Fighting Words

Ruthless yet Humane

Why Obama cited Churchill on torture.

Winston Churchill

He didn’t get the attention he deserved for it, but President Obama was very cleverly fusing liberal principles with an appeal to the basic conservative values of “Old Europe” when, in his 100th-day press conference, he used Winston Churchill to justify his opposition to water-boarding and other “enhanced methods.” He told his audience that, even at a time when London was being “bombed to smithereens” and the British government held hundreds of Nazi agents in an internment center, there was a prime-ministerial view that torture was never permissible.

It would be reassuring to think that somebody close to Obama had handed him a copy of a little-known book called Camp 020: MI5 and the Nazi Spies. This was published by the British Public Record Office in 2000 and describes the workings of Latchmere House, an extraordinary British prison on Ham Common in the London suburb of Richmond, which housed as many as 400 of Hitler’s operatives during World War II. Its commanding officer was a man named Col. Robin Stephens, and though he wore a monocle and presented every aspect of a frigid military martinet (and was known and feared by the nickname “Tin-Eye”), he was a dedicated advocate of the nonviolent approach to his long-term guests. To phrase it crisply—as he did—his view was and remained: “Violence is taboo, for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information.”

To give you some of the flavor of this prohibition, I ask you to consider the case of the German agent codenamed “TATE,” who was parachuted into England in September 1940, at a time when almost all of continental Europe was under Hitler’s control and when neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had entered the war against Germany. * Taken to Camp 020, TATE stubbornly maintained that he was a Danish refugee. An external interrogator unused to the rules of Ham Common was exasperated by this initial stubbornness and “followed TATE to his cell at the close of that first interrogation and, in flagrant violation of the Commandant’s rigid rule that no physical violence should ever be used at Ham, struck the agent on the head. The incident led, on immediate representations by the Commandant, to the instant recall of [the offending officer] from the camp.” One blow to the head at a time when undefended British cities were being blitzed every night, and the brute was out of there for good.

Nor is this all. TATE was then put to the inconvenience of intensive questioning, which included the distinct suggestion that he had been betrayed by a close Nazi friend. He ended up making a full confession, leading his captors to the place where he had concealed his transmitter, and then using it to send false intelligence back to Germany. The British wartime records conclude that “skilful direction of his activities and reports provided not only opportunity for deception of the enemy, but gained advance information leading to the detection of other agents and their neutralization.”

The parallels here are not always as exact as one might like. Espionage agents were not protected by the Geneva Conventions, and the existence of the camp did not even have to be reported to the Red Cross (which of course in some ways makes the restraint more remarkable). But by the same token, espionage agents were not usually responsible for “ticking bomb” scenarios. Still, the need for timely information and intelligence was then a matter of national survival, and the temptation to cut corners must have been intense.

Spies, unlike prisoners of war, were liable to the death penalty, and the knowledge that they could be executed (only after a trial, of course) was sometimes used to break down recalcitrant Nazis. A grand total of 16 of Hitler’s agents were actually sentenced to capital punishment during the course of the war, most of them at the end of a rope but one rather grandly shot in the Tower of London. Fourteen of the victims came from Camp 020, where the book records that there was a considerable debate among the officers over the usefulness of the death penalty. (A glance at some of the mug shots of the Hitlerites in these pages tempts one, no doubt quite irrationally, to wish there had been slightly less clemency.)

I noticed that one of the CIA torture memos mentioned the denial of solid food as a tactic against our prisoners. At Camp 020, not even this was used as a means of interrogation, but it was once employed to break a hunger strike organized by a certain Herr Krag, “a Nazi fanatic from Schleswig-Holstein.” Participants in this camp revolt were “confined to their cells and provided with glucose and milk. Frustration set in within seventy-two hours.” I think one could face the jury of world opinion with a reasonably clear conscience on that.

As Col. Stephens wrote, following the words quoted above about how “violence is taboo” and that it “lowers the standard of information”:

There is no room for a percentage assessment of reliability. If information is correct, it is accepted and recorded; if it is doubtful, it should be rejected in toto.

In other words, it is precisely because the situation was so urgent, so desperate, and so grave that no amateurish or stupid methods could be permitted to taint the source. Col. Stephens, who was entirely devoted to breaking his prisoners and destroying the Nazis, eventually persuaded many important detainees to work for him and began to receive interested inquiries “from the FBI and the North West Mounted Police, from the Director of Security in India to the Resistance Movements of de Gaulle, the Belgians and the Dutch.” It would be nice to think that even now, American intelligence might take a leaf from his ruthless and yet humane book.

Correction, May 6, 2009: This article originally stated that neither the United States nor Germany had entered World War II as of September 1940. The Soviet Union had entered the war but not against Germany, which did not declare war against the Soviet Union until June 1941. (Return to the corrected sentence.)