The Guardian story on the "London Cage" has troubled me greatly and I have tried to find out as much as possible about it since yesterday. The best account of the history of democracies and torture can be found in Darius Rejali's book, "Torture and Democracy," which provides very important context for this long obscure nugget in British history, and helps illuminate a critical distinction. Rejali writes:
I’ve been following the debate re your Churchill-Cheney blog, the Obama aftermath, and now the London Cage. I just wanted to mention a few things that might be pertinent.
There is a significant difference between the German prisoners in the cage and the German spies captured by the British during World War II. The Germans in the cage were accused of war crimes, and the techniques was used to coerce confessions of guilt. It didn’t matter if what they said was true, and even then the success rate of the cage was terrible.
The Cage held 3573 prisoners. They were accused of war crimes. The techniques were designed to coerce confessions of guilt. But only about 1000 confessions, false or true, were coerced – either by torture or “not torture”. That is 70% refused to confess anything. These are, as I say in the book, surprisingly dismal results but pretty much in line with other dismal results for false confessions including Korean and Chinese torture during the Korean War and French ancien regime torture (which was even poorer). And these are cases where people don’t care if the information is true or false. They just want the confession.
By contrast, the German spies during the war were captured with standard British policing techniques and interrogated using “soft skills”. British counterespionage managed to identify almost every German spy without using torture—not just the 100 who hid among the seven thousand to nine thousand refugees coming to England each year, not just the 120 who arrived from friendly countries, but also the seventy sleeper cells that were in place before 1940. Only 3 agents eluded detection; 5 others refused to confess. The British then offered each agent a choice: Talk or be tried and shot.
Many Germans chose to talk and became double agents. They radioed incorrect coordinates for German V missiles, directing them to land harmlessly in ﬁelds. But for this misdirection, the distinguished war historian John Keegan concludes, in October 1944 alone the Germans would have killed about 1,300 people and injured 10,000 others.
My first post was in reference to the capture and interrogation of German spies for intelligence. I was unaware of the Cage - and if I'd read Rejali's book (one of those on my long list), I would have. But in a way, the full facts merely deepen the core point. The point of torture is always torture. If you do not care about the accuracy of intelligence, and want forced confessions, it can work (even if not very well). Ask John McCain. There is no gainsaying the use of abhorrent tactics by some, even though it remains unclear what clearance it had, and whether it was authorized, unlike the Bush-Cheney program, by anyone in any real authority. (We do know that the head of MI5 was protesting what he heard had gone on and that one Nazi who cmplained of mistreatment there went on to work as a double-agent for the Allies.) What is clear is that the core British apparatus for interrogating Nazi spies and captives suspected of having actionable intelligence during the war used no coercion of any kind; and that the clear and stated policy of the British in interrogation during the war banned all forms of torture.
If you really want to save lives, you need accurate information. If you really want accurate information, you do not torture. And no crisis in contemporary America in the last decade approximated the trauma of the Blitz.
I stand by my first post, and am grateful for the additional information it flushed out. You can buy Rejali's book here.