Britain’s true record on torture

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I am not prone to gasp and nor would I describe myself as naive. But the scale of torture in the British security services, as revealed by Ian Cobain in this admirably researched book, took me aback.

Cobain, an investigative reporter at theGuardian, invites the reader to look at the post-9/11 era in a different way. The so-called war on terror may, through the rendition of suspects to secret locations and the use of Guantànamo Bay, have brought into the public consciousness the brutal activities employed by authorities in the US, UK and elsewhere. But Cobain makes it clear, with devastating effect, that these were nothing new.

The Brits have been torturing for generations. The author could have begun with the Boer war and the concentration camps that have UK copyright. Instead he starts his journey with the interrogation of German prisoners, not just during the second world war but long after it was over. “Unbeknown to the Red Cross, the British were operating interrogation centres at three internment camps, while in Berlin there was a fourth within a former Gestapo detention centre,” he writes.

The retreat from empire did not take place without the odd electrode or kick where it hurts. From Yemen to Kenya to Cyprus, the British did whatever it took to hold their ground and to fend off insurgents. Torture, British-style, receives a brief dishonourable mention in Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father. His grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, having served in the British army in Burma during the second world war, was accused of being an insurgent. His third wife recounted how “white soldiers” “would sometimes squeeze his testicles with parallel metallic rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together with his head facing down.”

The further you delve into Cobain’s book, the more depressed you become.

Even as their economic and strategic power waned, the British were seen as global leaders in torture techniques. “Our very simple system is admired,” declared Brigadier Richard Mansfield Bremner, commandant of the British army’s intelligence corps. The “five techniques” combined isolation, sensory deprivation, seemingly self-inflicted pain, exhaustion and humiliation. “It was guaranteed to leave no marks that would result in either official embarrassment or the risk of war crimes prosecutions. It would, however, cause intense pain and terror, plus lasting psychological damage.”

Perhaps in those days it was easier to get away with it: deference was stronger and information was harder to come by. Even Amnesty, according to the author, was briefly happy to connive. Journalists were usually persuaded to turn a blind eye. The author valiantly sticks to the facts. But his absorbingly grim tale would have been enhanced by at least recognition of the competing arguments. That is not a call for moral relativism, but for an acknowledgement that the “do whatever it takes” argument resonates with much of the public.

Labour administrations in the UK and Democrats in the US have been as keen on extra-legal coercive methods as Conservative and Republicans. Rendition was active in the 1990s under Bill Clinton. The author points the finger at ministers and officials in the Blair and Brown governments, who knew torture was illegal, and did everything they could to keep it out of the public eye. “It was to be a dirty little secret,” Cobain asserts, “known only to a select group of men and women. And if necessary, Britain’s use of torture would be concealed through statements by senior political figures that were the direct opposite of the truth.”

The result? Nothing much. The lack of outcry to the issues raised in Cobain’s book speaks volumes.