The Attempt of a U.S. Counterintelligence Officer to Halt Torture by Haitian Authorities in a Haitian Prison


     In September 1994, U.S. Army counterintelligence officer Capt. Lawrence Rockwood joined the U.S. occupation forces President William Clinton had sent to Haiti to stabilize the country during the transition from ousted dictator Raoul Cedras  to democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In the course of his interviews with Haitian informants, Rockwood discovered that the outgoing Cedras regime was torturing and murdering its political opponents, supporters of Aristide, in the National Penitentiary. Rockwood made vigorous efforts to alert the U.S. commander of the Haitian occupation through all legitimate military channels:  Rockwood’s immediate superior officer, the general staff chaplain, and the inspector general for the command. Upon exhaustion of the legitimate channels, his permissible choices were resignation in protest, without divulging military secrets, or patience in pursuing his goals, while Haitians continued to die under torture. His sense was that the general did not want to risk the political consequences of American casualties, which were likely if American soldiers attempted to take control of the prison. Determined to end the torture, Rockwood entered the prison alone to instigate accountability for political prisoners. He was arrested by the U.S. Army and court martialed for disobedience, insubordination, and conduct unbecoming an officer.

     Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a noted international human rights lawyer, defended Rockwood pro bono. Numerous human rights organizations rallied for his cause. Eventually the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy commissioned an ethics case history (Wrage, 2002), and “Capt. Rockwood in Haiti” has become a classic in military ethics.

     Rockwood rejected the portrayal of himself as a human rights activist. He also rejected military ethicists’ representation of him as a soldier who chose personal conscience over military duty (Wrage, 2002). He claimed Army, not he, had shirked its duty and was guilty of criminal negligence:  “Our army created the Geneva Conventions. We came up with Nuremberg. ...[We] came up with the idea that people are accountable, have affirmative duties, to protect noncombatants. That’s our family [that] came up with this. And you betrayed the family” (Rockwood, 2004).

     Of particular interest to our Casebook, Rockwood had become a Licensed Vocational Nurse during high school, served for six years as an army mental health counselor, and earned a bachelors degree in psychology, before becoming a counterintelligence officer. His career exhibited the interweaving of mental health and military expertise and of religious and military commitments that frustrate disciplinary codes of ethics. His court martial involved psychiatric examinations and considerable attention to his mental state, by way of attributing his disobedience at the National Penitentiary to mental instability or to the influence of a foreign religion (Buddhism). And in his oral history he articulated a criterion for moral action that may apply more broadly to personnel in national security settings.

     The following illustrative passages are selected and condensed from oral history interviews with Lawrence Rockwood (2004):

Military background

Religious background

Service as a mental health counselor

College education in psychology

Service as a military intelligence officer

Moral disobedience during the 1994 United Nations intervention in Haiti

Army mental health evaluation of Capt. Rockwood

Personal criteria of moral obligation

Military background

      I’m fourth generation U.S. Army. My great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. My father was first an Army NCO [noncommissioned officer] in World War II, later went through OCS (Officer Candidate School) Class Number One, and became an infantry officer in World War II. He later joined the Air Force, after a few years in the CIA. He was an intelligence officer in the Air Force for most of my childhood. During my childhood, my father had very prestigious NATO (North America Treaty Organization) assignments. He retired in 1968 because he did not want to go to Vietnam. He didn’t support the Korean War, let alone the Vietnam War.

     I became a counterintelligence officer after approximately eleven years of military service. I entered the military at the age of nineteen as an enlisted soldier. I was in the medical field, a mental health counselor for my first six years. I received my bachelors [in psychology]. I left the military, joined ROTC, received my masters degree [in history] and became an air defense officer—in charge of controlling Hawk and Patriot surface-to-air missiles. After approximately two-and a-half years as an air defense officer, when I was selected for promotion to captain, I was given the option of putting in for a new occupational specialty. And at that time I chose intelligence.

Religious background

     I was raised a Catholic. In eighth grade, my parents let  me go to military school. And I went to military school in Bamberg, South Carolina. I was there for two months and I went AWOL six times. I got terribly beat up. I got almost homosexually raped. And then I finally came back from military school and my parents realized I wasn’t lying to them about being beat up. And I was extremely hateful and antisocial. And instead of becoming a juvenile delinquent, it came to my mind, well, I’m going to be the most antisocial thing on earth. I’m going to become a monk. [laughs] 

     So I said, what’s the strictest order I can join in high school?  And I was with the Capuchin Franciscans for about a summer and a school year. And of course, being a monk, being religious, is the exact opposite of being antisocial. It’s like you’re married to everybody [laughs]. I think it just transformed my life.

     But I had a religious crisis. I was reading Herman Hesse and Nietzsche. And I just didn’t believe in eternal god. I didn’t believe in Hell. So I thought I would leave the seminary for a few years to get my head together. And my senior year of high school, I went to become an LVN (Licensed Vocational Nurse), because it was something I could go back with the order, that they’d really like me to have.

     After I got to LVN school, I saw that there’s a relationship between the religious life and the military. You have a hierarchy, you have a uniform. You have the priest and the lay brothers, just like you have the officers, enlisted. And I said, I’ll just go back in the Army.

Service as a mental health counselor

     Being a mental health counselor at that time, I was nineteen, and it was just a tremendous responsibility for someone of that age. That had a tremendous impact on me. I had people’s careers and their lives in my hand.

     I had officers on these three different bases. And people would come. And the psychiatrist would always just, if I thought somebody needed to go to the hospital because they were suicidal, he said, okay. If I didn’t think so, he would just say okay to anything I said. And it was really scary because I was just a private and I was in this very responsible position. Should this person stay in the Army?  Or should they be put out of the Army?  I was an LVN. I was a nurse. So I had more background than most of the counselors. Most of the counselors had graduated from high school, joined the Army and had gone through five months of counseling training. And that was it.

College education in psychology

     While I did that, I got my bachelors degree [in psychology], going to school at night. And every time I had leave, I would take study tours and get more credits. And the psychiatrist I worked for, he let me really do my psychology homework during my duty time. And I used my clients as—I just changed their names and I could use them as case studies.

     I kept on applying to go to OCS [Officer Candidates School], and they kept on losing my paperwork. So I just got out and went to ROTC and got my masters in history. While I was getting my bachelors degree, I always loved reading history. And one of the things getting my bachelors degree through the University of Maryland overseas classes for people in the military is it was a very soft degree. I didn’t have calculus. I think I had like one science. So I didn’t really have enough science credits to get into like a clinical psychology program. And I wanted to become an officer. The easiest thing for me to get enrolled in was to go for my masters in history.

Service as a military intelligence officer

     Now there are very many specialties in intelligence. You have signals intelligence, which is basically intercepted communications. You have imagery intelligence, looking at satellite photography. Then you have counterintelligence, and you have human intelligence. Now counterintelligence is someone who specializes in the other guy’s intelligence abilities. What counterintelligence really is, it was really a Cold War specialty. It was to protect our secrets from getting over to the enemy. You didn’t want people to make mistakes and inadvertently pass secrets to the enemy. Or you didn’t want people to deliberately commit espionage. So counterintelligence is unique, because you’re also a law enforcement officer, because it’s our job, technically, to arrest someone who is a spy. And you never want to call someone in counterintelligence a spy, because we’re in the business of catching spies. A spy is someone doing something illegal. [laughs] We’re the good guys. We’re the cops. And the spies are the bad guys.

     Counterintelligence interested me because I had a strong interest in history. I thought my background in psychology would be a great asset to counterintelligence, where it wouldn’t be an asset at all in signals intelligence. You’re also in charge of making sure the right people are getting top secret clearances. People that are reliable. So it’s a personnel security. You’re doing background investigations, you’re doing investigations, and making sure the people that have certain access to certain types of classified information are trustworthy, and not compromising that. So having a background in history and having a background in psychology and mental health seemed like an ideal match for counterintelligence.

Moral disobedience during the 1994 United Nations intervention in Haiti

     I said, “Well, I’m here to get a list of names, a list of the prisoners. I’m going to go through the prisoners and I’m going to call out, and I want them to answer.” [The prison warden, Major Justafor] said, “I can’t do that until the morning.”

     He showed me prisoners who were basically members of the military and police who engaged in illegal activity. And we handed them back to the FADH [Haitian Armed Forces] and they put them in the nice cells. And they were like working out with weights. But where the political prisoners with the Aristide people, they were in a dorm type room that was supposed to be full of feces. And there was no electric lighting in the back. So I really couldn’t do anything because it was completely dark.

     ... Basically what happened, I was there about three-and-a-half hours. And an American officer from the embassy, Major Chuck Lane, shows up. And he was the military attaché at the embassy. And the military attaché to the embassy—they’re the military people that work with the CIA. Major Lane was one of the people who started FRAPH [paramilitary Revolutionary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti]. And he had come down. And he was being real condescending. He was there for about a half hour. And I knew what he was doing, he was making an assessment about my mental status. Am I about to go off the deep end and start shooting my weapon at people?  He was making an assessment.

     And he was also prodding me. And he was saying, “You know, the world’s full of hellholes. And why does this one bother me?” I said, “This hellhole is the responsibility of the United States Army. That’s why this one bothers me. The other ones aren’t.”  And then he was saying things like, “Why don’t we go. Why don’t we go.” And I said, “Well, you know, at least give me the courtesy to give me a direct order to go.”

     And so then he gave me a direct order. I was now in the warden’s office. And really to get the names, I had to stay in the direct proximity of the prison courtyard. So when the sun came up, I could have visual contact with the main holding cells. And I thought by morning they would realize that I’m not going to shoot anybody and they’re going to physically drag me out of here. So after about three and a half hours, I followed his order. I planned not to follow the order, but after 15 years in the military, a direct order was still a direct order.

     And then, so I followed him out....

Moral accountability

     Going to the prison, I thought, was a way of salvaging something. I thought I had failed as a staff officer. I didn’t get them to do what I wanted them to do. So they’d probably just reassign me to something to get me out of the way. I was angry. And I wanted them to be held accountable for making the wrong decision. If I’d been successful in the prison and gotten the names and been able to turn names over, maybe I would have felt—That I didn’t succeed, maybe that’s affected the way I remember my feelings. But the way I remember, at that time I was just angry and I wanted them to be held accountable. And I did not want to be Colin Powell [whom he had elsewhere described as whitewashing the 1968 My Lei massacre by American troops in Viet Nam].

Mental health evaluation of Capt. Rockwood

     Back to the command post, and they took me in the JIC, the Joint Intelligence Center. And they read me my rights in front of all the intelligence soldiers.... And at one point the major said, “Do you know you could go to jail for this?”  And I got real sarcastic, “Well, do you think I could get more than seven months in jail?” And he said, “Why? What’s seven months?” And I said, “That’s what Lieutenant Kelly got for murdering 500 people at My Lai.”

     Then they sent me to the psych ward. And the main reason they sent me to the psych ward was to say that it was stress-induced. But I was very careful not to give the psychiatrist, who I spent over three hours with, any grounds to make a psychiatric diagnosis. He said, “You’ve got the worst case of ethics,” or something like that.

     What did you do to prevent them from calling it a psychiatric case?

     Well, I was a mental health counselor so I did screenings for people for six years in the military. Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists use a thing called the DSM-IV [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual]. When I was a counselor, it was called the DSM-III. And you have all the indicators. And I just made sure nothing I said was an indicator. There’s also a test called the MMPI [Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory] that you give to people. And I know all the answers. [laughs] So I had given it enough, and I know what a “yes” answer to that phrase means, and a “no” answer to that phrase means.

     The second I got back to Fort Drum, they sent me to another psychiatrist who was very hostile. He said, “Your first evaluation doesn’t mean anything, because you’re  a former mental health counselor.” And he said I had narcissistic personality traits. And I was on the stand, they said, “Well, what do you think about that?”  “You know what that is on the DSM III? That’s just an insult. It’s not an affective disorder. That’s an insult. He doesn’t like me and I don’t like him.” And he wrote down there, the hostile psychiatrist, the fact that I committed an act that wasn’t in my self-interest was pathological. And that was like his final statement. When I was in court I said, “That is the most unethical, unacceptable statement.” If someone does something that’s not in their self interest, that’s pathological! [laughs]

Personal criteria of moral obligation

     I’ve always looked at that not only do I have an obligation to things that are my responsibility, I have an obligation to do something that someone else probably can’t do. If I share responsibility with someone else, and he’s just as capable of doing it as me, I’m less compelled than if I’m the only one that can do that. I was really the only one—one thing I always made clear was I was never going to order any of my subordinates to come with me. That would have been wrong. I was the person with the highest responsibility that knew my command had a responsibility to act, and it wasn’t going to act on that responsibility....

Ethics Issues

Issue #1: What training, experience, and/or certification in mental health are needed for what level of responsibility?   If a lower-echelon mental health worker is substituting for a psychologist, do psychological ethics apply? 

Issue #2:  The interweaving of military and mental health roles obfuscates the distinction. How can conflicting codes of military and psychological ethics be applied?  People may choose, or be selected for, certain military roles because psychological training will enhance their job performance. But is clinical practice in mental health intrinsically incompatible with some military occupational specialties?

Issue #3:  For witnesses to atrocities, moral resistance requires some positive action, not just a refusal to act, as for those ordered to participate. Choice of action partly depends on available models — Colin Powell as My Lei investigator for Rockwood—and other sources of moral imagination. What can cognitive and moral psychology tell us about ethics training for such situations? 

     We also see Capt. Rockwood’s compliance with a direct order from Major Lane to leave the prison, against his firm intention, at a time of stress, exhaustion, and confusion, which he explained in terms of his conditioning to obedience. Is consent to training in reflexive obedience compatible with psychological ethics?

Issue #4:  What is the appropriate use of psychologists and psychiatrists in assessment of the mental state of dissident personnel?  Is a different assessment method warranted for personnel, such as Capt. Rockwood, with training in assessment techniques? 

Issue #5:  In national security settings, few personnel have access to all the morally relevant information. When something appears amiss, the presumption is that those with all the information have legitimate reasons for their actions (just as ordinary citizens presume a policeman has grounds for arresting someone and do not intervene). What is the proper moral role for personnel who are concerned by what they observe but do not have access to all relevant knowledge?


Rockwood, Lawrence. (2003, November 18, & 2004, April 4). Moral and spiritual initiative by a U.S. Army counterintelligence officer. Interviews conducted by Jean Maria Arrigo. [8 hours.]  Intelligence Ethics Collection,  Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.

Wrage, Stephen. (2002). Captain Lawrence Rockwood in Haiti. Journal of Military Ethics, 1 (1), 45-52. Pp. 45 & 54.