Torture, Obama, Churchill

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.

Camp 020, Latch­mere House (Wiki­me­dia)

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. “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:

    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.

  6. In spite of all the shrap­nel fly­ing around (abor­tion?!?) it’s good to have you back. That post was thought­ful and informative.

  7. 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.

  8. 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. 

  9. I would love to hear about these “oth­er ways.” Excel­lent site!

  10. “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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

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