Friday, February 18, 2005

The Limits of the Acceptable 

Our distinguished colleague Rorschach at No Capital links to a fascinating Guardian piece by James Meek on the genesis of modern torture methods:
Britain, the US and Canada had begun talking about psychological warfare together at least as early as June 1951, when Sir Henry Tizard, the Ministry of Defence's senior scientist, met Canadian scientists and Cyril Haskins, the senior CIA researcher, in Montreal. Among the Canadians was Donald Hebb of McGill University, who was looking for funds to research "sensory deprivation" - blocking out sight, sound and touch to affect people's personality and sense of identity. Early photographs show volunteers, goggled and muffled, looking eerily similar to prisoners arriving at Guantánamo.

Panicked by the ability of communists in Korea, China and the Soviet Union to "turn" captured westerners, the CIA took over the funding of the sensory deprivation programme and gave it to one of Hebb's colleagues, Ewen Cameron. After six years of damaging experiments with drugs, electricity, taped messages and isolation on often unwitting subjects, Cameron simplified his techniques and, according to McCoy, "laid the scientific foundation for the CIA's two-stage psychological torture method".

By 1957 Britain had set up an "intelligence research unit" at Maresfield in Sussex, and by 1962, SAS and paratroop units were being given training there to cope with capture. In April 1971, in conditions of great secrecy, a course in sensory deprivation was held at Maresfield for members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In the early morning of August 9 that year, the British army began its mass internment programme, arresting and imprisoning, without charges or courts, hundreds of suspected members of the IRA. Hidden within the mass internments was another programme, involving 14 prisoners, to test the new interrogation techniques.

Jim Auld, now director of a human rights organisation in Northern Ireland called Community Restorative Justice, was one of the men seized by the army. He was 20. In Crumlin Road prison, he was savagely beaten. He had been beaten up by British soldiers once before, but what happened next, in retrospect, is the link between Canadian experiments in the 1950s and Afghanistan-Guantánamo-Iraq in the 21st century. He was hooded, stripped, put into a boiler suit, handcuffed behind his back and put into a helicopter. After a 30-minute ride he was thrown out and run across a grass field till he hit a concrete post and was knocked unconscious. When he woke up he was being dragged along a wooden floor. He was made to stand with his legs spread, his hands flat against the wall. There was an amplified hissing sound in the background. His hands quickly became numb but whenever he tried to move he was beaten with a baton.
The Cold War panic sparked an unmistakable, not to mention unfortunate, shift in British attitudes. Compare the prevailing wisdom during WWII, at the height of the blitz:
At the time Milmo of MI5 and his fellow-interrogators started grilling Lecube, London and other British cities had barely begun to recover from a Nazi bombing campaign that had killed 42,000 civilians and destroyed 130,000 houses. Britain's merchant fleet was losing 50 ships a month. Most of Europe was under fascist rule and millions of civilians were being slaughtered and enslaved. Britons did not know they would win the war.

Reading through the transcripts and letters relating to Lecube's interrogation in the Public Records Office at Kew, the modern reader awaits the moment the MI5 men would talk about hooding the Spaniard, stripping him naked, handcuffing him till his hands went numb, beating him up, subjecting him to extremes of cold and heat, menacing him with guard dogs, sodomising him or pretending to drown him with wet towels.

They did none of these things.

Violence towards the prisoner, or humiliation of the kind practised in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, was ruled out. "Never strike a man," wrote Robin "Tin-Eye" Stephens, the monocled commander of Camp 020, in his secret advice to interrogators. "For one thing it is the act of a coward. For another, it is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment. And having given a false answer, all else depends upon the false premise."

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