What Was Churchill’s Torture Policy?

By Gorman Gorman

May 4, 2009 7:00pm

Last week, in response to a question I asked him at a press conference about torture, President Obama said:

"I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, ‘we don’t torture,’ when the entire British — all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And then the reason was that Churchill understood, you start taking short-cuts, over time, that corrodes what’s — what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country."

White House aides say that they think the article the president was alluding to was a blog post The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan wrote about relatives of his hurt in the blitz, where he noted that the British captured over 500 enemy spies during that period. 

"As Britain’s very survival hung in the balance, as women and children were being killed on a daily basis and London turned into rubble, Churchill nonetheless knew that embracing torture was the equivalent of surrender to the barbarism he was fighting," Sullivan wrote.

He then turned to a February 2006 Times of London story by Ben McIntyre about the chief interrogator at Camp 020, Colonel Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens, headlined: "The truth that Tin Eye saw: The celebrated wartime spy-breaker was terrifying — but he understood that torture never works."

Stephens "had ways of making anyone talk," wrote McIntyre. "In a top secret report, recently declassified by MI5 and now in the Public Records Office, he listed the tactics needed to break down a suspect: ‘A breaker is born and not made…pressure is attained by personality, tone, and rapidity of questions, a driving attack in the nature of a blast which will scare a man out of his wits.’

"The terrifying commandant of Camp 020 refined psychological intimidation to an art form. Suspects often left the interrogation cells legless with fear after an all-night grilling. An inspired amateur psychologist, Stephens used every trick, lie and bullying tactic to get what he needed; he deployed threats, drugs, drink and deceit. But he never once resorted to violence. …As one colleague wrote: ‘The Commandant obtained results without recourse to assault and battery. It was the very basis of Camp 020 procedure that nobody raised a hand against a prisoner.’"

McIntyre recently revisited his story noting that "the facts had altered slightly" as his 2006 story jumped from Sullivan to President Obama. Most notably, "Stephens’s prohibition on torture had been transformed into official Churchillian policy. But in a wider sense, Mr Obama was right: Churchill presided over a military machine that generally regarded torture as unnecessary, unethical, unproductive and un-British. He never exactly said ‘we don’t torture’, but he did not need to."

So did Churchill say "We don’t torture"?

Not literally, according to experts.

But more importantly did he hold that policy?

A November 2005 story in the Guardian details torture by British soldiers between 1940 and 1948, at the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre — known as the "London Cage" — run by MI19, responsible for interrogating enemy prisoners of war.

The Guardian concluded that the London Cage "was used partly as a torture centre," where 3,573 German officers and soldiers were brutally interrogated. SS Captain Fritz Knoechlein, taken to the Cage in October 1946, alleged he was starved, beaten and kept awake for four days straight.

The author of the story, Ian Cobain, told NPR last Friday described The Cage as an interrogation center "the British ran during and immediately after the Second World War, which German officers, suspected spies or some civilians would be interrogated. And the methods used there, most people would agree, were torture. We used sleep deprivation. We used beatings. We used exposure to extreme heat and extreme cold. And at the Cage, at least, we used the threat of unnecessary surgery."

So did Churchill know about The London Cage?

*   "We don’t know what detail he knew about what was happening in interrogation centers," Cobain said. "Clearly, he would have known there were interrogation centers. There’s no evidence that Churchill knew that people were being tortured there. And of course, Churchill was himself a prisoner of war, and during the Boer War, and wrote at length about his horror of war and his horror of imprisonment."

*    Sullivan asked Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy, what he thought as to whether Churchill knew about The London Cage.

"You can prove something is policy in two ways. The top down approach is to find the document that authorizes the abuse, torture or genocide. This is often hard to find. They are often classified, destroyed, or demolished by war. The second way the bottom up approach, and its axiom is the Nuremburg Rule which is foundational to all human rights work done today.

"The Nuremburg Rule is: Uniformity of practice indicates uniformity of intent," Rejali wrote. "When the same practices appear in different places and times within a given country, or among a series of prisons around the world, in cases of individuals who are unknown to each other, it is hard not to conclude that there is a deliberate state policy to torture."

In his exhaustive research, Rejali only found some accounts of torture in a single memoir by an Japanese POW,  Iitoyo Shogo, who was in a British POW camps in Indonesia. "Thus, Torture and Democracy shows that the bottom up approach fails to establish that what happened at the London Cage was policy."

*    On the other hand, of President Obama’s quoting Churchill saying "We don’t torture," Churchill scholar Richard Langworth writes that "While it’s nice to hear the President invoke Sir Winston, the quotation is unattributed and almost certainly incorrect. While Churchill did express such sentiments with regard to prison inmates, he said no such thing about prisoners of war, enemy combatants or terrorists, who were in fact tortured by British interrogators during World War II.

Langworth writes that the word "torture” appears 156 times in his "digital transcript of Churchill’s 15 million published words (books, articles, speeches, papers) and 35 million words about him—but not once in the subject context. Similarly, key phrases like ‘character of a country’ or ‘erodes the character’ do not track. Churchill spoke frequently about torture, mostly enemy murders of civilians. His daughter once told me, ‘He would have done anything to win the war, and I daresay he had to do some pretty rough things—but they didn’t unman him.’ But if Churchill is on record about ‘enhanced interrogation,’ his words have yet to surface."

The nearest Langworth could come to those sentiments "refers not to terrorists but to prison inmates. In 1938, responding to a constituent who urged him to help end the use of the ‘cat o’nine tails’ in prisons, Churchill wrote: “’the use of instruments of torture can never be regarded by any decent person as synonymous with justice.’"

*    Carlo D’Este, author of Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1894-1945, writes that while "Churchill was ruthless in prosecuting the Second World War with strategic bombing of German cities…there is nothing in his behaviour or character to suggest that he would have condoned water boarding or other means of torture."

Jonah Goldberg asks about other shortcuts Churchill did take.

"Churchill ordered the firebombing of Dresden just 12 weeks before the end of World War II," he writes. "No one knows for sure how many civilians were burned alive, but tens of thousands surely were, in no small part to deliver a psychological blow to the Germans. If Churchill could have waterboarded a pris
oner to avoid that — or stop the Holocaust — would one shortcut have been preferable to the other? Why? Or why not? …You can ask the same questions about the shortcuts that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Did these shortcuts erode the character of the American and British people? If so, how?"

– jpt

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