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Consorting With the Devil

Throughout the Cold War, and doubtless right down to the present, professional people with skills relevant to “national security” have been secretly recruited to work for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. Universities are among those particularly targeted.  Scholars and campus research centers have received CIA and DoD funding for conferences and publications, for collecting intelligence while abroad, and even for spying, all under cloak of secrecy.

Among the more notorious examples is the 1985 scandal at Harvard, in which the head of its Center for Middle Eastern Studies Center was found to have a financial contract with the CIA for research and conferences.  He was forced to resign. Yale has had unusually close ties with the CIA dating back many years, contributing student recruits and directors.

Universities are hardly alone in having intelligence ties to government agencies. Foreign affairs specialists working at think tanks, living abroad, or serving in nongovernmental organizations are also prey. I was one of those people. In 1966, following my graduate education, I was hired by the RAND Corporation in California to work in a classified, DoD-sponsored project to assess “Viet Cong Motivation and Morale.” The project aimed at finding weaknesses in the enemy’s thinking that the US military could exploit through psychological warfare and bombing.  I and others read field interviews with captured Vietnamese soldiers to try to discover what drove their dedication and willingness to fight no matter the hardships.  Like some other of my RAND colleagues, I wound up concluding exactly the opposite of what the Pentagon funders of the project wanted, namely, that the “enemy” was us, and that Viet Cong motivation could not be overcome by napalm, Agent Orange, or carpet bombing (and in fact was heightened by such actions).  The best US strategy, we concluded, was to get out of Vietnam.  But most colleagues at RAND did not see things that way, and, the RAND-DoD partnership continued.

Telecommunication companies, starting with AT&T and Verizon, are also part of the intelligence network.  Thanks to Edward Snowden, they are now known to have had a long and friendly relationship with the National Security Council under the NSC’s Special Source Operations. AT&T for over a decade (at least to 2013, perhaps still today) collaborated with the NSC in collecting billions of emails and wiretapping United Nations Internet communications. The companies received hundreds of millions of dollars for allowing the NSC to tap communications between foreigners and between US citizens and foreigners.

The latest revelation concerning those who “consort with the devil” concerns psychologists in the American Psychological Association.  In utter disregard for professional ethics, a number of prominent psychologists worked closely with the CIA’s and the Pentagon’s torture programs in Afghanistan.  They not only condoned but personally profited from torture, all in the name of supporting the US war effort. It was a case of first-class collusion, abuse of authority, and conflict of interest—and it went largely unnoticed until recently.

The report on the psychologists cited above finds that at every fork in the road, when choices had to be made about participation in the torture programs, they rationalized participation on the basis that the various torture tactics employed really didn’t amount to torture. Left unsaid was that some of the decision makers were under contract with the CIA or the Pentagon, or served on one of their advisory committees.  Several of them used approval of participation in torture to then contract with the Pentagon or CIA for profitable work, including ways to improve interrogation techniques.

You would think that such unethical, indeed disgraceful behavior would warrant a complete overhaul of the APA’s ethics guidelines, dismissal from APA posts of those psychologists who participated in the torture programs, and public naming and shaming of others who were involved.  But so far, despite not one but two major reports on the APA’s involvement the APA reportedly is merely considering what to do. As though the honorable thing to do is somehow unclear.

Private professionals working secretly on projects that enhance war making is a problem that is likely to get worse as opportunities outside government to pursue one’s chosen academic craft diminish.  Anthropologists who can’t find tenure-track teaching positions are working for DoD in Afghanistan.  Lawyers find government positions more lucrative than private practice—and then, as under George W. Bush, authorize torture and other illegalities. Think tank experts shill for the government in hopes of landing on the inside.  All these people will, of course, vigorously assert their independence of mind, when in fact they have been coopted.  The question then is, Who speaks for peace and what are the rewards for it?

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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