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Pentagon studies Putin body language for hint of intent

Mar. 6, 2014 - 04:46PM   |  
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a March 4 news conference outside Moscow. A Pentagon research team is studying the body movements of world leaders to better predict their actions and guide U.S. policy. (Alexey Nikolsky / Getty Images)
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A Pentagon research team is studying the body movements of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders to better predict their actions and guide U.S. policy, Pentagon documents and interviews show.

The “Body Leads” project backed by the Office of Net Assessment (ONA), the think tank reporting to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, uses the principles of movement pattern analysis to predict how leaders will act.

U.S. policymakers are seeking any advantage they can find as they try to anticipate Putin, who in the past week has ordered Russian troops into neighboring Ukraine and laid claim to the Crimea Peninsula. The ensuing crisis has led to U.S. and European sanctions against Russia, spurred weapons and aircraft shipments to Eastern European nations and revived tensions last seen during the height of the Cold War.

ONA has backed the work of Brenda Connors, the director of Body Leads and a research fellow at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., since 1996, records show, and has paid about $300,000 since 2009 to outside experts to work with her. Part of her work includes a 2008 report for ONA on Putin called “Movement, The Brain and Decision-making, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.”

Connors acknowledged her work on Putin and other leaders, but declined comment and referred all questions to Hagel’s office.

Pentagon officials declined to comment on the record about the program, but confirmed ONA’s involvement and that Putin was among the foreign leaders studied.

An ONA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the research was not publicly available, said “the goal is to learn about the physical movements of national leaders and determine if these can be used to gain insight about a leaders’ attitudes, mindset, etcetera. ONA does not make policy recommendations, so we cannot assert with any certainty how the studies have been used by policy makers.”

Movement pattern analysis means studying an individual’s movements to gain clues about how he or she makes decisions or reacts to events. First developed in Great Britain in the 1940s by Rudolf Laban, a Hungarian movement analyst and dance instructor, the practice was expanded after World War II by Laban’s protegé, Warren Lamb, a British management consultant.

Lamb and his associates believed each individual has a unique “body signature” consisting of how one body movement links to the next. These “posture/gesture mergers” can lead investigators to learn more about a person’s thinking processes and relative truthfulness when matched with what the person says.

The patterns, Lamb believed, were as unique to each person as DNA.

Lamb, who died in January at age 90, was paid $24,000 by the war college in February 2011, military contract records show. An obituary in the British newspaper The Independent credited Lamb for performing a study of Putin that was “especially appreciated.”

Since July 2011, the war college had paid $165,735 to Richard Rende, a Brown University psychiatrist and specialist in the field of movement pattern analysis, federal spending records show. Last week, the war college announced Rende had received another no-bid contract to study “movement analysis relative to human development and the brain and decision-making” as part of the Body Leads project.

Timothy Colton, a Harvard University expert on Russia, has been paid $113,915 since 2009 for his research with Connors, military contract records show.

Last September, Rende, Connors and Colton published a paper in the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology that detailed the uses of movement pattern analysis to determine leaders’ decision-making process. Such analysis, they wrote, “offers a unique window into individual differences in decision-making style.”

While Connors declined to characterize her current work, she has written previously about Putin’s movements, including what she identified as an irregularity in the way he walks. In a 2005 interview in The Atlantic magazine, she said Putin’s physical problems “created a strong will that he survive and an impetus to balance and strengthen the body. ... When we are unable to do something, really hard work becomes the way.”

“He is like that ice skater who had a club foot and became an Olympic skater,” Connors said in 2005. “It is really poignant to watch him on tape. This is a deep, old, profound loss that he has learned to cope with, magnificently.”

ONA was created in 1973 and has been led since its inception by 92-year-old Andrew Marshall, a former RAND Corp. analyst and National Security Council aide in the Nixon administration. Its allies consider it an indispensable source of information about the future and credit it and Marshall with anticipating the demise of the Soviet Union, while skeptics say it inflates the threat posed by U.S. adversaries, including China.

In December, Hagel announced that ONA would no longer report directly to the secretary of Defense but to a lower-level official.

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