A British psychologist is receiving sharp criticism from some professional peers for providing expert advice to help the U.K. surveillance agency GCHQ manipulate people online.
The debate brings into focus the question of how or whether psychologists should offer their expertise to spy agencies engaged in deception and propaganda.
Dr. Mandeep K. Dhami, in a 2011 paper, provided the controversial GCHQ spy unit JTRIG with advice, research pointers, training recommendations, and thoughts on psychological issues, with the goal of improving the unit’s performance and effectiveness. JTRIG’s operations have been referred to as “dirty tricks,” and Dhami’s paper notes that the unit’s own staff characterize their work using “terms such as ‘discredit,’ promote ‘distrust,’ ‘dissuade,’ ‘deceive,’ ‘disrupt,’ ‘delay,’ ‘deny,’ ‘denigrate/degrade,’ and ‘deter.’” The unit’s targets go beyond terrorists and foreign militaries and include groups considered “domestic extremist[s],” criminals, online “hacktivists,” and even “entire countries.”
After publishing Dhami’s paper for the first time in June, The Intercept reached out to several of her fellow psychologists, including some whose work was referenced in the paper, about the document’s ethical implications.
One of the psychologists cited in the report criticized the paper and GCHQ’s ethics. Another psychologist condemned Dhami’s recommendations as “grossly unethical” and another called them an “egregious violation” of psychological ethics. But two other psychologists cited in the report did not express concern when contacted for reaction, and another psychologist, along with Dhami’s current employer, defended her work and her ethical standards.
A British law firm hired to represent Dhami maintained that any allegations of unethical conduct are “grossly defamatory and totally untrue.”
The divergent views on the paper highlight how the profession of psychology has yet to resolve key ethical concerns around consulting for government intelligence agencies. These issues take on added resonance in the context of the uproar currently roiling the American Psychological Association over the key role it played in the CIA torture program during the Bush administration. The APA’s Council of Representatives voted Friday to bar psychologists from taking part in national security interrogations or to advise on confinement conditions. Dhami’s consultation with JTRIG and the APA’s role in support of the CIA torture program are disparate — there is no suggestion that Dhami advised on interrogations involving torture nor that her paper was part of an ongoing relationship with JTRIG — but Dhami’s GCHQ work, like the APA scandal, provokes heated disagreement and criticism.
Psychologists respond strongly to ethical issues
Some peers are outspoken against Dhami’s paper. They do not believe it is possible to engage ethically with the deceitful activities of a unit like JTRIG at any level. Arguments in defense of assisting psychological operations, meanwhile, include the notion that doing so helps ensure they are conducted in a responsible fashion and can help obviate the need for operations that are violent.
Dr. Stephen Soldz, co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and co-author of two reports from Physicians for Human Rights on health professionals’ role in the CIA torture program, told The Intercept that the recommendations in Dhami’s report highlight the moral hazard of “operational psychology,” in which psychological expertise is used to further military and intelligence operations.
Soldz condemned the “deeply disturbing and grossly unethical recommendations” in Dhami’s JTRIG report. He added that “the psychology profession and the public must grapple with developing proper ethical constraints on the activities of operational psychologists.”
For Dr. Bradley Olson, who is past president of APA Division 48, which studies peace, conflict, and violence, using one’s training to assist in a mission like JTRIG’s, which involves the deception and manipulation of unsuspecting targets, is inherently problematic. Using one’s “expertise, research, or consultation to guide deceptive statements, even the statements of others, when the deceptive intentions are clearly documented … that is against psychological ethics,” according to Olson, who has collaborated with Soldz, including as a co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. “This is a terrible, terrible violation of psychological ethics” and a violation of the APA’s ethical standards, he added.
Dhami is not currently a member of the APA, but was a member of an APA Division at the time the report was written. According to APA bylaws, “Divisions must comply with all APA Bylaws, Association Rules and current policies.” Her online profile at Middlesex University, where Dhami is a professor, currently lists her as a member of APA Division 41 and a fellow of Division 9. A representative of APA Division 9, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, said that Dhami stopped paying dues in 2013 and is therefore no longer a member. The APA and an officer of Division 41, the American Psychology-Law Society, acknowledged receiving but did not respond to questions from The Intercept.
Dr. Christian Crandall, a professor in the University of Kansas’ social psychology program, disagrees with Dhami’s critics. “In my perusal, it seemed that she was writing a brief that would lead to research opportunities, consulting opportunities, and the like,” he said. “Because this brief was commissioned and written prior to the Snowden revelations … we might give Prof. Dhami the benefit of the doubt, that she might not [have] know[n] or anticipate[d] the extent of misconduct in the intelligence agencies.”
Crandall is also a council member at SPSSI, the APA division that honored Dhami as a fellow in 2007, and, emailing in that capacity, said he sees nothing unethical about Dhami’s report for JTRIG. After a “fairly quick look at the document,” he said the report did not merit an investigation. “What should SPSSI do? Nothing. Nothing at all, until evidence of actual unethical conduct appears. And we have not seen it.”
“It is certainly possible that JTRIG acts badly, spies on domestic (or American) targets, or even breaks international law. It is a stretch to hold Prof. Dhami responsible for this,” Crandall wrote. “[The report is] quite a bit like what the U.S. Army teaches their strategic communication officers. It’s less offensive than the behaviors of Karl Rove. It’s not benign. But Dhami specifies two relevant ethical codes … and two relevant UK laws … and recommends that JTRIG follow the relevant laws.”
“I do not think that JTRIG requires a set of ethical guidelines that is different from those that are relevant to the rest of humanity.”
Dhami was contacted for this article and responded to questions from The Intercept through Schillings, a British law firm, and Culhane Meadows, a U.S. firm. A letter from Schillings said that Dhami had “upheld the highest ethical standards” throughout her academic career and had never sought to hide her association with GCHQ. “The work undertaken by our client has been focused on helping GCHQ to accurately understand and responsibly apply psychological science,” the letter stated. “In working with the government our client typically provides advice on how to improve specific aspects of their work” and is “not therefore actively engaged in the day-to-day business of these departments, but rather an independent observer/commentator” with a “strong track record of publishing critiques of existing Government policies.”
Schillings also said Dhami was “legally restricted in terms of the responses that she is able to give” to The Intercept’s questions “by virtue of the government agency involved,” adding that no “adverse inferences” should be drawn from this. Asked about Dhami’s report, GCHQ said in a statement that the agency is “aware of the responsibility that comes with the nature of its work and in addition to the legal accountability we also take the ethical considerations surrounding our mission seriously.”
Middlesex University defended Dhami’s work, writing: “Middlesex University has robust ethical procedures and is committed to operating in an ethical way to ensure the highest possible standards of decision-making and accountability. Professor Dhami’s work for Middlesex University is carried out in strict accordance with the ethical codes of the organisation, which in turn conform to the standards laid down by the British Psychological Society.”
Psychological advice for covert propaganda unit
Dhami appears to have been a senior lecturer in criminology at Cambridge University when she wrote the report, as well as a social psychologist with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, an agency sponsored by the U.K. Ministry of Defence. During this period, she was temporarily transferred, or “seconded” to GCHQ, according to a version of Dhami’s CV posted online.
The top-secret document, titled “Behavioural Science Support for JTRIG’s (Joint Threat Research and Intelligence Group’s) Effects and Online HUMINT Operations,” appears to have been written during this stint at the spy agency. (The term “HUMINT” commonly refers to human intelligence.) It was based on interviews with 22 JTRIG staffers and seven support staff from GCHQ. In it, Dhami provides advice on how JTRIG can improve its approach and attain desired outcomes, for example, by applying theories and research around persuasive communication, compliance, obedience, conformity, and the creation of trust and distrust.
“Compliance can be achieved through various techniques,” reads the “obedience” section of Dhami’s report, “including: Engaging the norm of reciprocity; engendering liking (e.g., via ingratiation or attractiveness); stressing the importance of social validation (e.g., via highlighting that others have also complied); instilling a sense of scarcity or secrecy; getting the ‘foot-in-the-door’ (i.e., getting compliance to a small request/issue first); and applying the ‘door-in-the-face’ or ‘low-ball’ tactics (i.e., asking for compliance on a large request/issue first and having hidden aspects to a request/issue that someone has already complied with, respectively).”
In other cases, Dhami presents a menu of possible effective approaches grounded in specific psychological research that is formally cited throughout the body of the paper, in a “recommended reading list,” and in a “list of training requirements for JTRIG staff.”
“Propaganda techniques include,” Dhami writes, “Using stereotypes; substituting names/labels for neutral ones; censorship or systematic selection of information; repetition; assertions without arguments; and presenting a message for and against a subject.”
Dhami’s 42-page report came nearly three years before the world became aware of JTRIG and of its methods of deception, dissemination of online propaganda, and acquisition of human intelligence. The unit’s existence was first revealed through leaked documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and published by NBC News and The Intercept. JTRIG’s tactics include seeding propaganda on social media, impersonating people online, and creating false blog posts to discredit targets.
Dhami recommends that staff be trained on the various specific techniques she outlines, that a social influence research program be developed, that the possibility of compiling psychological profiles for exploitation in intelligence operations be explored, that a catalog of online crime prevention techniques be developed, that processes for assessment of risk and effectiveness be established, and that JTRIG develop guidelines for operational best practices.
‘JTRIG has now acquired this material’
Some of the psychology research texts Dhami recommends are marked with an asterisk indicating “JTRIG has now acquired this material.” The Intercept attempted to contact the authors of materials that had been “acquired” by JTRIG.
One of those authors, Peter Smith, emeritus professor of psychology at University of Sussex near Brighton, England, raised questions about Dhami’s paper.
“Some of the reported actions of JTRIG are clearly contrary to the ethical guidelines of the British Psychological Society,” Smith wrote in an email. “The descriptions that [s]he provides of the social psychology of influence are broadly accurate, but the use of this knowledge to deceive people or distort the information that they receive is not advocated in any of the sources that [s]he cites.” He added: “I am certainly not comfortable with the ways in which Dr. Dhami has used [her] knowledge of social psychology.”
Dhami’s profile at Middlesex University does not list the British Psychological Society among her current professional affiliations.
Other psychologists cited by Dhami did not criticize her paper but rather disclaimed any control over her use of their material. Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychologist and fellow of six APA divisions, also had her work acquired by JTRIG. She told The Intercept by email, “Anyone can buy my book. When you write a textbook, it’s in the public domain, and anyone can use it. I have no control over what happens after it is published.”
Joseph Forgas, a psychology professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, had his work on the list as well. He responded: “This is published research that is in the public sphere and is openly available to anyone. So, I have no further control over its use, and I see [no] problem at all with anyone using it. If there are indeed any ethical issues here, it is the responsibility of democratic governments to supervise such activity. I am not aware of any abuse, and on the whole, I don’t see any real issues here.”
Eleven other psychologists whose work was cited by Dhami did not respond to emails from The Intercept.
A ‘bespoke’ code of ethics
Dhami does directly address ethical concerns in part of her report. But her treatment of ethics is brief. JTRIG, she writes, operates under “no specific guidelines on ethical practice.” She notes that professional codes of conduct exist, such as those of the British Society of Criminology and the British Psychological Society, but determines that “clearly, not all of the aspects of the above codes will be relevant or applicable to JTRIG’s operations” and the codes “do not identify best practice in all of the types of online interactions that JTRIG staff might be involved in.” “Thus,” she concludes, “JTRIG may need to develop a bespoke code” that complies with the U.K. legislation governing intelligence agencies.
Smith, the University of Sussex psychologist whose work was acquired by JTRIG, views the issue differently. “Dr. Dhami neither condemns nor directly endorses the reported actions of JTRIG, but suggests that their actions may need to be guided by a ‘different’ ethical code,” he wrote. “I do not think that JTRIG requires a set of ethical guidelines that is different from those that are relevant to the rest of humanity.”
The very idea of a “bespoke code” that “complies” with the law but merely considers established ethics codes “that may be pertinent,” without being bound by them, is controversial, but not novel. It’s far from clear that there is an ethically correct way to engage in acts to discredit, deceive, denigrate, and degrade unsuspecting targets, and it’s decidedly possible that developing guidelines that purport to do so will only lend legitimacy to unsavory behavior.
A change to the APA’s Ethics Code, adopted in August 2002, allowed psychologists, for the first time, to “adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority” in cases where those regulations could not be squared with ethical standards.
That same month, the Bush Justice Department issued one of the key, then-secret “torture memos,” which suggested that interrogators could avoid prosecution for torture if they believed in “good faith” their actions would not result in “prolonged mental harm”; demonstration of such “good faith” included “consulting with experts.”
Three years later, after images of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal had shocked the world, the APA Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security affirmed the organization’s support for psychologists’ participation in government interrogations. “The Task Force believes that a central role for psychologists working in the area of national security-related investigations is to assist in ensuring that processes are safe, legal, and ethical for all participants,” it stipulated.
This institutional posture gave psychologists the ethical cover to participate in interrogations, which in turn provided interrogators with the legal cover, in accordance with the DoJ memos, to engage in “enhanced interrogation tactics.”
In 2010, the APA removed the clause added to the Ethics Code in 2002, which could open the door to the so-called “Nuremberg Defense.” The 2005 PENS report was retracted in 2013.
‘Propaganda for democracy’
Social scientists and medical professionals have long struggled with the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent in operational work on behalf of militaries and intelligence agencies. Proponents of such work posit that so-called psychological operations can limit conflict and save lives — particularly when used tactically, for limited applications within a battlefield, as opposed to strategically around the world.
Critics maintain that because the potential for abuse is inherent, scholars have an obligation to combat, rather than enable, psychological operations.
Dr. Sara B. King, chair of the psychology department at Saint Francis University in Pennsylvania, summarizes the argument in her study of military social influence. Some propaganda critics, she writes, “have argued that ‘propaganda for democracy’ is simply a contradiction in terms, because pervasive propaganda inevitably shapes totalitarian, rather than democratic, psychological process.” In describing strategic psychological operations “planned and executed at the national level,” King explains: “These broad-based military perception management initiatives, argue some, have the potential to endanger both science and democracy.”
According to King, this debate was most fervent in the period between the two world wars, was largely quashed during the anti-Communist McCarthy era, and became a relative whisper in the post-9/11 era, when the APA changed its ethical posture to enable psychologists to participate in interrogations.
In a published response to King, Dhami argued in March 2011, the same month the JTRIG report was issued, that military use of psychology is inevitable, and therefore civilian psychologists have a responsibility to monitor its application in order to prevent misuse.
“The integrity of our psychological science is threatened by the great potential for its misinterpretation and misapplication in military social influence campaigns,” Dhami wrote. “The harm that may be caused by remaining detached from such campaigns, perhaps because of the element of deception and invasion of privacy involved, may far outweigh the benefits of striving for the welfare and rights of the campaign targets.”
Even in the wake of today’s APA vote, the debate over Dhami’s paper shows the profession of psychology is still grappling with questions over the ethical limits of involvement in government intelligence programs.
“Psychologists should use their unique insights into human behavior to promote human welfare and dignity, not undermine or harm individuals,” Sarah Dougherty, a lawyer and senior fellow of the U.S. Anti-Torture Program at Physicians for Human Rights, told The Intercept. “The JTRIG allegations merit further investigation.”