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Predators, Reapers, and Psychology’s Do-No-Harm Ethics

Drone warfare has profound psychological effects on many different levels.

Below are my remarks as part of a panel presentation on psychology and weaponized drones at the American Psychological Association Annual Convention in Washington, DC last week. -- RJE


Because drone warfare has profound psychological effects on many different levels, it raises critical questions for members of our profession, including questions about the do-no-harm ethics of psychologists' participation in drone-related operations and research. That’s what I'd like to briefly discuss this morning.

Last year Taylor Owen, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, summarized certain aspects of the psychological impact of drones this way:

Day and night, you hear a constant buzzing in the sky. Like a lawnmower. You know that this flying robot is watching everything you do. You can always hear it. Sometimes, it fires missiles into your village. You are told the robot is targeting extremists, but its missiles have killed family, friends, and neighbours. So, your behaviour changes: you stop going out, you stop congregating in public, and you likely start hating the country that controls the flying robot.

Owen's description is consistent with the findings from the detailed 2013 Stanford/NYU Living Under Drones report examining U.S. drone policy. That report states: "Their presence terrorises men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves." And Kat Craig, Legal Director at Reprieve, has said, "These findings represent further evidence that drones not only kill innocent civilians, but that their use amounts to a form of psychological torture and collective punishment."

It’s important to recognize that even as U.S. drone proponents boast of the surgical precision of these instruments of war – including in regions where no war has been declared – these same advocates offer no comment on the psychological devastation caused by "living under drones." These well documented harmful effects call into question any comfortable claim that drone warfare meets law-of-war requirements regarding proportionality and distinction, since the victims number many more than those killed or physically injured by drone attacks.

As described in their 2013 report titled Will I Be Next, Amnesty International rejects the view of the U.S. government that "international law allows it to engage in a global and pervasive armed conflict against a diffuse network of non-state actors" and that "it is lawful to kill individuals anywhere in the world at any time, whenever the USA deems appropriate." Amnesty is not alone in arguing that such state practices "fundamentally undermine crucial human rights protections that have been painstakingly developed over more than a century of international law-making."

This international law context should matter to all of us here this morning, especially since the American Psychological Association remains an accredited nongovernmental organization (NGO) at the United Nations. We can't limit ourselves to the dim view expressed several years ago by a past-president of the APA, Gerald Koocher, who remarkably wrote: "I have zero interest in entangling APA with the nebulous, toothless, contradictory, and obfuscatory treaties that comprise 'international law.'"

But those words are not the only troubling evidence that the APA leadership does not seem particularly interested in engaging with thorny ethical issues that could put the Association at odds with U.S. government policies. Indeed, as another telling example, 10 months ago the president-elect (Brad Olson) of APA's Division 48 – the peace psychology division – wrote to Stephen Behnke, the director of APA’s Ethics Office, to request timely guidance regarding how the APA Ethics Code addresses four hypothetical drone-related scenarios:

First, according to the Code, is it permissible for a psychologist to directly operate or otherwise be involved in the operation of a weaponized drone?

Second, is it permissible for a psychologist to work as an intelligence consultant involved in the targeting of drone strikes?

Third, is it permissible for a psychologist to participate in programs designed to select drone operators or train them in such a way as to overcome the natural psychological aversion to killing other people?

And fourth, is it permissible for a psychologist to assist in promoting public support for the use of weaponized drones by misrepresenting evidence of the psychological harms that result from such attacks?

Other ethically fraught scenarios can be imagined as well. Regrettably, aside from acknowledging receipt of the letter, Dr. Behnke has never responded to this October 2013 inquiry from the peace psychology division. The silence from the Ethics Office is disturbing. It suggests that the APA leadership continues to believe that retaining its proverbial "seat at the table" is more important than examining potentially controversial and ethically fraught issues that call into question the Association's carefully nurtured connections with the Department of Defense and the CIA.

Just as the APA chose to embrace the Bush Administration's "war on terror" and its claim that psychologists help to keep detention and interrogation operations "safe, legal, ethical, and effective," the APA appears comfortable – at least in its silence – with the Obama Administration's claim that U.S. drone policy is "legal, ethical, and wise." It’s unsurprising that the word “safe” doesn’t appear in this latest catch phrase. After all, these drones go by names like "Predator" and "Reaper."

Indeed, it would seem that APA may be eager to increase the DoD’s funding for drone-related psychological research. Every year, the APA offers testimony before government appropriations committees here in Washington, DC. Often those APA members selected to provide testimony are also employees of HumRRO, a defense contractor that has received tens of millions of defense dollars over the past decade. The president of HumRRO, Bill Strickland, currently sits on the APA’s Board of Directors. HumRRO’s own board of directors is chaired by the former long-time senior counsel for the APA (James McHugh) and the vice-chair is APA’s long-time former chief financial officer (Charles McKay).

It is difficult to obtain detailed information about the work that psychologists are involved in related to drone operations, especially when that work is classified. But we do know, for example, that psychologists are involved in conducting research with drone pilots. One area involves figuring out which skills and attributes make for a top-notch pilot. This research includes examining how the pilot’s belief system and “moral motivation” may negatively affect his performance when it comes to the deployment of weapons.

Another research area was described by Air Force psychologist Mark Draper this way: "We're actively exploring how different groups might counter our drones so that we can make our drones stronger…And the next generation will be stronger and more capable to operate in what we call 'denied environments' where they're a lot tougher to fly-in than where we're flying now." This perhaps means Iran, as compared to Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Yemen. The same team is also conducting research on how many drones a single operator can effectively control simultaneously.

A third research area has psychologists involved in looking into ways to reduce the high levels of stress, PTSD, depression, and substance abuse among drone operators. According to one account, there is a current project focused on developing a Siri-like user interface. The goal is to anthropomorphize the drone so that the pilot feels less responsible for the death and destruction wrought.

It is not known whether psychologists are involved in the U.S. drone program in other ways as well, such as providing analysis related to what are called "signature strikes" that target individuals based on their "suspicious" behavioral patterns; or assessing and influencing public support for drones in the U.S.; or working with drone manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrup Grumman in developing or marketing their products to the government. We do know that these huge defense contractors are private sector partners at university research enterprises like the University of North Dakota’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Center of Excellence, where psychologists are among the core faculty.

To conclude, weaponized unmanned drones (and domestic surveillance drones to a lesser extent, and fully autonomous drones sometime in the future) should be a source of serious ethical examination by our profession – because of their profound psychological impact, especially on communities of innocent civilians; because of the roles psychologists play or may play in their development and use; and because of deep questions raised regarding psychological dimensions and consequences of drone warfare more broadly, such as whether wars will be more likely and more frequent if we become enthralled with the prospect of risk-free killing from afar. It is not too late for the APA's leadership to foster such crucial discussions, but at this point unfortunately they seem very unlikely to do so. Thank you.

Addendum: Those interested in contacting Dr. Behnke of the APA Ethics Office to request that he provide a substantive response to the questions posed to him last October can email him at