Whenever Britain perceives threats to national security, the gloves come off

Deaglán de Bréadún |

The award-winning Guardian journalist Ian Cobain has been investigating human rights abuses by his own country in the wake of the World Trade Centre terrorist attacks. His findings are revealed in Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, published by Portobello Books of London, which also has two chapters on the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Cobain was examining Britain’s attitude to CIA rendition of al-Qaeda suspects after 9/11. programme. But you never know what you will turn up when you start digging.

“I came across a slightly-veiled reference to a place called the ‘London Cage’ in a book review,” he says. He followed up the lead and discovered this was the name for an interrogation centre in Kensington run by the British army during the second World War, which operated until 1948.

“The purpose of the book was to try and bridge the gap between what we were doing in 1940-48 and what we were doing after 9/11, and to see if there were any connections. There were, in terms of development of techniques — of torture, frankly — and concealment. But also, the same characters keep cropping up now and again.”

For example, one of those who ran the MI5 interrogation centre in wartime was the urbane Dick — later Sir Dick — White (1906-93) who later became head of MI5, then MI6; by 1969, he was the security coordinator of the Cabinet Office.

“In early 1971, when it is known that internment is going to be introduced, Dick White flies to Belfast and he says to the Royal Ulster Constabulary that what they need is an interrogation centre, and they build this at Ballykelly, an old airfield outside Derry. It’s all there in declassified documentation you can find down at the British National Archives in Kew.”

The British army intelligence corps sent a team over to help train RUC special branch officers. “So, on the opening day of internment, the hooded men, the guinea pigs, whatever you want to call them, are subjected to the five techniques.”

White noise

The techniques were: starvation (or “sparse diet”); sleep deprivation; hooding; the use of an incessant hissing sound known as “white noise”; and “wall-standing”, in which victims are spreadeagled against a wall with much of their weight supported by the tips of their fingers. Initially, there were only four techniques; the fifth — white noise — was developed in Oman in 1970,“in a war the British authorities weren’t even acknowledging they were fighting at that time”.

White noise involved “using a generator which you modified in a particular way, and they had actually worked out the exact amount of decibels they wanted to get out of it, which would create a huge amount of noise. It was all about sensory deprivation and alienation, but nobody’s eardrums get damaged.”

The Irish Government brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that, although these procedures did not constitute torture, they did amount to “inhuman and degrading treatment” contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Tory government led by Edward Heath eventually disavowed them. However, Cobain says the techniques continued to be used. He discovered a series of documents at Kew that included a draft — and therefore deniable — directive to the Intelligence Corps which “allowed them to continue to use the five techniques”.

Fast-forward to Basra after the Iraq invasion in 2003, and prisoners are forced to kneel bolt upright on rough ground for long periods with hoods over their heads in the sun.

“They just can’t divorce themselves from coercive interrogation — they think it’s too useful.”