Economics professor and Nobel laureate (1992) Gary Becker has served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board (DPB) since 2001 as an advisor to Donald Rumsfeld, whose professional reputation has been marred recently by questions about what he and other Washington insiders knew of the Abu Ghraib prison in the weeks before the torture scandal broke.
Becker is one of 30 members of the DPB who advise the Secretary of Defense on matters of policy, such as questions regarding the types of weapons the military should develop. Under the Bush administration, however, the DPB has focused more on the objectives of U.S. foreign policy.
The DPB consists primarily of individuals from the private sector with distinguished backgrounds in national security affairs. Notable members who currently serve on the DPB include former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and former Vice President Dan Quayle.
The DPB’s charter mandates that members be selected by Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith and that they be personally approved by Rumsfeld.
Becker’s position on the DPB is highlighted by the Abu Ghraib torture controvery, which Rumsfeld may have known about for several months. Last week’s issue of the New Yorker magazine published a contentious article written by Seymour Hersh, which accused Rumsfeld of having knowledge and a direct connection to the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. While the Pentagon denies having previous knowledge of the abuses, Hersh, a 1970 Pulitzer Prize winner for International Reporting and a graduate of the College, contends that the origins of the Iraqi prison abuse at Abu Ghraib lie with a top-secret operation authorized by Rumsfeld that was originally intended to kill, capture, or, if possible, interrogate specific “high-value” targets in the hunt for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Hersh’s article accused Rumsfeld for having approved a decision to expand interrogation tactics used for high-value terrorist targets to Iraqi prisoners suspected of being insurgents, some of which have been found to be innocent Iraqi civilians pulled off the streets. Prisoners were stripped, hooded and sexually abused and humiliated.
While the Bush administration declared that Al Qaeda and other captured members of international terrorist networks were not eligible to receive protection under the Geneva Convention, the treatment at Abu Ghraib violated the 1950 international agreement, which declared that “no physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever.”
Whether Rumsfeld or the Defense Policy Board knew about the abuse at Abu Ghraib is uncertain.
Becker, through his secretary, declined multiple interview requests from the Maroon.
While University administrators were unable to comment on this specific case of faculty involvement in government service, they did, however, recall a rich tradition of University history that includes faculty members who dabble, in one way or another, in politics.
During World War I, the University followed former president (1905 to 1923) Harry Pratt Judson’s openly partisan position to revoke an honorary degree awarded to the former German ambassador to the United States. In April 1917, Judson delivered a speech advocating for the U.S.’s efforts in the war. The central premise of his speech was that Germany was evil.
According to “The University of Chicago and War in the Twentieth Century,” Dean of the College John Boyer’s 2004 Annual Report to the Faculty of the College: “Judson claimed to be speaking not as a private citizen but as the leader of an institution that, in his view, was justified in acting as a patriotic corporation in the war effort.”
Throughout World War II the University hosted a variety of military training programs, for which almost all dormitories had been designated by 1942. The International House became a military residence hall and the Reynolds Club became the headquarters for a meteorology program in which numerous cadets were enrolled.
While the University agreed to cooperate fully with the government before the war in national defense, president Robert Maynard Hutchins believed that the University would best serve the interest of national defense by providing advanced education and research. As a result, he created what is now the College’s notorious general-education curriculum.
When asked whether Becker’s controversial involvement with the Defense Policy Board could pose a conflict for the University, both Boyer and Dean of Social Sciences Mark Hansen referred to the academic freedom guaranteed to the University’s community members by the Kalven Report.
The 1967 agreement mandates that the University “is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.”
“The ability of University faculty and students to take positions on even the most contentious public issues is a cornerstone of academic freedom, and accordingly, the University neither monitors nor regulates the involvements of its faculty [and students] in public affairs,” Hansen said.