Presentation Title: Oral Histories of Moral Development in Military Intelligence Professionals

Abstract: Psychologists cannot depend on out-maneuvering intelligence professionals, as required by traditional methods of experimentation, survey, etc. But the open, honest, and cooperative method of oral history can succeed with masters of deception. Thus my interviewees and I arrived at joint inquiries into the epistemology, ethics, institutions, and operations of intelligence work, as exhibited in my analysis of President Clinton’s 2004 Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. Attention to the whole life trajectory exposes the nexus of individual and institutional purpose. This nexus is vivid in the narrative of a counterintelligence officer who was both agent and victim of radiation experiments. Conflicting interview commentaries on radiation experiments on Brazilian street children show how moral understanding of intelligence operations changes with historical perspective. Methodologically, psychology gives back to oral history through assessment of the validity of oral history content. My consultation with a developmental neuropsychologist, for instance, resolved apparent inconsistencies in the narrative of a CIA operative. Psychological science also guides interpretation, as in studies of character versus situation as determinants of behavior. In one example, oral history interviewees challenged the results of a psychological stress experiment on soldiers at the Nevada Test Site by portraying the situation, not the soldier, as determinative. Organizational theories, such as Karl Weick’s sensemaking, help negotiate moral responsibility between narrators and their institutions under conditions of secrecy and strict hierarchy. Lastly, close listening confers dignity on the moral reflections of oral history interviewees and facilitates integration of their moral experience into the national security ethos.


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