That's the question that is at issue in the debate about Britain in the Second World War and torture. We don't have documentation that authorizes the torture, and no evidence that Churchill knew of or approved of it. We do know that the central institution for interrogating captured Nazi spies - Camp 020 - used no torture at all. In the absence of definitive proof of authorization, how are we to put this incident into perspective? I asked Darius Rejali, the world's expert on torture in democratic nations, and author of Torture and Democracy, the definitive account. Here's his interesting reply, which has a bottom line of confirming that this looks, pace Jonah Goldberg, very much like an aberration, as often happens in wartime, and not policy, along the lines of the Bush-Cheney top-down program. So the point stands.
But here's Rejali's explanation in full:
You can prove something is policy in two ways. The top down approach is to find the document that authorizes the abuse, torture or genocide. This is often hard to find. They are often classified, destroyed, or demolished by war. The second way the bottom up approach, and its axiom is the Nuremburg Rule which is foundational to all human rights work done today.
The Nuremburg Rule is: Uniformity of practice indicates uniformity of intent. When the same practices appear in different places and times within a given country, or among a series of prisons around the world, in cases of individuals who are unknown to each other, it is hard not to conclude that there is a deliberate state policy to torture. Applying the Nuremburg rule works quite well in - for example - documenting the American torture regime - strong similarities between Afghanistan, Iraq, Gitmo - everyone could see that - and now we have the documents that confirm the bottom up with the top down.
Conversely, while the French and Russian prosecutors at Nuremberg tried to persuade the judges that torture was a Nazi policy, the judges brought down only one verdict affirming torture, this against Kaltenbrunner, for torture in the concentration camps. Outside the camps, the worst Gestapo tortures, they held, were only semiofficial. And this seems to be born out historically, even in the absence of documents. Gestapo torture techniques are widely varied, and reflect the countries in which they appeared. The only place where they were dramatically similar were the camps (again that took three years to make the spread sheet).
So the bottom up approach requires a survey of all the POW camps under Allied supervision, looking for patterns of torture. And this I did in Torture And Democracy as a necessary step, long before I knew about the London Cage. I looked for as many allied POW camp histories as I could looking for patterns of abuse and torture. I looked at histories of camps in Europe, Asia, North Africa and Ethiopia/Somalia. I also read Italian and Japanese POW diaries I could find at the library of congress. It seems clear that sometimes Americans and British camp leaders were either indifferent or helpless in the face of violence between prisoners, but none that they initiated themselves. The only place I found some accounts of torture was in a single memoir by an Japanese POW, Iitoyo Shogo, who in a British POW camps in Indonesia. Torture did exist in Soviet POW camps and it also did exist in French POW camps in the Sahara, which even the OSS knew about.
Thus, Torture and Democracy shows that the bottom up approach fails to establish that what happened at the London Cage was policy.
What we know about the treatment of prisoners in POW camps under Allied supervision is that the London Cage does not fit the general pattern of British and American POW camps in Europe, Asia, North Africa, or Ethiopia/Somalia, whereas torture in Dachau had striking similarities to tortures in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck. And what is more it does not appear that the prisoners in the London Cage were qualitatively any different than prisoners held in any other POW camp. SO the London Cage was policy claim fails to meet the Nuremburg rule, proving that this was a policy for typical allied POW camps.
This does not mean the top down approach (what you're asking me about; is there a document proving the war cabinet knew) may not show up a secret authorized program. Why this set of prisoners were special is beyond my abilities to guess; they seem pretty common. I suppose there must be a Red Cross report of Scotland refusing inspection; one wonders if they protested, and if so to who, but if Scotland refused the RC, it would have been an issue, given how much the British had insisted on this regarding Japanese POW camps. Likewise, even if Scotland did not have clear approval of MI19, his superiors certainly knew of the allegations of torture and then quietly overlooked them. This is one of the classic post-war amnesia problems I cover in chapter 24 of the book. Being a winner was all about being morally pure. The MI5 investigation never charged Scotland, and presumably once declassified, that should show who had authorization. That presumably should be at the National archives.
But I found the 2005 report of the London cage out of scale with the rest of the Allied POW histories and I thought I knew everything there was to know about it. It does fit a certain pattern of torture practice that continues pretty solidly through British colonial practice. And the conclusion I drew is that this is a case of an officer who was tolerated by mid-tier officers, much like Lt. Calley's behavior was tolerated and much torture that happened by American forces by Vietnam. And this is a way in which torture transmission happens, often by mid-tier officers. The same way in which torture entered the French a few fringe colonial officers after the war passed torture to their underlings to live on another day in Algeria and Vietnam. Maybe one day we will find the document authorizing Scotland, in which case everything changes. THe Nuremburg rule can't prove it didn't happen, only that it seems quite unlikely that it is policy.