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Yale welcomes Special Ops

(Julia Kittle-Kamp/YH Staff)

(Julia Kittle-Kamp/YH Staff)

Dr. Charles Morgan III, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, sits in a third-floor office on Church Street. He splits his time between research for Yale and private practice, and has, along with Gary Hazlett, pioneered an interviewing method. The Special Operations Command of the U.S. Department of Defense has recently taken interest in his techniques, awarding him a 1.8 million dollar grant to teach the Green Berets his expert method.

The money will anchor the creation of the US SOCOM Center of Excellence for Operational Neuroscience, which Morgan is slated to direct. Besides the interview training component, the center will contribute scientific research devoted to technology that the military can use, and answer questions about which defense innovations present the best investments of tax dollars. When the money arrives in New Haven, so too will the soldiers, from all corners of the globe—in some cases even combat zones—beginning as early as April.

Morgan knew his skills as a psychiatrist could impact US military operation when his partner, clinical psychologist Gary Hazlett, returned from Afghanistan—he had been deployed in the wake of Sept. 11—having witnessed firsthand the inability of American soldiers to distinguish between honest farmers and insurgents among the local population. Soldiers came across Afghani citizens who purported to make their living as farmers, but in reality, as Hazlett and his team would later find out, they were bomb-makers.

Back in the U.S., the psychiatrist duo got to work developing a new methodology for cross-cultural interviews. The system they introduced—Modified Cognitive Interviewing, they call it—“promote[s] a positive rapport,” in Morgan’s words, between the soldier and the interviewee, resulting in more reliably accurate intelligence.

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.

Adjunct professors will be brought into the program to look at the issue from different angles. The most notable among this League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Apollo Robbins, the world’s best pickpocket. Robbins, who has famously plucked the engagement ring from Jennifer Garner’s finger, snatched the driver’s license from Jerome Bettis’s wallet, and thieved the badges from Jimmy Carter’s secret servicemen, will teach the Special Forces how to guide a person’s attention advantageously and how to make them feel at ease. Morgan explains the reasoning from the psychiatrist’s point of view: “In pickpocketing, you want to make people feel comfortable so you can steal their money,” he says. “In psych, we want to make people comfortable so they’ll open up and we can help them.”

Morgan’s challenge is to convince the Green Beret’s to try the psychiatrist’s approach: he suggests that non-coercive conversation captures intelligence more effectively than playing hardball. “For years,” he says, “I’ve been telling the military folks, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could teach people to talk to people without scaring them?’ I think we’d win more friends and have more influence.” This task is harder than it sounds, and will require Morgan’s expert instruction in a hands-on setting. “When these guys are in the field, suited up with armor, they’re intimidating to people,” he explains. “But rarely do the people give them honest feedback, unless it’s a protest.”

The training Morgan’s students will receive at Yale presents an opportunity for them to learn the importance of diplomacy in conversation. Morgan remembers working with one soldier years ago, whom he helped to overcome his militaristic tendencies. “I had to ask him, ‘Do you know you sometimes look intimidating? Do you know that you never smile?’” The soldier listened to the psychiatric advice, and when Morgan ran into him much later, he said he’d been practicing his smile. To the director of the Center of Excellence, this represents a step in the right direction: “I think there’s…evidence that people keep our soldiers safe and tell them where the bad guys are when they like them,” Morgan tells me.

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Detecting deception takes practice, but it is surprisingly straightforward. According to Morgan and Hazlett’s research on the topic, looking for sideways glances, blinking, or the touching of a nose isn’t the best way to spot a lie. The secret strategy, in fact, is no secret at all: if you listen to the content of what people say in conversation, you’ll be much more effective at separating the liars from the truth-tellers. The curriculum at the Center of Excellence will be based on a simple set of questions: What does the eyewitness remember hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling on the night in question? Can they walk you through their story backwards? In general, the liars struggle to provide cognitive detail, while the truth-tellers volunteer specific memories about the sound of the gun firing, the color of the getaway car, the smell of the exhaust, and the order of events.

By reasoning through the full web of details, army sergeants as well as detectives, such as Jim Kline, can more reliably discard faulty testimony. Before I’d met Kline, Morgan told me about a friend who will be working at the Center of Excellence—a homicide detective biased by years of dealing with bad guys, so that he now “colors the world with bad people.” He later added, “He’s a lovely guy.”

Kline’s resume reads like a list of headlines from Connecticut newspapers. He’s worked with Morgan in the past, and he will bring his practical experience to the Center of Excellence. He’s supervised investigations of financial and political crimes, homicides, and sexual assault cases. His work brought him onto Yale’s medical campus in 2009, when the FBI asked his unit to investigate the murder of Annie Le.

Kline learned Modified Cognitive Interviewing from fellow detective Wes Clark, and he vehemently stands behind its efficacy in cases ranging from “10-dollar shoplifting to horrific homicides.” The detective played an integral role in the development of the methodology, participating in a series of tests that allowed the research team to perfect its strategy.

Kline describes one study that took place at Yale that simulated the threat of biological terrorism, carried out by lab technicians and research scientists in as true-to-life a fashion as possible. The scientists (having been briefed on their role in the simulation) were approached by a sketchy figure, who handed them a bottle of mysterious chemicals and asked them to grow it in exchange for cash under-the-table. Some were instructed to lie to investigators, while others were supposed to tell the truth.

When the center launches, Kline anticipates being involved in more scenarios like this one: he listed a public bombing, a nuclear chemical threat, a cyber-threat to the financial system and other situations as possibilities. He’s excited to share his knowledge with the Special Forces personnel. “I believe in it,” he tells me. “I believe in what Dr. Morgan is doing.”

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The foremost objective of the US SOCOM Center of Excellence for Operational Neuroscience is to improve the quality of military intelligence. If soldiers can learn to have the kinds of conversations Morgan wants them to have with the civilians they encounter on the job, the Special Forces will know whom to trust, and they will assemble a more accurate picture of the nation, village, or neighborhood in which they’re stationed.

Most research in this area, Morgan points out, fails to account for the variables that make one culture different from another. Studies in deception detection are usually performed on predominantly white, English-speaking student populations at American universities. The results may be helpful in identifying the plagiarist, but they are significantly less helpful when applied in the international context. Thus, Morgan’s plan for the new center: “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.

I was able to speak to a man who has been a subject in roughly seven of Morgan’s studies over the past seven years. The man, who immigrated to New Haven from the Middle East in 1999, requested that his name and specific country of origin be withheld, but he spoke with general enthusiasm about being a part of the studies. As a contact in his ethnic community, the man has introduced Morgan to between 50 and 100 friends from the Middle East. “Some of them,” he says of his friends, “they accept it. Some of them, they get afraid. Some of them, they don’t like to give their real name…But I bring some who accept the idea.” He explained that they volunteer in the study for a number of reasons, one being the compensation Dr. Morgan provides: a minimum of $50 for one hour of their time, and up to $100 in bonuses if they successfully deceive the interviewer. The man I spoke to indicated personal satisfaction in advancing Dr. Morgan’s scientific knowledge: “They learn to figure out who’s lying and who’s saying the truth,” he said. “So you don’t take innocent people…If he’s doing something, you know, you find out.”

As the date of the Green Berets’ arrival draws closer, Morgan expresses optimism about the potential for his program to make an impact. The timing, he says, is convenient: As the war in Afghanistan winds down, the Special Forces will be withdrawn from what Morgan called the “front and center,” where they were “deployed to hunt down bad guys.” They will return to their original role as behind-the-scenes operatives, and this will require an adaptation of their skill set. “After a decade of training people for direct action,” Morgan says, “we have to return to our people skills.”