Torture, Obama, Churchill
Torture Topics: In his press conference of 29 April 2009, in response to a question on the disclosure of top secret memos on the use of “enhanced interrogation methods,” Mr. Obama said:
I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, ‘We don’t torture,’ when the entire British—all of the British people—were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat….the reason was that Churchill understood — you start taking shortcuts, over time, that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.
While it’s nice to hear the President invoke Sir Winston, the quotation, including paraphrases and key sections of it, is unattributed and almost certainly incorrect. While Churchill did express such sentiments with regard to prison inmates, he said no such thing about prisoners of war, enemy combatants or terrorists, who were in fact tortured by British interrogators during World War II.
Obama seems to have been misled by Andrew Sullivan’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Churchill vs. Cheney,” which calmly urges that Vice President Cheney be prosecuted. The British, Sullivan wrote,
captured over 500 enemy spies operating in Britain and elsewhere. Most went through Camp 020, a Victorian pile crammed with interrogators. As Britain’s very survival hung in the balance, as women and children were being killed on a daily basis and London turned into rubble, Churchill nonetheless knew that embracing torture was the equivalent of surrender to the barbarism he was fighting….
“Churchill nonetheless knew” appears suddenly and with no evidence to back it up. Sullivan makes no other reference to Churchill, or to how he divined Churchill’s views on torture.
Sullivan likely picked this up in a three-year-old article about Camp 020’s chief interrogator, Col. Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens. In “The Truth that Tin Eye Saw,” by Ben Macintyre (London Times Online, 10 February 2006), Stephens is identified as an MI5 officer who extracted confessions out of Nazis: “a bristling, xenophobic martinet; in appearance, with his glinting monocle and cigarette holder, he looked exactly like the caricature Gestapo interrogator.” Stephens was terrifying, Macintyre wrote:
Suspects often left the interrogation cells legless with fear after an all-night grilling….he deployed threats, drugs, drink and deceit. But he never once resorted to violence….This was no squishy liberal: the eye was made of tin, and the rest of him out of tungsten. (Indeed, he was disappointed that only sixteen spies were executed during the war.) His motives were strictly practical. “Never strike a man. 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.”
Nowhere does Macintyre mention or quote Churchill. Incidentally, Stephens was cleared of a charge of “disgraceful conduct of a cruel kind” and told he was free to apply to rejoin his former employers at MI5.
The CIA argues that “enhanced interrogation” works, John McCain says it does not. Whoever is right, the “Tin Eye” Stephens story is not the whole story. According to recent research the British did use such methods: in the “London Cage,” a POW camp in the heart of London, “where SS and Gestapo captives were subject to beatings, sleep deprivation and starvation.”*
Torture was something on which…
Churchill spoke frequently, mostly enemy treatment of civilians. I thank Larry Kryske for this example, from Churchill’s World War I memoir, The World Crisis, vol. 1, page 11: “When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and these were of doubtful utility.” (His general sentiment is clear enough, though combined with “cannibalism,” this seems likely to refer to practices of invading armies.)
In World War II, when he had plenary authority, it is hard to imagine Churchill being unaware of activities at places like the “London Cage.” His daughter once told me, “He would have done anything to win the war, and I daresay he had to do some pretty rough things—but they didn’t unman him.”
If Churchill is on record specifically about “enhanced interrogation,” his words have yet to surface. The nearest I could come to his sentiments on torture technique refers not to terrorists or enemy combatants but to prison inmates. In 1938, responding to a constituent who urged him to help end the use of the “cat o’nine tails” in prisons, Churchill wrote: “the use of instruments of torture can never be regarded by any decent person as synonymous with justice.”**
If that line appeals to Mr. Obama, he can certainly use it with confidence.
* Ian Corbain, “The Secrets of the London Cage,” The Guardian, 12 November 2005. The Cage was kept secret, Corbain, wrote, though a censored account appeared in the memoirs of its commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Scotland. Corbain does not mention Churchill, but to believe Churchill wasn’t aware of this activity would be asking a lot.
** Martin Gilbert, editor, Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume V, Part 3: Documents: The Coming of War 1936-1939. London, Heinemann: 1982, 1292. n.2.
Grateful acknowledgement to Larry Kryske for the World Crisis reference; to Alex Spillius, “Obama Likes Winston Churchill After All,” Daily Telegraph, 30 April 2009; and to Telegraph readers responding to his article.
18 thoughts on “Torture, Obama, Churchill”
Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Churchill said (1951): “One cannot say that the man or the woman in the street can be brought up violently and called to account because of expressing some opinion on something or other which is sub judice. They are perfectly entitled to do that. They may say things that are deplorable—many deplorable things are said under free speech.”
I don’t participate in Twitter or FB except to plug new writings, mainly because I don’t have the time. I admire people who can keep up with them. It is nice of you to want to read more. See the “books” section of this site, or my Amazon author’s page, or the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. The latter has a good search engine where you can find all sorts of stuff—er, erudite, wise commentary.
50 million abortions is the US? (John Lofton). Rubbish. Given 250 million population (give or take). Half are men. 125 million women. 20% (give or take) are too young. 100 million. 25% (give or take) are too old. 75 million. Women of child bearing age had 50 million abortions? Or is he counting all abortions since the beginning of time?
British casualties from mustard gas in World War I were 4,086 deaths, 16,526 non-fatal. Churchill was not an M.D. but his intentions remain clear. Mustard Gas was first used by the German Army in September 1917.
It’s quite misleading to equate mustard gas with a nonlethal weapon, such as tear gas. No, it does not always kill – neither does artillery. The stuff was most certainly designed to be as deadly as possible. Spend a little time with that Wikipedia page – you’ll get a better idea of what Churchill was proposing.
I applaud your efforts to keep the record straight on Churchill quotes. I have spent considerable time trying to keep the record straight on Samuel Johnson.
Logical US, for “other ways,” one could do worse than to read Matthew Alexander’s “How to Break a Terrorist.” Alexander (pseudonym) worked as a US interrogator in Iraq, and was responsible for getting the intelligence which led to the death of al Zarqawi. It’s a quick read, and engaging; and although it’s anecdotal, so is discussion of what happened with waterboarding.
I think the best way to solve this is for Sean Hannity to submit to waterboarding as a charity benefit.
“Nothing in the Rules of the Club shall interfere with the rancour and asperity of Party politics.” -Rule 12 of Churchill’s “The Other Club.” Responding to several posts below:
Frank: Duly corrected, thanks. The point of this post is to correct misquotations of Churchill, not to debate “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Thingumbob: Obama himself does not mention torture of his grandfather. See: richardlangworth.com/2009/03/more-obama-and-the-churchill-bust/
Mr Lofton: Keep reading. I did cover the anthrax charge (paragraph 6 above). If there is a reliable source showing Churchill wanted to use anthrax, neither I nor Martin Gilbert nor John Keegan has seen it.
In spite of all the shrapnel flying around (abortion?!?) it’s good to have you back. That post was thoughtful and informative.
And the anthrax? You forgot to tell us about the anthrax. And anyone who is prepared to do “anything” to accomplish something is corrupt, a vile, evil person.
Yet neither Frank nor Obama have any idea what magical ways those are. The fact is that evidence to Obama that enhanced interrogation techniques may have worked is not a concern. Clearly his actions and telling speech to the CIA show that he has chosen “moral preening” over the constitutional duty of protecting American citizens. He acknowledges that the CIA’s job will be harder but signifies that even with all the required authorization to conduct operations or actions, it isn’t good enough if the political winds change. If that is his position he must be willing to accept the consequences, the possible deaths of American citizens. But he will not, as he has repeatedly shown, he will simply act as if it wasn’t him and he is just a bystander.
I would love to hear about these “other ways.” Excellent site!
“I am absolutely convinced that it was the right thing to do — not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways — in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.”
– – Obama, 4/29/09
Logical US: That is not a claim that torture was ineffective.
Frank (below) appears to be still drinking the Kool-aide. Obama is caught making up stories out of whole cloth and he wants to parse words.
First, Obama claimed it didn’t work, then when called on that lie, Obama simply said “I don’t care.” That lives were saved doesn’t matter to Obama. It is his position, so own it.
Obama, who has no qualifications and no experience with interrogation, intelligence or military operations, claimed to know of all these wonderful techniques for getting information to save lives—from people who would kill him and you at a moment’s notice because they believe that they are doing the work of their religion—is quick to say that there are other ways BUT he never gives any examples. Why?
Because he has no clue. He is living in the fantasyland where his judgment overrules decades of experience and history. But when his judgment is wrong, Obama will simply do as he did with the photo-op attack on NYC: feign to be furious and try to appear above the whole issue, as if he was simply an innocent bystander like the rest of us. He just the same thing with the huge deficit, claiming that wasn’t him, even though he had voted for every measure as a member of the majority party from 2006 forward. He was a Senator was he not? Fact is, Obama and other leftists do not want to use anh coercion on terrorists because they believe that we deserved the attacks from “oppressed” people.
There are allegations out there that Obama’s Kenyan grandfather was tortured by the British.
Obama did NOT claim that torture doesn’t work; what he said was that he wasn’t convinced that it worked BETTER, or that the information couldn’t be gained through other methods. This is not a subtle distinction; to suggest that he claimed it doesn’t work at all suggests he’s oblivious to what others (such as Dennis Blair) have said. You should correct your post, since not everyone reads the comments.
Dear oh dear. Where to begin?
Churchill’s memo reads: “I should be prepared to do anything that might hit the Germans in a murderous place. I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention. We could stop all work at the flying-bomb starting points.”
Churchill’s references to “poison gas” (as in Iraq, where he meant tear gas) are constantly misinterpreted. From Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life, 1991: “What he had in mind in this memo was mustard gas, ‘from which nearly everyone recovers.’ He would use it only if ‘it was life or death for us’ or if it would ‘shorten the war by a year.’ To this end it might even be used on the Normandy beach-head. ‘It is absurd to consider morality on this topic,’ he wrote, ‘when everybody used it in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church. On the other hand, in the last war the bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course.’
“It would be several weeks or even months, Churchill added, ‘before I shall ask you to drench Germany with poison gas.’ In the meantime he wanted the matter studied, he wrote, ‘in cold blood by sensible people, and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across, now here, now there.’ The enquiries were made. It emerged that the Air Staff had already made plans for one-fifth of Britain’s bomber effort to be employed on dropping gas, if such a form of warfare were decided on. But the military experts to whom Churchill
referred doubted whether gas, of the essentially non-lethal kind envisaged by him, could have a decisive effect, and no gas raids were made.
“News had just reached London of the mass murder in specially-designed gas chambers of more than two and a half million Jews at Auschwitz, which had hitherto been identified only as a slave-labour camp.”
So you tell me who the killers were.
Author Mike Davis in Dead Cities claimed that Churchill pursued using anthrax-laden bombs as a first-strike weapon against Nazi Germany. Davis based this “fact” on a 1987 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that pretended to know Churchill’s mind; it was later authoritatively rebutted in the same journal. Historian John Keegan wrote, “Nobody responsible thinks that Churchill intended to use anthrax against the Germans.”
Churchill lamented his inability to direct the American Air Force, as when he urged the bombing of the Auschwitz rail lines and his request was shuffled aside in favor of military targets. It was Stalin not Churchill who demanded the bombing of Dresden, Attlee who carried it out, though Churchill would also have complied with his ally’s request. Of RAF bombing, Churchill remarked: “Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?” No other leader on either side ever expressed reservations.
Oh, and don’t forget Churchill’s note to General Ismay re: dropping poison gas on German cities (and ridiculing as “Psalm singers” those Christians who might object); he also wanted to do something with anthrax, too, I believe. In principle, Churchill and America were no different from the Nazis re: the murder of civilians. See, please, among other books, Ronald Schaffer’s “Wings Of Judgment: American Bombing In World War II” (Oxford, 1985). And of course there is America’s allowing more than 50 million abortions, the murder of innocent human beings in the womb, 50 million being the approximate number of all those killed, on both sides, in World War II, 50 million being three times the population of Iraq, whose dictator we said was the focus of all evil in the world because he killed an estimated million people. We have shed a lot of innocent blood, which God says in His Word He hates. We are morally qualified to judge nobody.