The Torture Question
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is torture ever justified?

What can we learn from the experiences of other countries that have grappled with the torture question?



Tom Parker

As you are probably aware, Britain has previously flirted with Highly Coercive Interrogation (HCI) in the context of counterterrorism operations in Northern Ireland, although in this instance the British euphemism of choice was "interrogation in depth." In 1971, HCI was introduced by security forces in the Province [of Northern Ireland] in tandem with internment [non-judicial detention]. RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] interrogators working "under the supervision" of the British Army applied five well-established techniques which had previously been practiced in the course of colonial emergencies: (1) hooding, (2) wall-standing, (3) subjection to noise, (4) relative deprivation of food and water and (5) sleep deprivation.

The terms used are fairly self-explanatory. Hooding meant that a prisoner's head was covered with an "opaque cloth bag with no ventilation" (Amnesty International) except during interrogation or when in isolation. The prisoner would often also be stripped naked to enhance his feeling of vulnerability. Wall-standing consisted of forcing prisoners to stand balanced against a cell wall in the "search position" for hours at a time inducing painful muscle cramps. One prisoner was forced to remain in this position for 43.5 hours and there were at least six other recorded instances of prisoners being kept like this for more than 20 hours. Subjection to noise meant placing the prisoner in close proximity to the monotonous whine of machinery, such as a generator or compressor, for as long as six or seven days. At least one prisoner subjected to this treatment told Amnesty International that having been driven to the brink of insanity by the noise, he had tried to commit suicide by banging his head against metal piping in his cell. Food and water deprivation meant a strict regimen of bread and water. Sleep deprivation was practiced prior to interrogation and often in tandem with wall-standing. Detainees were usually subjected to this conditioning over the course of about a week.

Once the threshold of violence and dehumanization had been crossed it was extremely hard to step back.

Although only relatively few detainees received the full "in-depth" treatment, an additional concern is that the officially sanctioned use of HCI seemed to embolden British soldiers to add cruel refinements of their own to the handling of Republican (and noticeably not Loyalist) prisoners. Additional complaints heard by the Compton inquiry [into allegations of physical brutality in Northern Ireland] involved the practice of forcing detainees to run an obstacle course over broken glass and rough ground whilst being beaten, and, perhaps most seriously of all, deceiving detainees into believing that they were to be thrown from high-flying helicopters. Like the Bush administration, the British government of the day tried to play down such practices as falling short of "physical brutality as we understand the term." The failure of the Compton Report to meaningfully address the abuses that had occurred in British detention facilities further damaged the government's credibility.

The matter did not end there. In December 1971, the Republic of Ireland had filed an application with the European Commission on Human Rights alleging that the emergency procedures applied against suspected terrorists in Northern Ireland violated several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is depressing to note that little more than a decade earlier, Dublin had been Britain's ally in combating cross-border IRA activity. The case was referred to the European Court of Human Rights for adjudication. Ireland v. United Kingdom was the first inter-state case ever brought before the European Court. Reviewing the evidence in December 1977, the court found the five techniques to be "cruel," inhuman and degrading" and thus breaches of the convention but stopped short of describing them as torture. Britain's international image was nevertheless greatly tarnished by this finding and the British government was ultimately obliged to give "a solemn undertaking" to the court that the five techniques would never again be used on British soil which they have not.

The actual utility of coercive interrogation was addressed at some length in the course of the Ireland v. United Kingdom case. The British government sought to argue that it had been necessary to introduce such techniques to combat a rise in terrorist violence. The government claimed that two (but please note only two) of the interrogations addressed by the court had resulted in a considerable quantity of actionable intelligence, including the identification of 700 active Republican terrorists and the discovery of individual responsibility for about 85 previously unexplained criminal incidents. However, other well-informed sources are more skeptical. Former British intelligence officer Frank Steele told the journalist Peter Taylor: "As for the special interrogation techniques, they were damned stupid as well as morally wrong … in practical terms, the additional usable intelligence they produced was, I understand, minimal." Certainly the last quarter of 1971, the period during which these techniques were most employed, was marked by mounting, not decreasing violence, a fairly obvious yardstick by which to measure their efficacy.

The deaths of "just" 27 people in the first eight months of 1971 as a result of terrorist violence prompted this more muscular British approach. In the four remaining months of the year after the introduction of internment and HCI, 147 people were killed. Four hundred and sixty seven were killed in 1972 as a result of terrorist action. The number of terrorist bombings in the province increased dramatically from around 150 in 1970 to 1,382 in 1972. The British Army estimated that up to 70 percent of the long-term internees became re-involved in terrorist acts after their release, so the measure clearly did little to deter committed activists.

The bottom line: internment and HCI galvanized the nationalist community in its opposition to British rule, and there was an immediate upsurge in violence against the security forces. HCI thus fails the most basic of utility tests, those prepared to hold their noses and adopt such practices run the risk of purchasing (minimal) short-term tactical victories at the expense of long-term strategic success.


Oren Gross

One lesson that the experience of other countries can (and should) teach the United States and those who debate the issue of use of torture in interrogations of suspected terrorists is that such practices, once engaged in overseas, may well become part of the modus operandi at home. Consider two examples here.

The "interrogation in depth" and the "five techniques" that Tom Parker discusses were not invented with the Northern Irish internment campaign of 1971. The five techniques used against internees in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, have previously been used in British colonies and dominions such as Kenya, Cyprus, Palestine, Aden, British Cameroon and Malaya. They were incorporated into the Joint Directive on Military Interrogation in Internal Security Operations Overseas. When military interrogators were faced with the need to perform interrogations in Northern Ireland, they had available to them a well-defined set of instructions designed to deal with insurrections, riots and emergencies abroad.

That RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) interrogators resorted to similar techniques is also not at all surprising. The internment campaign was carried out during the period of militarization of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The army, rather than the police, was in charge and dictated modes of operation against the terrorists. The RUC itself was no ordinary police to start with. It has always been a semi-military police force with close links to the British Army. In addition, the five techniques were considered by interrogators as highly effective (compared with interrogation in which no physical force was used). It would have been surprising to find RUC members resorting to conceivably less effective interrogation techniques than their colleagues from the army when the two were engaged in similar interrogations. The collaboration of the two organizations and, at the same time, the professional competition between them, practically made this outcome inevitable. Thus it came to be that interrogation methods that were originally employed abroad came to be used in the United Kingdom.

A similar story can be told about the French experience in Algeria. The French forces in Algeria used methods and actions, most notoriously torture and extrajudicial killings of prisoners, in complete contradiction of French values and established practices, as part of the policy of "pacification."

One indication of the actual state of affairs was given in a report prepared in March 1955 by the inspector general in Algiers, where he suggested that some forms of violence that had been employed by the security forces in Algeria ought to be institutionalized to reflect a reality where their employment during interrogation had become prevalent. While this suggestion had not been adopted by the authorities, it was quite apparent that torture continued to be widely exercised in Algeria.

The effect of torture did not remain geographically bound. Once the threshold of violence and dehumanization had been crossed, it was extremely hard to step back. The French police were locked in a fierce struggle with the Algerian community in France and L'Organisation de L'armée Secrete—a secret right-wing organization, which was established in January 1961 in order to resist granting independence to Algeria [and] employed terrorist acts such as assassinations to further its cause—resorted increasingly to violent methods, including torture and murder, against its "enemies" in France itself.



David Rivkin

I certainly agree with Oren's point that interrogation techniques and practices do tend to migrate across countries and institutions. There is actually nothing particularly sinister about this; such is the normal bureaucratic mode of behavior. I also agree that the possibility of such migration, indeed its strong probability, is a factor to consider in adopting or not adopting certain interrogation techniques. To put it differently, I would not be very comfortable with the argument that it is okay to adopt extremely coercive interrogation techniques that we are uncomfortable with as a society and a country if used on lots of detainees, because we are really going to use them only with a small number of high-value detainees. And the reason for my discomfort is, at least in part, attributable to Oren's "migration" arguments.

What I don't understand, either on Oren's part, or when advanced by other critics, is the black and white, all or nothing nature of the arguments. Why are we so focused on torture and spending an inordinate amount of time condemning it, legally, ethically and policy wise? With an exception of intellectual gadflies, and I use the term respectfully here, like Posner and Dershowitz, nobody is advocating or supporting the use of torture. I certainly oppose it even in the so-called ticking time bomb scenarios, again for the reasons advanced by Oren. The real issue, which we have not, unfortunately, come to grips with, is what techniques, falling well short of torture, can we use in interrogating captured unlawful enemy combatants, who as a matter of law are not entitled to Geneva-level POW protections?

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posted oct. 18, 2005

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