Embedded intellectuals: An ethical crisis

Report says American Psychological Association collaborated on torture justification, was a lead article in the April 30 edition of The New York Times, which brought to light the darker side of academia. The article pointed to the ongoing cooperation and research with the CIA and the Department of Defense, which in this case involved torture. If the accusations in the article prove to be true then a serious and deeper ethical problem is at hand for academia and intellectual circles in general. What are the ethical limits in working on government projects? Should the same concerns or questions posed by the government and security agencies serve as the blueprint for research? More critically, what are the long-term impacts on academia when university funding is increasingly tied to the government and more so to security, intelligence and militarism?

These questions and others must be asked with demands for answers so as to avoid transforming the university into a civilian unit in the Department of Defense, NSA or CIA. While the ethical lines in the torture case are possibly easy to oppose for some, the more complex relations between government, military and academics should raise a greater alarm for society at large. The crisis with the American Psychological Association puts the role of academics and intellectuals in government and military designs into renewed focus, and a clear set of principles must be developed to guard against such programs in the future. If the problem is not addressed, it will increasingly erode confidence in academic research altogether.

The Bush Administration’s torture policy was authorized by presidential executive order and legal memos authored by John Yoo, a professor of law at the University of California in Berkeley, who at the time was the deputy undersecretary for the Department of Justice. Even though the Bush Administration changed its policy on enhanced interrogation after the embarrassment of torture photos from Iraq; nevertheless, Professor Yoo continues to defend the program on the basis of war time presidential executive authority.

Not only were psychologists recruited but also anthropologists and foreign language experts who got lucrative contracts during the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The recruited academics included a good number of “native” experts, who were ready to utilize their cultural knowledge, language skills and regional familiarity to advance the open-ended war effort. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks the U.S. government began steady recruitment efforts directed at academics and researchers who can provide the intellectual support needed for the already developed war policy. The New York Times article and others before it have exposed the entrenchment of the government and in particular the Department of Defense and CIA in the funding and direction of research at major academic institutions. In this manner, the university and academic institutions became an arm of the military and security apparatus while engaging in research to enable the execution of the war effort.

The late Professor Edward Said was very critical of intellectuals who put their knowledge in the service of the empire and tracing this phenomenon in orientalist discourse in the modern period back to the French invasion of Egypt. Certainly, a rising tide of well-paid academics and intellectuals can be found across the university system and often in highly placed positions, who are putting their knowledge at the service of military projects across the world. The “war on terror” in particular has been used as catchall rationalization to justify crossing all ethical boundaries.

Here, the embedded intellectual is hard at work and approaching the research with an eye on what is good for power is good, rather than seeking facts and truths no matter the consequences. The embedded intellectual operates within a defined governmental radius, research questions are not real or independent since they represent the empire’s problems that he/she must help address.

The embedded intellectual phenomenon is an old one and has been given renewed vigor in the current military industrial complex global war. Indeed, having scored a major success in the embedded journalist program during the Iraq war campaign, the current strategy is focused on the embedded intellectuals who are ready to serve the empire’s military projects in faraway lands. To nurture a cadre of embedded intellectuals who readily cooperate with the military and intelligence community. The current CIA-American Psychological Association relations and the possible consultation by some members in the torture program raise many ethical issues. It is possible that the success of the government project and lack of a strong resistance is directly connected to it being part of U.S. policy in the Middle East and involving Arab and Muslim subjects.

The university, as institutions, and the academics in it are being asked to become embedded intellectuals in the imperial war machinery. By accepting this role, the embedded intellectual consent to produce knowledge that answers and solves imperial war problems emerging from the field. If academic pursuit is focused on discovering and understanding the world to benefit humanity then embedded intellectuals in service of power violate the ethical foundations on the base the intellectual and academic enterprise are centered.