The Charger Blog

Forensic Psychiatry Expert Consults on Cases in Guantanamo Bay, The Hague

Charles Morgan, M.D., M.A. is a national security professor at the University of New Haven and an expert on the impact that stress and harsh interrogation techniques can have on human memory. He is consulting on two high-profile cases in Guantanamo Bay and The Hague, and he hopes his research will inform the courts as well as his students.

March 9, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Charles Morgan, M.D., M.A.
Charles Morgan, M.D., M.A., a national security professor and a forensic psychiatrist.

Charles Morgan, M.D., M.A. has extensively studied the nature of memory, and his research has explored the impact that high stress and harsh interrogation techniques can have on its reliability. He is now serving as an expert for two high-profile cases – one of which will soon bring him to Guantanamo Bay.

Dr. Morgan is part of a team that will be heading to Cuba later this month. The case involves at least one prisoner, possibly two, who is accused of planning with Al-Qaeda in connection with the September 11 terrorist attacks. The suspect, who was brought into custody as part of a military campaign in the early 2000s, has allegedly confessed – though Dr. Morgan doesn’t yet know what he has confessed to, specifically. Because he made these statements when exposed to very harsh interrogation, Dr. Morgan was asked to consult on the case.

"The question in this case involves statements provided by a defendant who was exposed to harsh interrogation methods," said Dr. Morgan, a forensic psychiatrist, former intelligence officer, and neuroscientist. "Scientific data about the nature of human memory show us that it is important to remember that what people recall when they are afraid, or when they are stressed, may not be reliable."

‘Traumatic memories change over time’

It was Dr. Morgan’s research and high-profile work on other cases – including several involving the military – that led those handling the Guantanamo Bay case to ask him to assist. It will be the first time Dr. Morgan will visit the site where detainees are held. When he worked for the CIA, Dr. Morgan avoided any work or issues linked to the site, as he did not want any of his stress research for the National Center for PTSD to be associated with the government’s program at Guantanamo Bay.

In addition, Dr. Morgan is a consulting forensic expert on a case in The Hague that involves war crimes committed in Timbuktu. Several people linked to the defendant in this case have already been convicted for desecrating mosques, mausoleums, and artifacts. The suspect confessed when interrogated by representatives from several different countries, and his story has changed. This raises three questions: Why did he change his story, what accounts for the change in his story, and how does one know which account is true?

These are questions Dr. Morgan hopes to shed light on for the international court (which is typically a three-judge panel, rather than a jury). He will explain to the court the reasons why memories can change, as well as the nature of memory recall and the impact of interrogation stress on a person’s memory.

"From a scientific standpoint, you can’t say that a change in a story means that someone is falsifying an account."Charles Morgan, M.D., M.A.

Dr. Morgan has been reading transcripts – written in Arabic and French – from every interrogation and interview with the suspect, and he is writing a report for the court about the nature of human memory and the impact of stress on memory. He isn’t yet sure if he will be in the courtroom as an expert witness, or if the case will be handled virtually.

"My job as an expert is to help the court understand the factors that influence, change and modulate human memory and human compliance," he said. "It is also to help the court determine if these factors are present in the case before the court. From a scientific standpoint, we know that a change in a person’s story does not mean that the person is lying."

Dr. Morgan, who specialized in forensic psychiatry at Yale in the early 2000s, has worked on a number of high-profile cases. He evaluated Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. Army soldier who was held captive for years by a Taliban-aligned network in Afghanistan and Pakistan after leaving his base in Afghanistan. He was also an expert in the U.S. Army case involving Robert Bales, a soldier who killed 17 women and children while in Afghanistan. Dr. Morgan also was an expert witness at the international court in The Hague in 1997 (Prosecutor v. Anto Furundzija). This work led him to focus his research on the nature of human memory and cognition under stress.

“I realized there were limited data on how accurate memory of high-stress events really was,” he said. “We all believe our memory for a highly threatening event would be better than for an everyday event. We discovered that traumatic memories change over time, and they are malleable.”

‘We really have to train people in ways of phrasing questions’

Our brains, says Dr. Morgan, have a system that encodes memories and another that encodes the confidence we have in that memory – and these can be separated under stress. Therefore, one can be highly confident in the accuracy of a memory, whether it is accurate or not. One can also doubt the accuracy of a memory, regardless of whether it is correct. Dr. Morgan's research is assessing ways to tell which account of memory is true.

Charles Morgan
Charles Morgan, M.D., M.A.

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Morgan was the co-author of a paper that, he says, caused “a bit of a stir” because he and his colleagues showed that a memory can, in fact, change. It was something that no one – including the authors – wanted to believe. They initially thought there was an error in their data, but their results were then replicated several times over. They realized that memories of traumatic events can change.

In another study, Dr. Morgan and his fellow researchers were able to change the memories of a considerable portion of their population, which included about 850 military personnel who were resilient under stress. The study demonstrated that it was remarkably, and, sometimes, surprisingly, easy to change a person’s memory and recall. Sometimes something as simple as the wording of a question could alter a person’s memory of an event.

Dr. Morgan and his colleagues asked the subjects questions about their interrogators related to whether they wore glasses or carried a weapon, which they did not. Just by the way they phrased their questions, they were able to change the memories of a significant number of the study participants.

“We really have to train people in ways of phrasing questions that do not create a false memory,” he said. “It is critical to use open questions rather than suggesting anything. If you’re exposed to interrogation stress, memories will have feelings attached to them, and they may be very vivid. People tend to believe them, but it doesn’t mean that they’re true.”

‘You can affect memory…’

Faces can be difficult to identify, and Dr. Morgan says they are the most “dramatic” example of how memory can be manipulated. He says that, from a young age, humans learn to recognize faces, but we are adept at recognizing faces of those we know well and see regularly. When we see someone every day, that memory is reinforced. However, if someone is trying to remember details of a face they saw only briefly – especially if under high levels of stress – that memory is likely to be less intact.

As part of a study, Dr. Morgan and his colleagues showed subjects photos of their interrogator, and about half later identified the individual incorrectly. When the researchers did something to intervene – say, handing them a photo of someone else and then asking basic questions about the interrogation, such as asking whether they were offered food, more of them would later identify their interrogator incorrectly.

Dr. Morgan says that when individuals are under high levels of stress, even when information is introduced after the stressful period, memories can still change. When adrenaline levels are lowering, and the memory is being consolidated, information can still be “slipped in” that can alter a memory. Factors such as whether an individual was paying attention, visibility, distraction, and how meaningful an event was also impact an individual’s ability to remember.

“We used to think that when you make a memory, you take the data in and the data are then encoded and switch from short to long term,” he explains. “We thought that, when you want a memory back, it’s like a librarian going to retrieve it. We know now that’s not correct. You can affect a memory as it’s getting into your brain and when it is in storage. It can be modified by your life experiences in the meantime. It’s put back together and reconstructed when you pull it up.”

‘We’re kind of oblivious to what we don’t remember’
Charles Morgan
Charles Morgan, M.D., M.A.

Dr. Morgan is continuing his research on the reliability of memory, and he published a recent paper that focused on the nature of memory’s suggestibility and compliance under conditions of acute stress in active duty military participants.

The characteristics we are least likely to remember, says Dr. Morgan, are those that are typically most important to the courts. People are more likely to remember characteristics of someone seen from a distance of about 20 feet away, such as hair color and build. Fine features, such as eye color, are attributes that people are less likely to remember, but they can be critical when identifying a suspect.

“I think it’s a significant hurdle to try to help educate the courts,” said Dr. Morgan, who has helped train professionals at the FBI. “The frustrating thing is that we learned in our research on memory that the best we can do is say we know memory changes. But we can talk about why things change. A memory might be corrupted, like a corrupted file on your computer, you just don’t get a warning about it.”

Further complicating memory and recall, Dr. Morgan says, we have a tendency as humans to believe what conforms to our beliefs, and to pay more attention to information that supports what we already believe.

Memory can be counterintuitive in another way, says Dr. Morgan. We tend to put faith in our own memories and to think that it is other people who are susceptible to false memories. We believe we accurately remember our own experiences – but we might not remember them as well as we think.

“We probably all have false memories,” said Dr. Morgan, who is now working on research for the White House comparing traditional FBI interview methods to cognitive interviewing, as well as a study funded by a grant from the the U.S. Government that is focused on personality and behavior. “It’s just that we’re not involved in a criminal justice or an intelligence system that’s making us scrutinize everything we say we remember. We’re kind of oblivious to what we don’t remember.”

‘They shouldn’t ever think that doctoral training is beyond them’

These are important lessons for everyone, and something Dr. Morgan, a national security professor, brings to the classroom. As he prepares to head to Guantanamo Bay, he hopes his students understand that they, too, can pursue careers that will enable them to have similar experiences and make the same impact on research and criminal cases.

Dr. Morgan tells his students that in the worlds of criminal justice and intelligence, they need to determine under what circumstances a memory was acquired and to what conditions the individual was exposed. He encourages more open-ended questions – asking, for example, what a video of the event would portray, rather than asking leading questions, such as whether or not someone saw a blue car.

Each year, Dr. Morgan hires up to half a dozen students to take part in research, and he hopes they learn about everything from designing a study to how to analyze data. He also hopes to instill confidence in his students and to teach them that they, too, can pursue doctoral-level education.

“Many students don’t think they’re eligible for doctoral-level education,” he said. “I tell them they’re perfectly eligible – that they may be going to go to school for a while, but that they would have fun in their career. I hope they know that they can then can apply for incredible positions with the government, and they shouldn’t ever think that doctoral training is beyond them. There’s nothing magical about earning a doctorate – they can do it.”