over reports of Yale's support for the military center and plans to treat immigrants as "guinea pigs." According to ABC News/Univision, in response Morgan explained that he was approached by the Defense Department to help "promote better relations between U.S. troops and the people whose villages they work in and around" -- by teaching soldiers "better communication skills" and "how to ask non-leading questions, how to listen to what people are saying, how to understand them."
A public affairs officer for U.S. SOCOM initially confirmed that it was providing funding for the center. Shortly thereafter, Yale University representatives issued a conflicting statement. Characterizing the center as "an educational and research center with a goal of promoting humane and culturally respectful interview practices among a limited number of members of the armed forces, including medics," they emphasized that no formal proposal had been submitted for academic and ethical review. Yale also noted that volunteer interviewees "selected from diverse ethnic groups" would be protected by university oversight, and that public reports about the center were in part "based on speculation and incomplete information." Three days later, SOCOM's spokesperson retracted his previous statement, explaining that the information provided had been incorrect, and that no funds for the center would be forthcoming. Yale confirmed that the center would not be established at the university. Two days later, SOCOM declared that, in fact, they had decided a year earlier not to fund Morgan's proposal.
Ethical Risks of Operational Neuroscience
The name of the proposed center -- the U.S. SOCOM Center of Excellence for Operational Neuroscience -- deserves more attention and scrutiny than it has received thus far.The burgeoning interdisciplinary field of operational neuroscience -- supported by hundreds of millions of dollars from the Department of Defense -- is indisputably much larger and much more worrisome from an ethical perspective than the mere teaching of interview techniques and people skills would suggest. What makes this particular domain of scientific work so controversial is not only its explicit purpose of advancing military goals. The methods by which these ends are pursued are equally disquieting because they raise the specter of "mind control" and threaten our deeply held convictions about personhood and personal autonomy.
In a presentation to the intelligence community five years ago, program manager Amy Kruse from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) identified operational neuroscience as DARPA's latest significant accomplishment, preceded by milestone projects that included the Stealth Fighter, ARPANET, the GPS, and the Predator drone. National security interests in operational neuroscience encompass non-invasive, non-contact approaches for interacting with a person's central and peripheral nervous systems; the use of sophisticated narratives to influence the neural mechanisms responsible for generating and maintaining collective action; applications of biotechnology to degrade enemy performance and artificially overwhelm cognitive capabilities; remote control of brain activity using ultrasound; indicators of individual differences in adaptability and resilience in extreme environments; the effects of sleep deprivation on performance and circadian rhythms; and neurophysiologic methods for measuring stress during military survival training.
Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, bioethicist Jonathan Moreno, and other outspoken scholars have offered strong warnings about potential perils associated with the "militarization of neuroscience" and the proliferation of "neuroweapons." Comparing the circumstances facing neuroscientists today with those faced by nuclear scientists during World War II, Gusterson has written, "We've seen this story before: The Pentagon takes an interest in a rapidly changing area of scientific knowledge, and the world is forever changed. And not for the better." Neuroscientist Curtis Bell has called for colleagues to pledge that they will refrain from any research that applies neuroscience in ways that violate international law or human rights; he cites aggressive war and coercive interrogation methods as two examples.
Research Misapplied: SERE and "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques"
Some may argue that these concerns are overblown, but the risks associated with "dual use" research are well recognized and well documented. Even though a particular project may be designed to pursue outcomes that society recognizes as beneficial and worthy, the technologies or discoveries may still be susceptible to distressing misuse. As a government request for public comment recently highlighted, certain types of research conducted for legitimate purposes "can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, information, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied to pose a significant threat with broad potential consequences to public health and safety"."
Yale's Morgan must surely be aware that operational neuroscience research can be used for purposes contrary to its purported intent -- as this appears to be what happened with some of his own work. Morgan's biographical sketch on the School of Medicine website refers to his research on the "psycho-neurobiology of resilience in elite soldiers" and "human performance under conditions of high stress." Both of these topics are related to his extensive study of the effects of the military's physically and psychologically grueling Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training program. In SERE training, soldiers are subjected to extreme conditions in order to inoculate them against enemy interrogation should they be captured and subjected to torture by forces that don't observe international laws prohibiting prisoner abuse. The techniques applied during the trainee's simulated incarceration and mock interrogations include isolation, stress positions, sleep and food deprivation, loud noises, sexual humiliation, extreme temperatures, confinement in small spaces, and in some cases waterboarding.
Along with colleagues, Morgan has published a series of research articles examining the psychological, physiological, and biological effects of the SERE program. In summarizing key findings of this research, Morgan and his co-authors highlighted the following: the stress induced by SERE is within the range of real-world stress; SERE students recover normally and do not show negative effects from the training; and the mock interrogations do not produce lasting adverse reactions as measured by physiological and biological indicators. However, after reviewing these same studies, the authors of a Physicians for Human Rights report reached a starkly different conclusion: "SERE " techniques, even when used in limited and controlled settings, produce harmful health effects on consenting soldier-subjects exposed to them." They also emphasized that during the training many students experienced dissociative reactions and hormone level changes comparable to major surgery or actual combat; the post-training assessments were short-term and insufficient to evaluate soldiers for PTSD and related disorders; and the soldiers benefited from knowing that they could end their participation whenever they chose to do so.
SERE research like that conducted by Morgan and his colleagues was subsequently misused by the Bush Administration after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to illegitimately authorize the abuse and torture of national security detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Air Base, and CIA "black sites." The infamous "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs) were developed by former SERE psychologists -- working for the CIA -- who "reverse-engineered" the SERE interrogation tactics. But even more importantly here, a crucial 2002 Office of Legal Counsel "torture memo" asserted that the EITs did not cause lasting psychological harm, and it cited as evidence consultation with interrogation experts and outside psychologists, as well as a review of the "relevant literature" -- which plausibly would have included Morgan's own extensive work in the area. In short, this appears to be a striking and tragic instance where operational neuroscience research, undertaken in a different context, was subsequently appropriated and misapplied for unconscionable purposes. It is worth adding that these prisoners were subjected to indefinite detention without trial and they were not free to discontinue their torturous interrogations at will. Their torture sessions were also substantially longer and the techniques were instituted more frequently and with greater intensity than Morgan's research subjects experienced.
Morgan's Deception Detection Research