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Special ops at Yale School of Medicine?

A plan to establish a US Army training center at the Yale School of Medicine is stirring controversy and confusion.

The center, called a US Special Operations Command Center of Excellence for Operational Neuroscience, would reportedly be funded by a $1.8 million Defense Department grant and run by Charles A. Morgan III ’97MA, an MD and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the med school. That much seems clear. Then the confusion and controversy begin.

In January, the student-run Yale Herald reported that Morgan pioneered an interviewing technique that “'promote[s] a positive rapport,' in Morgan’s words, between the soldier and the interviewee, resulting in more reliably accurate intelligence."

The Herald continued: "Morgan’s replaces traditional interrogation practices like polygraph testing with a more conversational approach; interviewers tease out detail by asking about specific memories and proceeding with follow-up questions."

The foremost objective of the US SOCOM Center of Excellence for Operational Neuroscience is to improve the quality of military intelligence. . . . Most research in this area, Morgan points out, fails to account for the variables that make one culture different from another. . . .

“I want students to be interviewing someone they can’t necessarily identify with,” he says. As he’s done in his past research, he will draw many of his subjects from New Haven’s immigrant communities—this includes Moroccans, Columbians, Nepalese, Ecuadorians, and others. Morgan will recruit roughly 50 interviewees for a team of 10 Special Forces members that he’ll train each week. “They’ll go meet someone in their shop or in their food stand, or at Blue State or Willoughby’s,” he tells me.

The article set off alarms for Yale graduate student Nathalie Batraville and sophomore Alex Lew. In a February 15 Yale Daily News column, they criticized the plan for turning Yale into a tool of US military and foreign policy, "using New Haven’s immigrant community as subjects":

Morgan’s research and, by extension, this proposed center target people of color — brown people exclusively. . . . Is there an assumption in Morgan’s desire to use more ‘authentic,’ brown interviewees as test subjects, that brown people lie differently from whites — and even more insidiously, that all brown people must belong to the same “category” of liar?

Morgan's answer: no.

He has "no plans to have anything to do at all with interrogations, interrogators etc.," he wrote to the Huffington Post. His focus, he said, is how to "prevent burnout, prevent or protect them [soldiers] from the effects of long deployments, and whether we could actually teach them better communication skills like the ones we try to teach medical students."

In an e-mail to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Morgan added: "We will hopefully train soldiers who are used to being at war in the more gentle art of sitting down and talking to people in a manner that is positive, nonintimidating, and useful at building positive rapport."

The Chronicle reported on an open letter from med school graduate Michael Siegel ’90MD to the school's dean, Robert Alpern, calling the plan "blatantly unethical": "The research exploits the vulnerability of a disadvantaged population, using them as pawns in an effort to achieve military—but not any medical or health—objectives."

All the controversy prompted Yale to issue a statement on the subject.

"The center, if established, would be designed in the best traditions of Yale research and scholarship," with the "goal of promoting humane and culturally respectful interview practices among a limited number of members of the armed forces, including medics," the university says.

"No formal proposal has been submitted yet to the university, and such a center would only be established and funded after rigorous academic and ethical review, and only if its goals are consistent with the University's educational and research missions, and its research is determined to be conducted to the appropriate stringent standards," the statement continues.

The interview process that would be the focus of the center is central to the discipline and practice of psychiatry and a core competency that is also taught to medical students and residents. Volunteer interviewees would be selected from diverse ethnic groups who would be protected by oversight from Yale's Human Research Protection Program. Research would be conducted in a manner consistent with all other research at Yale and with the expectation that findings would be reported in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Filed under military, School of Medicine, Charles Morgan, psychiatry
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