A SECRET HISTORY OF TORTURE
By Ian Cobain
This book lifts the lid on the UK’s brutal involvement, at home and abroad, in torture since the Second World. By doing so it reveals that far from it being the work of a few rogue interrogators it has the backing of the British military establishment, intelligence agencies and governments of all political persuasions.
Why did you write this book?
I have been investigating the UK's involvement in torture and “rendition” - or kidnap, to use its proper name for the Guardian. I came across a veiled reference to a wartime interrogation centre called the London Cage, and after making inquiries realised the British had a torture centre in the centre of the capital, and several more in Europe and the Middle East during the early days of the Cold War. I decided to see if I could join the dots, between WWII, colonial conflicts, Northern Ireland, and then the so-called War on Terror.
When did the British begin to practise torture?
My books starts in 1940, but I'm sure I could have gone much further back and found much the same story.
What are some of the techniques employed?
The British military has favoured what are known formally as ‘five techniques’ in aid to interrogation: starvation, sleep deprivation, hooding, noise and the use of stress positions. They are used in combination and it's worth mentioning that there is a sixth, unspoken “technique” - anyone who refuses to adopt the stress position gets beaten.
But surely in war there are going to be excesses when people placed under extra-ordinary stresses react badly when they arrest enemy combatants?
Yes of course. But there is a difference between heat-of-the-moment excesses, and the training of servicemen, in peace-time, in the use of torture techniques that have been honed over decades with the help of psychologists, and then instructing those servicemen to use them on prisoners – including civilians - taken during wartime, in breach of the Geneva Conventions. This is what happened in Iraq for several years following the 2003 invasion.
Why was the November 1971 report of Brigadier Richard Mansfield Bremner initially classified for at least 100 years?
I think for two reasons: to conceal the way in which the British had developed specific torture techniques that were intended to leave no mark – and could thus be denied – and also to prevent wider knowledge of a sleight of hand performed by Ministry of Defence officials that allowed the government to publicly claim to have prohibited the five techniques, while secretly retaining them. There's reason to believe the trick that was used – involving “published” and “draft” directives running in parallel – has been used in government since.
Does torture succeed in obtaining information that wins wars or does it fuel further resistance?
It can contribute towards both. But it's not used simply to extract information. It's used to “turn” enemy agents, to intimidate whole communities and also to extract “confessions” that can be used in future judicial hearings. The British have used it for all these reasons, in relatively-recent times.
You accuse Jack Straw of making ‘breathtaking statements’ in regard to the rendition of British citizens to face torture by the USA. Why?
In December 2005, Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, said: “Unless we believe that the officials and me are all lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state in league with some dark forces in the United States, there is simply no truth to claims that the UK has been involved in rendition, full stop.”
In July 2010 the high court ordered the disclosure of a telegram Straw sent to UK diplomatic missions in 2001 instructing that no objection should be raised to the transfer of British nationals from Afghanistan to Guantánamo, as this was “the best way to meet our counter-terrorism objectives”. He ordered these men be kept in Afghanistan just long enough for MI5 to interrogate them. They were eventually transferred to Guantánamo after ministers became aware that inmates there were being tortured.
Surely as a number of government’s have organised inquiries into torture that demonstrates they are keen to outlaw its practice?
I'm not aware of any government, other than Canada, holding even a partly-public inquiry into its own involvement in rendition. David Cameron announced two months after entering Downing Street that an inquiry would be held in the UK, but it later emerged that it would be a largely-secret affair, with the intelligence agencies deciding what would and would not be made public. Almost every human rights group in the world announced a boycott.
Torture is already outlawed, of course, which is one reason why governments are never keen to see their involvement in it being investigated. Perhaps Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough shows us that the British state cannot be trusted to investigate itself until a generation or two has passed?