Recruiting Research Psychologists for National Security Applications

Martha Davis, PhD

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

October 10, 2008

Background:  Studies in Nonverbal Behavior and Forensic Consultation

     For over forty years I studied videotapes of interviews, originally psychiatric intake and therapy sessions, and, after 1990, criminal confessions.  This work involved microanalysis of nonverbal and verbal behaviors, some lasting fractions of a second.  Developed from linguistic and interaction research, it involves a contrastive analysis in which baselines are identified and changes in relation to different topics are tracked.  This labor-intensive technique requires at least one hour of analysis per minute of interview.

     Because of confidentiality and ethical issues, I could not illustrate to colleagues the procedure and results with videotapes of actual patients or criminal suspects; moreover, the behavioral patterns at this subtle level cannot be demonstrated by professional actors.  Without video examples, the work is difficult to understand, so I chose public domain interviews of political leaders who were accustomed to public scrutiny and arguably the least vulnerable subjects.  The best example I found (camera on interviewee throughout the interview, in at least medium shot) was Peter Arnett’s interview of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.  My colleague, Dean Hadiks, and I described the method in a monograph titled “Demeanor and Credibility” (Semiotica, 1995)   We also presented a videotape demonstration of the analysis in a symposium at the 1992 APA convention.

     I had begun conferring with the head of the NYPD Criminal Assessment and Profiling Unit, Detective Raymond Pierce, who was responsible for the development of interview training and consulting to detectives in charge of homicide cases.  In New York City, statements given by major crime suspects to assistant district attorneys are routinely videotaped.  Often these statements, which are, in effect, confessions and the suspect’s version of events, contain puzzling details.  Miranda warning and consent to taping is required for the Assistant District Attorney statements, of course.  When detectives consulted with Det. Pierce, he sometimes asked them if there was a videotaped statement and whether they were interested in having it analyzed by an expert in communication patterns.  If they agreed, I studied the tape, identified spots that appeared to warrant further investigation, and reported my observations to Det. Pierce and the detectives.  He acted as intermediary, making suggestions about what to follow-up on through interviews or searches for more evidence.  (I learned from Det. Pierce that detectives do exploratory interviews 90% of the time and use the term “interrogation” very sparingly to mean later-stage, highly structured questioning of a suspect.)

     I had inquired of the New York State Psychological Association Ethics Committee about consulting in this way with detectives and was told that it was ethical, as my client was the police department and I was providing an assessment and consult within my area of expertise.  I also sought access to the District Attorney videotape collection to do research on the efficacy of the method.  Det. Pierce understood that ethically I was bound to test the procedure through research, and he arranged access to Assistant District Attorneys, who in turn gave me permission to use videotaped confessions from old cases.

Confidential Consultation to the Behavioral Science Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and Another Government Agency

     Because Det. Pierce was supportive of the work and had spent a fellowship year at the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, VA, I was invited to present the method and the Hussein analysis to FBI agents from this unit in the mid-1990's  Their first question was, “Did you show this to intelligence?”   I explained that I had not, but they were welcome to read about it as the work was in the public domain. 

     In 1997 I was approached by a government official who wanted to learn the method to apply it to open sources like the Hussein CNN broadcast.  Subsequently I became a consultant to a government-funded project led by Brenda Connors on the potentials of nonverbal communication.  This included partial funding of the credibility study that I conducted on the DA tapes at John Jay.  The John Jay Institutional Review Board (IRB) vetted that project, and it was essentially completed by 2000.   I signed a confidentiality agreement and therefore cannot say which government agency and contracting firm supported the research, although I will note that the CIA was not involved. 

Issue:  What is the ethical basis for a confidentiality agreement between a security agency and a researcher, when only the security agency is in a position to understand the implications of the research in context?   Are there any research applications that might void the confidentiality agreement, either legally or morally?

Joint Recruitment of Research Psychologists by the American Psychological Association (APA) and Rand Corporation

     In the spring of 2004 I was invited by officials of the APA to participate in a conference in Washington D.C. on the role of intuition in law enforcement.  This was billed as an invitation-only conference for research psychologists and a variety of law enforcement personnel, some of them in high administrative and training positions.  I had little experience with the APA leadership and was flattered that someone in the APA had tracked down my research on deception cues in criminal confessions.  There were a number of deception detection researchers there (I knew the one from Great Britain), as well as psychologists experienced in witness reliability studies, perception studies that revealed bias, and other topics in what was to be a roundtable discussion of how recent research in psychology could be of value to law enforcement.

     The conference was very interesting, the brief presentations and discussion at a high level, and the venue well-funded (travel, hotel, food, etc. covered for about 45 people).APA officials, some from the Science Directorate,  were clearly the organizers and very solicitous and efficient.  I did not notice anyone from intelligence agencies during the two days, but in retrospect I surmise there might have been some. 

     After the presentations I was asked by APA officials if I would stay an extra day to attend a conference co-sponsored by the Rand Corporation and the APA for the psychologists who were involved in deception detection research.  I do not remember who approached me, although later I received a request from Dr. Susan Brandon (who worked with the APA Science Directorate, despite being at that time at NIMH) for copies of published papers on my research.  I agreed to attend the Rand meeting because I was impressed with the level of the conference so far.  At that time I was naive about the conflicts of interest of APA staff and thought APA represented the gold standard of support for ethical research and practice.  Psychology researchers need to get published in APA-approved journals, which are considered the pinnacle of quality and substance.  Also, although I certainly realized “Rand” meant intelligence, everyone was presenting work already in the public domain.  (I did not know about interrogation psychologists at this time.) 

     The deception detection conference was at a fancier hotel near the Pentagon, with a much better spread of food and an opulent meeting room. About 8 researchers sat a large table with about 25 APA officials and agents who did not give their names.  I assumed they were CIA. (There was a program for the law enforcement conference with names of participants and officials that should be available from the APA, but I didn't get a program of participants for the RAND meeting.)  Each of us gave a brief presentation, but I do not remember much discussion.  I came away from the meeting with strong impressions, however.  A very good neuroscience researcher appeared to be “retooling” from studies of fMRI brain scans of children with learning disabilities to fMRI study of the brain during deception.  I also remember Paul Ekman’s partner, Frank, presenting video analysis of people coming through airport customs, pointing out telltale signs of deception in the faces of people carrying contraband or some such.  (We were not asked to keep the meeting confidential; I had no security clearance; and I assume the other researchers did not either.)

     The meeting felt like an audition for Department of Homeland Security funds.  It was upsetting to me that very good research on learning disorders was giving way to brain scans for signs of deception, and the “customer” funding all this expensive research, obviously meant to use it for intelligence purposes as soon as possible.  There are two reasons I find this upsetting.  First, this was the first evidence I had (later confirmed by my research) that this decade would be the decade of national security funding for psychological research, and funds and talent would be siphoned off from other worthy efforts to this.  Second, I know a lot about research on deception detection and I could see that they were glossing over age-old limitations and problems, treating advances in cognitive measurement as the magical solution to these problems.  If they insisted on  operationalizing the research as soon as possible, there was going to be terrible misuse of very intrusive methods that raise huge questions about civil liberties. 

     Since then I have personally asked APA ethics experts to address some of these issues and been met with evasive answers.  I asked both APA Ethics director, Stephen Behnke, and the Director of the APA Research Ethics office, Sangy Panicker, how it could be ethical to use young officers tortured during SERE training as research subjects in psychological experiments. Dr. Behnke promised to answer, but has not.  Dr. Panicker responded that how Institutional Review Boards act is regional and he could not tell what they would decide on this.  

     Everything I've learned about the APA since that 2004 meeting has convinced me it was time to retire from research.  I sometimes participate in conferences with anthropologists, linguists, or communications researchers -- my work is close to their traditions anyway -- but my pride in being a psychologist is diminished and my mistrust of the APA is acute.

Issue 1:  Under what circumstances, if any, is it appropriate for the APA to recruit psychologists into classified research for security agencies?   Would the same or different standards apply to recruiting psychologists into proprietary research for corporations?

Issue 2:  On what ethical basis may APA staff members hold private information about security agencies that is not available to APA Board members, the Council of Representatives, or regular APA members, such as names of intelligence professionals not revealed to attendees at vetting venues in this case?

Later Knowledge and Reflections

     In late 2006 or early 2007 I heard about BSCT psychologists assisting detainee interrogations at Guantanamo Bay.  I was astounded, not only because this seemed to violate ethical principles for psychologists, but because it was so different from what  I had experienced in my consulting with detectives.  I joined psychologists protesting the APA interrogation policy and spent two years studying the issues.  From this research and my personal experience, I learned the following:

     The APA officials had subtly disguised the purpose of the 2004 law enforcement conference.  It was not “for” law enforcement; it was a screening of work that might be of value for intelligence agents.  Psychologists like me would be reluctant to attend if they knew the true “provenance” and purpose of such meetings, especially considering what we know now about psychologists working in intelligence at the detainee sites.  The Rand conference was attended by psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jensen, the most notorious of the SERE psychologists promoting “enhanced” interrogation methods. 

     Now with the 2002 revision of the APA Ethics Code, Principle 1.02 allows psychologists to follow orders in an ethical dispute, so there are fewer protections for the research psychologist’s authority and responsibilities.*   In the 90’s I could tell those funding my John Jay project that the research could not be classified because that violated my ethical responsibility to share knowledge and have it properly vetted, etc. and that violating ethics could jeopardize my license.  They would back off at that, because I was protected by the old rules.  Today, they could say, “No, you can obey us without penalty—and if you don’t you will not be funded.”  They could also limit the IRB vetting to military personnel and only one civilian whom I would not trust.  I relied on my IRB to be vigorous and strict.  Most importantly, there would be no way to know how the research was being used and much reason to believe it was being misused.  

     There is no one in charge who is trustworthy about this in the APA Ethics Office, and the ethics committee of the New York State Psychological Association refers ethical questions to the APA.  (After problems with law suits some years ago, it got out of the advising business.)  For these reasons, I could not and would not now do the research that I did in the 1990’s. This means that many of us who are cautious about claims for the research because we know its limits and know most about when it isn't reliable and can't be operationalized in ways that the military wants ASAP, will not be consulted or used.

     Finally, it is going to be increasingly difficult for researchers to function under the pressures of "national security psychology" and recent patterns in government funding.  Much of this research is done at universities or in government lab/university partnerships, and more and more of it is being administered by private companies good at getting Department of Defense contracts.   Efforts to secure good research ethical standards and bring Institutional Review Boards up to date and effective will come up against a huge network of institutions — private, governmental and military.

Issue 1:  What is the overall effect of classified research on psychology as a scientific discipline, in terms of methodology, topics of inquiry, epistemic rigor, training, morale, etc.?   Is this an ethical issue for American psychology?  For international psychology?

Issue 2:  What are the major advantages and disadvantages to national security agencies of funding classified psychological research and holding secret meetings with psychologists?  Is this an ethical issue for American psychology?  For international psychology?


* “If psychologists' ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict. If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority."—Principle 1.02,  Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.  American Psychological Association, 2002.  [Available at:].

The October 22 and November 18, 2008 consultations were based on an earlier version of this case narrative which contained a significant error.  I was not invited to the Rand/APA meeting at the last minute; only  transportation and hotel arrangements were made the day before for me.  I recently discovered records from that time showing that I was invited to the Rand/CIA/APA conference weeks before it and had answered a query from Dr. Susan Brandon on my estimates of the future progress and needs of my research area.  An update to the original Casebook Entry has been placed with the Casebook materials.  This update does not significantly change my original concerns and evaluations, however.  MD

Update to Davis Casebook Entry                                                  

February 27, 2009

This is a very important correction to my Casebook Entry.  I just discovered records I didn’t realize that I still had.  They show that my recollection of what led up to the June 2004 meetings is in error on a couple of counts. First, I was invited to the Rand/APA meeting five weeks before I went to Washington, not the day before.  What I conflated was the fact that at the end of the law enforcement session (which was held Jun 22 and 23), conference organizers discovered no arrangements had been made for me at the second hotel as if I were not on the roster, and these had to be quickly taken care of on Jun 23.   I accepted the invitation to the law enforcement conference on Feb 19, 2004.  My records shows that I was invited to the Rand/APA meeting on May 18 some time after the other invitees but well before the events.   In fact, I didn’t just surmise that RAND meant CIA, it was made quite explicit in the May 18 invitation from Dr. Mumford.   His letter says that the one day conference, “Interpersonal Deception: Integration of Theory and Practice,” was “generously funded by the Central Intelligence Agency.”  They also did not hide the intelligence credentials of the second meeting in the SPIN newsletter around that time.  Although I never read SPIN until many years later, I did know what I was going to then.  On May 19 I was also sent a “concept piece” by the conference organizer from RAND, Scott Gerwehr’s.  He reviewed deception detection research vis a vis issues to be discussed and added a “Sample Survey/Interview Questions” presumably ones we might discuss. The questions were general regarding the needs of deception detection research per se, with no emphasis how they applied to national security.  There is also a list of those invited:  8 or so reseachers, one representative each from DHS, US Secret Service, Department of Defense, UK New Scholand Yard, two from UK Ministry of Defense, and the Co-Organizers:  Susan Brandon (White House Office of Science and Technology Policy), Scott Gerwehr (RAND), Kirk Hubbard (CIA) and Geoff Mumford (APA Science Directorate).  Reading the correspondence, I certainly sound ungracious in the original Casebook entry.  Susan Brandon contacted me as early as Jan 20, 2004 to request copies of my latest research, referred by a colleague.  Dr. Mumford invited me to the psychology research and law enforcement workshop called “The Nature and Influence of ‘Intuition:’ Integration of Theory and Practice” in February 18, 2004.  Communications throughout were very cordial and professional and nothing was obscured except the names of some of the people attending the RAND/CIA conference, and the drive to serve homeland security research underlying the law enforcement workshop.On May 10, I received a “request for ideas” query to researchers for assessments of where their specific research areas stood, what was needed by 2006, where we saw the topic would be between 2007 and 2010, and what we envisioned as its progress and needs in 2015.   This was sent by Dr. Susan Brandon and I associated it with the law enforcement conference because I responded with a question as to how formal our presentations should be for the two-day (law enforcement) meeting.  I see now from the list of who received the “request for ideas” that it was to a large group of researchers, more than were at the law enforcement workshop.  Dr. Brandon made it clear that we were to project where our subjects were going and what they needed irrespective how they appled to national security concerns which she explained was her responsibility, given her new White House OSTP position.   The last half of my response to her query which I quote here, suggests that at least part of my brain was working on problems with all this from the beginning:

Because I work with highly trained and ethical prosecutors and criminal investigators, and do my research in an institution that sponsors research on the criminal justice system including its potential abuses, I can do research on criminal suspects and deception reassured by the legal protections within the judicial system as well as the myriad protections of human subjects insured by my profession.  The skies the limit for research on deception detection in real world contexts and I have no doubt critical methodological and technical challenges of the research will be worked out by 2015. That leaves the political and ethical issues surrounding a subject that is exquisitely vulnerable to distortion, oversimplification and abuse.  I trust that by keeping the research results in the public domain and continuing to strengthen legal protections and professional ethics guideliness and procedures which is the pattern of organizations such as the American Psychological Association, these issues will be addressed rigorously during the 2004-2010 interval.  But what feels well beyond my realm as a researcher are the political forces which can push the research forward, shaping and potentially exploiting it in ways that are empirically and ethically suspect.  Please excuse the soapbox tone, but for this research subject, I think these are the questions that we still will not have the tools to answer by 2015.


    This quote shows that I was a bit naive about the APA’s ethical rigor and a bit arrogant to think I could contribute something to the ethical discussion that would be heard.  Much holds in my original account.  The two-day workshop was explicitly for law enforcement, not homeland security, and dealt with presentations of the research per se.  At least some of the researchers at the first meeting would probably be surprised at how applications to homeland security were pivotal to BOTH meetings.   But I knew who I was talking to on June 24, I just didn’t know at the time that psychologists had been supervising interrogations for two years and had connections to the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, that one or two of them may have been in that RAND/APA cnference, and that Susan Brandon and Geoff Mumford must have known about the problem in general if not the identifies of the psychologists in Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib who were involved in the abuse.  The RAND meeting was very close to an ethics and national security meeting of APA officials and intelligence officers in June 2004 one year before the PENS Task Force meeting.  I know now that the head staff of the Science Directorate and the Ethics Office had been cognizant of the ethical issues for over two years, and had included some of the psychologists who contributed to the abuse in serious discussions.   The question remains as to whether they knew who was involved in the abuse at the time they were arranging these meetings.

Martha Davis

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