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Sirens of the Potomac: Think Tanks and Torture

Recent findings of the independent report into the American Psychological Association ‘collusion’ in torture are not shocking. This is a symptom of a larger infestation that is eating away at the independence of social science. Think tanks played an important role in pulling senior academics into supportive relations with the defense establishment and must not be able to slink off into the shadows. The report indicates that Stephen Behnke, a DOD contractor and APA ethics director helped ensure the APA rules did not restrict psychologists from collaborating with interrogations and made changes to ‘curry favour with the DOD’.

But some think tanks also act as the pseudo-academic sirens of the DOD tasked with luring academic associations into increased cooperation. Think tanks played a key intermediary role after 9/11, reassuring academics who initially felt uncomfortable with military involvement. No strangers to ‘influence’, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies are a think tank who were contracted in the propaganda effort to the Office of Strategic Influence, a propaganda office of the DOD in the early ‘War on Terror’. In interviews for my book Propaganda and Counter-terrorism: Strategies for Global Change Potomac Institute Director Dennis McBride complained to me about academics’ concern saying,

things’ve changed a little bit but there’s still this attitude that … we get from academic social science in particular that comes across as they’re above, they’re better than soldiers and … they’re not gonna participate in what we call here ‘baby-killing’. (Interview: 5th June 2009)

When I met McBride in 2009 he told me about a meeting he arranged ‘a few years ago’ to deepen military involvement luring in key figures from Social Science Discipline Associations including ‘the American Anthropological Association … Executive Director’ and Lee Herring who is now Director of Public Affairs at the American Sociological Association. McBride’s allegiances lie firmly with the US military but he got himself ‘deputised by the American Psychological Society to be in this meeting’ to enhance his credibility (Interview: 5th June 2009).

He described the pitch that he said pulled them in:

I basically said, look … the Pentagon’s … number 1 mission, is to prevent war, by being so damn strong, so smart, that no one would dare, mission number 2 is that if we fail that one, to get it over with, OK? I said, your communities have a role to play in mission number 1 … The Pentagon is engineering, it doesn’t understand other cultures … We’re not good at that. We wanna be good at it and we don’t know how, absent your help. And I went through this and they said, absolutely, you know what? We’re changing our minds, we’re gonna support this. (Interview: 5th June 2009)

The conditions of funding for academic research preference research governments deem ‘useful’, preferencing uncritical research and the think tank culture which fed the blurring of academic propagandacounterterrorboundaries. There has been a proliferation of well-funded ‘yes-men’ factories. McBride described how heavily involved Potomac were in ‘War on Terror’ planning, work that went beyond propaganda – for example he disclosed that Dan Gallant ‘yet another Potomac person who was working for Rumsfeld’ came up with the idea for using Guantanamo Bay for detainees (Interview: 5th June 2009). Perhaps unsurprisingly then, McBride was dismissive of public distrust of the military on the topic of torture:

‘so-called torture … this is I think the most overblown thing I think I have experienced. People need to do their research and find out that enhanced interrogation techniques, as they are being called, are done as any coercion, or any interrogation is done, with the presence of the Inspector General. … no nation can stand next to the United States in terms of its torture rules and regulations. Do you honestly think in Somalia when one faction grabs another they don’t torture the hell out of ’em? I mean I’m not justifying it, I’m just saying … We’ve got a process of self-inspection that is, is er, so motivated and everything is on video … at Guantanamo and so the [laughs] I’ve talked to people a lot who do that and … the [chuckles] waterboarding … I’m sure you know what it is … and noone’s ever drowned, there’s never been any tissue damage but I guess it could scare the hell out of them … but I’m told that the mode number of dunks is one … ‘mmm, OK, whaddya wanna know!’ (original emphasis)

This flies in the face of independent evidence, and international legal judgements condemning torture practices. Of course, as a former military public servant, McBride was confident that ‘it’s not my job to evaluate that sort of thing’, but in his view it did mean that ‘it’s important the Strategic Communication thing here is very big’ – spinning an unpalatable story.

McBride calls himself a social scientist and yet dismissed the notion that anyone outside the institutions of government can make sound value judgements on torture, since those on the military’s ‘list’ are officially ethical, determined through ‘the fastidiousness of the five-sided building’ This McBride felt was a more scientific approach to torture ‘Whereas civilian reaction has been all about being judgemental as opposed to critical’. (Interview: 5th June 2009). An unquestioning faith in the Pentagon of course leaves little room for personal responsibility and critical judgement.

A primary responsibility of social science should be to critically evaluate the practices used by government and facilitate fuller debate of policy and practice. It is crucial that there is a dialogue between industry and academia, but this must be a dialogue that allows for criticism and is not solely aimed at recruiting academics to ‘enable’ already-determined strategies or unethical practises. The sacking of the APA’s leadership is welcome, but what needs to happen now is not just a redrawing of ethical boundaries at APA but a rethink of the government manufacture of supportive ‘expertise’. Rather than shackling research funding to pre-determined government objectives and reinforcing programmes of questionable worth, if independent academic work is to be ‘impactful’ or ‘relevant’ government needs simply to acknowledge its existing relevance and allow critical academic research to have impact on policy.

More articles by:

Dr Emma L Briant is a Lecturer in Journalism Studies from University of Sheffield in the UK. She completed her PhD in Sociology at University of Glasgow, Scotland in 2012 which examined Anglo-American counter-terrorism propaganda since 2001, which is now the subject of her new book. Her other recent published research includes analyses of media coverage of disability and also asylum in the UK with the Glasgow Media Group where she worked and studied prior to moving to Sheffield in 2013. She is the author of Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism: Strategies for Global Change (Manchester University Press) and co-author of Bad News for Refugees (Pluto Press).

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