Ron Radosh

Hitchens and Torture in Britain: What Took Place During the War?

After President Obama’s last press conference, there was much talk about his citation of Winston Churchill, whom the president quoted to justify his opposition to waterboarding and other so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques.  Even during the brutal German bombardment of London, the President said, when the British held Nazi agents in an internment center,  Churchill’s view was that torture would not be permissible.

Now, joining in the chorus of praise for Churchill is none other than the former Brit, Christopher Hitchens. Writing in his Slate column,  Hitchens points to a little known book, written in 2000, on a facility known as Camp 020, or Latchmere House.  It was run by MI5 and administered by Col. Robin Stephens who made sure that the 400 Nazi operatives it housed were treated non-violently.  In this respect, Hitchens calls the prison “extraordinary.”  The truth, however, is that while Latchmere held 400, The London Cage, run by MI19, held  60 at a time, but had had a total of 3,573 prisoners who passed through it during its years of operation from 1940 to 1948!

And unlike Latchmere, the director of the Cage, more formally known as The Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre, was Lt. Colonel Alexander Scotland, whose motto was “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,”  referring to five interrogation rooms. All of the details appeared in a major investigative report carried out by The Guardian in 2005, that made waves in Britain.

At best, the evidence suggests that under Churchill’s reign, the British military had two very different facilities that used very different methods of interrogation. Hitchens notes that spies were not protected by the Geneva Convention, and that the camps did not even have to be reported to the Red Cross for inspection. That is why Latchmere was so unique. As Hitchens writes, “the need for timely information and intelligence was then a matter of national survival, and the temptation to cut corners must have been intense.”

His point is that they avoided going to such extremes, and nevertheless were successful, because Stephens ruled that “violence is taboo.”  He acknowledges, however, that the death penalty hung over their head, and that alone could have been sufficient to get prisoners to talk.  But he concludes: “it is precisely because the situation was so urgent, so desperate, and so grave that no amateurish or stupid methods could be used to taint the source.” Stephens could break the Nazis without torture.

So by avoiding any mention of The Cage, which I assume Hitchens must know about, he gives the impression that under immense pressure and the most dangerous conditions, the British got the intelligence they needed by being pure and moral, although “ruthless.” Sorry, Hitch-if The Guardian information is correct, the British two track system indeed subjected many more from whom they needed intelligence to the most harsh of interrogation methods—including sleep deprivation,  inhumane treatment,  (standing on a prisoner’s back while forcing him to wash floors on his hands and knees) what journalist Ian Cobain calls “systematic ill-treatment” in what he calls a “torture centre.” They were forced to kneel while being beaten on the head, to stand at attention for 26 hours, threatened with execution without trial, and with unnecessary medical operations.  One prisoner was deprived of sleep for four days and nights, and starved. Each time the guards passed, they kicked him. And this took place after the war’s end!  Some prisoners were beaten regularly and pleaded to be killed.

The Guardian story stresses that War Office archives do not establish whether the camp’s director operated on his own, or whether his methods were overlooked or whether “he was acting with clear, official approval.” So we do not know whether or not Churchill approved or disapproved of his actions. It is hard to believe, however, that the Government leaders would not have known anything about the activities taking place at those nice buildings at Kensington Gardens.

Lt Col. Scotland himself noted that he believed interrogation had to be conducted by using police methods, not methods forbidden by “Geneva convention principles.” And he argued that the Red Cross had no legal right to inspect or visit the facility, and that if they were to be let in after the war, they needed time to “remove from the Cage” what he called “secret gear which we use to check the reliability of information obtained” from the prisoners.

So whether Churchill knew about the details of both internment camps, Christopher Hitchens certainly does. So why does he make it appear, by writing only about the one that used soft methods, ignore the more well known camp that used torture? Could it be that he too, like other journalists smitten with Obama, wish to single out only the evidence that backs up the misleading evidence provided to the President which he cited in his press conference?