Psychological Treatment of Whistleblowers

Sam Provance was a Sergeant at Abu Ghraib Iraq. He was trained as an intelligence analyst and ran the military intelligence computer network at Abu Ghraib from September 2003 till February 2004. As Provance witnessed events at Abu Ghraib, he experienced a sense that the rules were unclear and in flux:

Provance:  You didn't know what's legal. Even though I wouldn't agree with it, and I would have a hard time doing it, that doesn't mean it's illegal. And exactly what was legal and what wasn't, you really-

Interviewer:  Is it in the Army field manual,  [what was witnessed]?

Provance:  Oh, I'm sure it's not. But the world was in flux at this time for us (Provance, 2008).

In January, 2004 the initial investigation of the Abu Ghraib scandal began. All those assigned there were asked to complete a questionnaire by the Criminal Investigative Division [CID]. Provance answered honestly, so he was called in for further questioning:

    And I answered honestly and said "yes" to a few of them, like I assumed other people being honest would, and they called me back. If you answered "yes" to any questions, you were called back. But they let everybody know that I was being called back. Just like they let everybody know that another person was an interrogator, and they let everybody know that she was being called back. … [They did it] [b]y saying if front of everybody 'Sergeant Provance, CID wants you to go back and talk to them', and it's like 'oh, thanks.'… [T]he implication was that either I'm in trouble, or that I knew something about people in trouble. Being the computer guy, it's pretty obvious (Provance, 2008).

    From then on he was scared of the potential reactions of fellow soldiers:

    Because I'm not an interrogator, so I would be the least likely guy to be abusing detainees. I was scared until the day I left that something was going to happen to me, that I'd be cornered and 'what the hell are you telling them?' and... What really upset me with the CID agent was that at the conclusion of the interview, I asked him 'what makes you think that everybody else is just going to be honest with you?', and his response was, 'well, if that's true, we can charge them with obstruction of justice, and they'll be in more trouble than they were before.' And that's when I said. 'Okay, I've screwed myself in telling you what I know' (Provance, 2008).

        Provance was named as a witness in the initial “Taguba Report”on the Treatment of Abu Ghraib Prisoners in Iraq on detainee abuse, conducted before the scandal became public in April 2004. When the report was leaked during the first week of May 2004, it became public knowledge that Provance had been a witness.

In May 2004, he was called before another investigator, General George R. Fay. As Provance describes the interview, Fay seemed more concerned to cover up the involvement of military intelligence and private interrogators in the abuse while blaming it simply on the MPs. Fay acted to actively discourage Provance's discussing the involvement of anyone other than the MPs.

    Well, it all started out very friendly, and he was like, "Oh, don't mind the star..." [laughs] This very friendly guy, you know, and you're just like, "Wow, he's the coolest general I've ever met". And I was just being very frank, talking to him like I'm talking to you now, but all he was asking me about was the pictures and MP's, and I'm like, "There's more that I know, that I heard, not like rumors, but from the people that said they did them." And he didn't want me to tell him…. And I'm like, "I want this on record, I want this on paper, know...this might be my last chance to do that". And he got really frustrated. And he just basically gave up and said, "Okay, what do have to say?" …

    And I told him. And then it got's like the sun went down [laughs]…. [L]ike his entire mood and the whole atmosphere just changed. And then he's just like...he brought out my initial statement to the CID agent where I'd said that I was glad that there was an investigation going on, because I felt what was going on was shameful, and he read that back to me, from my statement. And then he was just like [throws paper pad on table laconically], "Yeah, I don't know, Sergeant. You could've...if you had come to me sooner with this, we could've...there would be no scandal. You could've blown this thing wide open, we could've taken care of this, we wouldn't be here...", and he's like, "Your honesty is commendable, but I have no choice but to take administrative action against you for dereliction of duty”.

    [A]nd then I'm thinking...all I can hear is the toilet flushing with my career going down the tube. Which to me was like the ultimate betrayal. Because I'd poured everything into the Army"(Provance, 2008).

Provance explains that he later learned that he and his subordinate were the only witnesses to come forward. Everyone else denied knowing anything about the abuses. He also claims that major incidents of abuse were left out of Gen. Fay's report.

After the experience with Gen. Fay, in the same month Provance felt obligated to speak to the media about what he perceived as a cover-up occurring through the medium of the official investigations.

    I said that the investigation into the Abu Ghraib abuses was a coverup. …. my experience personally was with General Fay. He interviewed me personally, we were talking like we are now. My thing was that I knew differently about what was going on there than what was in the media, what the President was saying, what Rumsfeld was saying, what General Sanchez was saying, what General Fay was saying, what everybody that was representative was saying"(Provance, 2008).

Provance was then transferred to headquarters platoon, where, as he describes, those who lose their security clearance are assigned. He then received a demotion as apparent punishment for disobeying an order not to speak to the media and was told that, if he didn't accept it, he would be court-martialed and could face 10 years in prison. [Note: This is apparently standard procedure under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. An Article 15 is considered non-judicial punishment, and it is at the discretion of the soldier’s commander to use this tool, usually to expedite the process, mostly in minor infractions. The soldier is not required to accept the Article 15, and can appeal; however, the appeal is heard in the form of a court martial, and a court martial is judicial punishment.] 

    They immediately suspended my top secret clearance, and then administratively flagged me, which is basically a career hold, where you can get no awards, any leave must be specifically approved, no promotions, no nothing. And normally that happens only for about three months, and it's a normal course of action when somebody is charged with a crime, or if there's any possibility of trouble, but they kept me like that for 16 months (Provance, 2008).

Under stress, Provance sought treatment in summer 2005 while stationed in Germany. He sought mental health treatment, but felt that he did not receive care that was sensitive to his experiences or needs. As he described it:

    All this just compounded over time. And I got so depressed. I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t eat to the point where it was affecting my health. And that scared me like I was going to have a heart attack or something. So I went to mental health and said, “I need help.”

    Immediately they wanted me on medication. Which, you know, I said I don’t want medication. Because for one, I don’t feel I need it. And two, that’s an even further level of degradation as far as being an intelligence analyst. I mean, even just going to mental health is almost that bad in the intelligence world.

    So they put me in group discussion. And so I went to group discussion. And I assumed that the doctor or the counselor that was there was going to moderate these group discussions. But instead, he was just simply there. And they would either get out of control with everybody bickering and fighting, or they would just talk about completely mundane things. And the doctor just never got involved.

    And then this group actually attacked me. For one, they were upset because I wasn’t on medication like they were. And two, they felt that my problems weren’t as severe as theirs, and that I didn’t belong there. So it became a new problem for me, so I just stopped going altogether (Ms. D., 2008).

Provance left the military in 2007 and has had difficulty obtaining and keeping jobs since. A job as a prison guard ended abruptly when he was suspected of being a potential whistleblower on abuses there.

He describes going to the VA and being told that he had "mild PTSD." He attributes his PTSD-like symptoms to his whistleblower experience:

    [T]hey were just asking me if I had nightmares, or am I depressed, and I think a lot of these symptoms that they're attributing to PTSD have to do with the stresses of this whistleblower business at Abu Ghraib (Provance, 2008).

Provance became a bit of a celebrity. He was sought after by the press and testified before a Congressional committee. Yet, in a sense he felt used in that people who were very interested in him when he was instrumental to their agendas disappeared when he was no longer useful:

    [T]hat's one of the mysteries. Ever since I got out of the Army, everybody I ever knew all along, that's been with me, and e-mailing me, and talking with me, and helping me, they all disappeared the minute I...and I thought it would have been the opposite (Provance, 2008).

When asked why he spoke out, Provance tried to explain:

    I don't know. I knew I couldn't live with myself. It's like, before I went to the media, you know, I was at a crossroads, and it was like, if I don't...because I was actually waiting for someone who was more knowledgeable, more first-hand, to come forward and say, "Okay, no, the MP's, it wasn't just these guys, they were under the influence or orders of others and I was just waiting and waiting and nothing. Nobody was saying anything, and then I said, "If I don't say anything, nobody's going to say anything. And if I don't do this now, I will never be able to do it." I couldn't wait until a year or two later and then say "hey, it's a cover-up" or whatever, I wouldn't never have been heard. So I was at this, you know, crossroads, and I knew that if I didn't do it I would regret it for the rest of my life, and I don't get sleep as it is, but I would get a lot less sleep (Provance, 2008).

He also tried to explain the internal conflict he was experiencing as he witnessed the transformations occurring among his fellow soldiers:

    Well, it wasn't just...I mean, these things were happening to these people. But it was changing the soldiers that were doing it. I was watching my friends, my soldiers become animals. And it was like the dark side of humanity was being cultivated, and it was even being cultivated in me. I mean, like across the board, it wasn't just...and you could's kind of hard to could really feel this animalism just kind of growing in you out there. And it affected you in more ways than you'd expect. And at Abu Ghraib it just seemed more cultivated, and it was like, you could go in one door or the other, you know. I mean, I could have walked the darker path and...I mean, it was there, and it's kind of tempting. And it's some ways it's still there (Provance, 2008).

Ethical Issues

Issue 1: The treatment of whistleblowers is illustrated here. In Provance's case, he was both threatened with referral for dereliction of duty charges and received a disciplinary demotion as punishment for speaking to the press. For him, speaking out was a career-ending action. Is it reasonable to build an ethics policy on the expectation that individuals who oppose unethical or corrupt policies and practices will and should put their careers on the line in this way? Experience with other whistleblowers has demonstrated similar consequences. How does this affect ethics policy?

Issue 2: Provance was, by his account, demoted for disobeying an order not to talk to the media about the Abu Ghraib abuses. Is the order and the punishment ethical? What is the impact upon exposure of abuse if contact with the press by those with direct knowledge of the abuse is shut off?

Issue 3: Provance's experience supports the claims of many others that the official investigations of detainee abuses were designed more to cover up the extent of abuse and the nature of official culpability. If this is the case, what are the implications for psychological ethics?

Issue 4: Whistleblowers are often considered to be "traitors" to many of their coworkers and peers. Given military culture, was it ethical and appropriate for Provance to be placed in group therapy with other current or former military personnel? Sam Provance found his treatment to be emotionally stressful. He found the treatment offered to be insensitive and ineffective. Questions arise as to whether psychologists and other health professionals have special obligations, both clinical and ethical, when treating whistleblowers.


Provance, S., & Goodman, A. (2008, January 25). Abu Ghraib Whistleblower Samuel Provance Speaks Out on Torture and Cover-Up. Democracy Now!   Retrieved August 2, 2008, from

Arrigo, J.M., Bennett, R., Soldz, S, & Olson, B. (2008, June 27-30). Psychology and Military Intelligence Casebook on Interrogation Ethics—Restricted materials. Meeting of the Psychology and Military Intelligence Casebook on Interrogation Ethics, Herdon, VA. Intelligence Ethics Collection, Hoover Institution Archive, Stanford University, Stanford, CA. [To be deposited in 2009].

Provance, Sam. (2008, June 28). Interview conducted by D. Soken, C. Cordes, & R. Culbertson. Whistle blower experience at Abu Ghraib and clinical aftermath, Meeting of the Psychology and Military Intelligence Casebook on Interrogation Ethics, Herdon, VA. Intelligence Ethics Collection, Hoover Institution Archive, Stanford University, Stanford, CA. [To be deposited in 2009].