The evidence of two new books demonstrates that 9/11 created the will for new, harsher interrogation techniques of foreign suspects by the US and led to the abuses in Guantánamo, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. In a special report, James Meek reveals that it is the British who refined these methods, and who have provided the precedent for legalised torture
Friday February 18, 2005 - One day in the autumn of 1942 Kim Philby, an officer in Britain's secret intelligence service, received a message from a colleague in MI5. The MI5 man, Helenus Milmo, was in a state of near despair about a Spanish prisoner and suspected spy, Juan Gomez de Lecube, who had been under interrogation since his arrest in the Caribbean that summer.
Despite Spanish protests, Lecube had been transported across the Atlantic and imprisoned, incommunicado, in Britain's interrogation centre for suspected enemy agents at Camp 020, the codename for Latchmere House in Middlesex.
MI5 and MI6 had high hopes for war-shortening information from Lecube. They believed they had verified beyond doubt that he was a spy. They only needed to make him talk. But after a week, Milmo wrote: "No progress has been made ... it looks as though he is going to be an extremely obstinate nut to crack." Soon afterwards, Milmo wrote to Philby, seeking approval to apply special measures to the interrogation of the detainee.
Sixty years later, in the aftermath of the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Milmo and Philby's counterparts in US military intelligence and the CIA faced what they believed was a similar dilemma. All over the world, US agents and soldiers were seizing and interrogating hundreds of foreign men whom they suspected held information that would enable new terrorist attacks to be prevented. Like Milmo, they began coming up against stubborn prisoners. Like Milmo, they wrote to those higher up the chain of command seeking permission for special measures to make the prisoners talk.
It has taken more than half a century for Britain's government to put the details of Camp 020 into the public domain. But thanks to a small group of leakers, journalists and freedom of information campaigners, together with the testimony of released detainees, the story of torture and its official endorsement in America's secret overseas prison system - in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan and other locations - is emerging more quickly.
This month, British readers get the chance to study in full the catalogue of leaked memos and government investigations which track the evolution of the White House's torture policy from 9/11 to Afghanistan, Guantánamo and Iraq, with the publication here of Torture and Truth by the US journalist Mark Danner, and The Torture Papers, edited by two US lawyers, Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel.
The story that emerges from the assembled documents is of a group of lawyers, bureaucrats, politicians and soldiers convinced not only of the rightness of their cause but of the unprecedented danger posed by the terrorists.
Had they made the same arguments, Britain's second-world-war spy interrogators would have had a stronger case for using whatever methods they felt necessary to extract information from secret agents. At the time Milmo of MI5 and his fellow-interrogators started grilling Lecube, London and other British cities had barely begun to recover from a Nazi bombing campaign that had killed 42,000 civilians and destroyed 130,000 houses. Britain's merchant fleet was losing 50 ships a month. Most of Europe was under fascist rule and millions of civilians were being slaughtered and enslaved. Britons did not know they would win the war.
Reading through the transcripts and letters relating to Lecube's interrogation in the Public Records Office at Kew, the modern reader awaits the moment the MI5 men would talk about hooding the Spaniard, stripping him naked, handcuffing him till his hands went numb, beating him up, subjecting him to extremes of cold and heat, menacing him with guard dogs, sodomising him or pretending to drown him with wet towels.
They did none of these things.
Violence towards the prisoner, or humiliation of the kind practised in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, was ruled out. "Never strike a man," wrote Robin "Tin-Eye" Stephens, the monocled commander of Camp 020, in his secret advice to interrogators. "For one thing it is the act of a coward. For another, 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."
And so Milmo's letter to Philby contained only a request to put into operation "Plan Squealer", which involved nothing more brutal than trying to convince Lecube that another spy had betrayed him. The plan failed. A few days after the war ended, the mysterious Spaniard was deported, vanishing from history.
In the feverish atmosphere of America in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Stephens's advice was reversed. In mutterings from the US secret service and op-ed pieces in the US media, it was suggested that moral courage demanded support for torture. "Nobody is talking. Frustration has begun to appear," a senior FBI official told the Washington Post a month after the attacks. A few days later, a CIA veteran was quoted in the LA Times: "A lot of people are saying we need someone at the agency who can pull fingernails out." Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard, wrote that judges should be able to issue warrants licensing the torture of suspects where the authorities somehow knew that the suspects were concealing information about "an imminent large-scale threat".
In a recent paper for the New England Journal of Public Policy, Alfred McCoy, a history professor at Wisconsin-Madison University, surveys the CIA's use of torture over half a century in Vietnam, Central America and Iran, and marvels at the recklessness of the commentators of 2001. "In weighing personal liberty versus public safety," he writes, "all those pro-pain pundits were ignorant of torture's complexly perverse psychopathology, that leads to both uncontrolled proliferation of the practice and long-term damage to the perpetrator society."
In the new collections of memos and reports, the American will to inflict pain on captives and the conviction that the 9/11 killing of civilians was unique in history is spelled out. In January 2002 the senior White House lawyer, Alberto Gonzales - now attorney general - writes to Bush claiming that there have never been wars before in which civilians are "wantonly" killed, or where it has been necessary to "quickly obtain information" from prisoners. The Geneva Convention, he argues, is a quaint relic. "In my judgement," he tells the president, "this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners."
In October 2002 the commander of the interrogation teams at Guantánamo, Lt-Col Jerald Phifer, pleads to be allowed to inflict more suffering on the prisoners there. "The current guidelines ... limit the ability of interrogators to counter advanced resistance," he writes. He asks for his people to be able to force prisoners to stand for up to four hours, put prisoners in solitary for 30 days or more, hood them, interrogate them continuously for up to 20 hours, subject them to sensory deprivation, take away their Korans, strip them naked, forcibly shave them, frighten them with dogs, deceive them into thinking they or members of their family are about to be killed or savagely tortured, "expose them" to cold temperatures or cold water, grab them, poke them, push them, and use the "waterboarding" technique, which involves covering the prisoner's mouth and nose with a cloth and pouring water into it so it forces itself down his throat and makes him believe he is about to drown. Phifer's memo makes it plain that a torture school exists in the US. "Any of these techniques that require more than light grabbing, poking, or pushing, will be administered only by individuals specifically trained in their safe application," he writes.
Phifer's request worked its way up to the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who works at a lectern-style desk in his office. He scribbled on one of the memos in December 2002: "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?"
It was not until October 2003 that Rumsfeld approved a watered-down version of Phifer's request which, as the testimony of released prisoners shows, still left in place a harsh interrogation regime of extremes of hot and cold, confinement in solitary cells, depriving prisoners of everything except their prison clothes, deafening music and "short-shackling", the painful and perhaps permanently disabling practice of binding prisoners with short lengths of chain.
Most of the detainees who have been released from Guantánamo have described being tortured and ill-treated. Nuri Mert of Turkey spoke of "psychological and physical torture". Mehdi Ghezali of Sweden described systematic sleep deprivation, and extremes of temperature, noise and light. Mamdouh Habib of Australia said he had what appeared to be menstrual blood thrown at him by a woman interrogator. Shafiq Rasul of Britain still has back pain from short-shackling. Martin Mubanga of Britain has described being painted with his own urine while being racially abused and being trodden on while chained. Moazzam Begg of Britain was kept in solitary confinement in Guantánamo for 19 months, Feroz Abbasi of Britain for 18 months. Ayrat Vakhitov, of Russia, has described a system of sleep deprivation that automatically moved prisoners from one cell to another every 15 minutes. None of the released men has been charged with a crime.
Greenberg and Dratel's book includes a series of internal memos from the FBI, dating from last spring, in which the agency plainly expresses its alarm at the failure of the Guantánamo interrogations to get results any better than the FBI's techniques, and warns that the agency could be implicated. Since the book went to press, still more disturbing FBI memos have been obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union using the Freedom of Information Act.
One FBI agent describes leaving the interview room at Camp Delta one evening. "I heard and observed in the hallway loud music and flashes of light ... From the monitoring room, I looked inside the adjacent interview room. At that time I saw another detainee sitting on the floor of the interview room with an Israeli flag draped around him, loud music being played and a strobe light flashing."
Another writes: "On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a foetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far ... that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold.
"On another occasion, the air-conditioning had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees ... The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night."
Guantánamo is only part of the network of US prisons overseas that the Bush administration has created since 9/11. What emerges from the paper trail assembled in these new books is the way in which military interrogation techniques migrated from installation to installation. Danner's book, for instance, includes the report by Major-General Geoffrey Miller, the Guantánamo commander, after he was asked to advise interrogators at Abu Ghraib and other US prisons in Iraq how to get better information from prisoners about the wave of attacks on US forces. Gen Miller suggests reorganising the prisons so that the guards help the interrogators "set the conditions for ... successful interrogation".
It was following his visit that torture and humiliation by the guards began in earnest. Prisoners were hooded, threatened with rape, threatened with torture, had pistols held to their heads, made to strip naked, forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, beaten till they bled - sometimes with implements, including a broom and a chair - hung from doors by cuffed hands, deceived into thinking they were to be electrocuted, ducked in toilet buckets, forced to simulate masturbation, force to lie naked in a pile and be photographed, urinated on, menaced and, in one case, severely bitten by dogs, sodomised with a chemical light, ridden like horses, made to wear women's underwear, raped, deprived of sleep, exposed to the midday summer sun, put in stress positions and made to lie naked, in empty concrete cells, in complete darkness, for days on end.
On one visit to Abu Ghraib, the International Committee of the Red Cross came across a Syrian prisoner lying in an unlit cell, two metres long and less than a metre wide, without a window, latrine, water tap or bedding. On the door was written "the Gollum", with a film still of the character from the Lord of the Rings. The ICRC was not allowed to talk to him.
The worst may be to come. Little has yet emerged about conditions inside the prisons run by the US in Afghanistan, where eight deaths in US custody remain unexplained, and an internal military report remains unpublished. In an essay accompanying the documents, Danner draws attention to the language of one of the official investigators of Abu Ghraib, James Schlesinger, who wrote in his report of "five cases of detainee deaths [worldwide] as a result of abuse by US personnel". Danner points out that Schlesinger could as easily have written: "American interrogators have tortured at least five prisoners to death."
The worst treatment in Afghanistan seems to have been reserved for those who have been, in effect, kidnapped by the US from third countries, held in Afghanistan, and subsequently transferred to Guantánamo. In a previously unpublished sworn affadavit obtained by the lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, Hussain Adbulkadr Youssouf Mustafa, a teacher of Islamic law with Palestinian citizenship, describes how he was arrested in Pakistan, in May 2002, handed over to the Americans and taken to Afghanistan.
While at Bagram air force base, Hussain said, he was blindfolded, tightly handcuffed, gagged and earplugged and sodomised with a stick while three soldiers held him down. "It was excruciatingly painful," said Hussain. "I have always believed that I am not a person who would scream unless I was really hurt. Only when the pain became overwhelming did I think I would ever scream. But I could not stop screaming when this happened. This torture went on for several minutes, but it felt like hours, and the pain afterwards was almost as bad as anything I experienced at the time."
Hussain said that besides the physical pain, he could not go to the bathroom to this day without remembering what had happened. "The Americans never said anything about why they were doing it to me," he said. "I think maybe they wanted to make me so embarrassed that it would live with me for the rest of my life. It would dehumanise me." Hussain has never been charged with a crime. He was kept without explanation and released without apology after more than two years. When he got out, he learned that his eldest son had died.
In late 2001 and early 2002, when the pro-torture lobby in the US was in full cry, the case of Abdul Hakim Murad, arrested in Manila in 1995, was often cited as justification. According to the story popularised in the US, torture by the Philippines police drew confessions from Murad which revealed a plot to blow up 11 US aircraft over the Pacific and led the FBI to captured Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, Murad's co-conspirator and the man behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York. Both men are now serving life sentences in US prisons.
In fact, while the plot and the torture were real enough, the notion that the torture helped save lives is bogus. In an investigation the Philippines journalists Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria found that Yousef was actually caught after he visited his dentist in Pakistan. He had left his dentist's address in the conspiratorial flat. As for the aircraft plot, the information came from a computer found in the same flat.
Murad's torture may have cast its bane beyond tortured and torturers. The recent report of the 9/11 commission drew heavily on still-classified transcripts of interrogations with the three dozen or so most senior suspected Bin Laden associates captured and held by the US at secret locations around the world, particularly Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Yousef's uncle, thought to be the chief architect of the 9/11 attacks. Under interrogation, he seems to have talked freely about Murad - and contradicted almost everything Murad told the Philippines police.
The issue of the secret detainees, only 10 of whom have been named, flags up a crucial, if unavoidable, omission in the two new collections of US torture papers. The discussions about torture being carried on behind the scenes in the US in the weeks after 9/11 weren't so much about the kind of military interrogations being carried out at Guantánamo, in Afghanistan or, later, in Iraq, as about how far non-military interrogators could go. We now know a great deal about the rules the US military has set itself. But to find out what the CIA is up to now, how it works on unknown prisoners in hidden cells in unknown places, there is little to go on.
The most detailed statement about the early thinking on torture in Washington came in August 2002, with a memo to Alberto Gonzales from Jay Bybee, then assistant attorney general. A devout Mormon and a keen kazoo player, Bybee spent seven years in the Reagan and elder Bush administrations, and returned to the capital with the inauguration of Bush Jr. After the Bybee memo was leaked last year, the administration disavowed it with a new, milder legal opinion. Their disavowal might have been more convincing had the departing Bybee not been rewarded with a federal judgeship in Las Vegas.
In the memo, Bybee's concern is not with the wellbeing of suspects, but with the risk that a US government employee might be prosecuted.
Bybee goes to great lengths to differentiate between "torture", which US citizens are forbidden by law from inflicting on foreigners, and "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment", which they aren't. "Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death," he writes. "The infliction of pain or suffering per se, whether it is physical or mental, is insufficient to amount to torture."
According to Bybee, an interrogator won't be criminally liable if, in the course of subjecting a prisoner to cruel, inhuman and degrading acts, he accidentally tortures them: "A defendant could show that he acted in good faith by taking such steps as surveying professional literature, consulting with experts, or reviewing evidence gained from past experience."
In passing, Bybee mentions something disturbing to British readers. The US law criminalising the torture of foreigners overseas was passed in the 1990s as the final stage in Washington's ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT). The Reagan and elder Bush administrations added a rider to the law which would allow US organisations such as the CIA an opt-out from punishment for all but the most savage treatment of captives.
There was one country, however, which had sought an even narrower definition of torture: Britain. And, Bybee writes, the Reagan administration had relied on a legal precedent in Europe for its argument that torture was a word which meant only "extreme, deliberate, and unusually cruel practices". That legal precedent also involved Britain. It concerned the brutal treatment of detainees in Northern Ireland.
Britain, the US and Canada had begun talking about psychological warfare together at least as early as June 1951, when Sir Henry Tizard, the Ministry of Defence's senior scientist, met Canadian scientists and Cyril Haskins, the senior CIA researcher, in Montreal. Among the Canadians was Donald Hebb of McGill University, who was looking for funds to research "sensory deprivation" - blocking out sight, sound and touch to affect people's personality and sense of identity. Early photographs show volunteers, goggled and muffled, looking eerily similar to prisoners arriving at Guantánamo.
Panicked by the ability of communists in Korea, China and the Soviet Union to "turn" captured westerners, the CIA took over the funding of the sensory deprivation programme and gave it to one of Hebb's colleagues, Ewen Cameron. After six years of damaging experiments with drugs, electricity, taped messages and isolation on often unwitting subjects, Cameron simplified his techniques and, according to McCoy, "laid the scientific foundation for the CIA's two-stage psychological torture method".
By 1957 Britain had set up an "intelligence research unit" at Maresfield in Sussex, and by 1962, SAS and paratroop units were being given training there to cope with capture. In April 1971, in conditions of great secrecy, a course in sensory deprivation was held at Maresfield for members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In the early morning of August 9 that year, the British army began its mass internment programme, arresting and imprisoning, without charges or courts, hundreds of suspected members of the IRA. Hidden within the mass internments was another programme, involving 14 prisoners, to test the new interrogation techniques.
Jim Auld, now director of a human rights organisation in Northern Ireland called Community Restorative Justice, was one of the men seized by the army. He was 20. In Crumlin Road prison, he was savagely beaten. He had been beaten up by British soldiers once before, but what happened next, in retrospect, is the link between Canadian experiments in the 1950s and Afghanistan-Guantánamo-Iraq in the 21st century. He was hooded, stripped, put into a boiler suit, handcuffed behind his back and put into a helicopter. After a 30-minute ride he was thrown out and run across a grass field till he hit a concrete post and was knocked unconscious. When he woke up he was being dragged along a wooden floor. He was made to stand with his legs spread, his hands flat against the wall. There was an amplified hissing sound in the background. His hands quickly became numb but whenever he tried to move he was beaten with a baton.
"After a while the noise in the background started becoming more prominent ... I couldn't concentrate, this noise was in the centre of my head. I had shit myself and pissed myself a couple of times at this stage. They sat me down, lifted my hood to the bottom of my nose and gave me a piece of dry bread. I just couldn't take it. They pulled the hood down, put me back against the wall and beat me again."
At intervals, Auld was taken to be interrogated and asked who he knew in the IRA. "If you talked, the hood stayed off, and you stayed in the interrogation room. I learned to talk shite for hours." He reckons he was on the wall for seven days and seven nights.
"When you're on the wall, you start hallucinating. I thought I was at sea, looking out the front windows of a ship, and somebody was standing beside me, a soldier who kept standing to attention, and he came down on my toe and it was sore. They'd realise I was sleeping and the bastards were standing on my feet. When I came out of the place I had no toenails."
To this day, Auld has never been charged with any crime. The episode left him, and the other men subject to what later came to be known as the "five techniques" of sensory deprivation, mentally scarred. "For months afterwards, if I heard a helicopter, I shook, broke out into a sweat and ran into a corner," says Auld. He believes he was a guinea pig for the techniques the Americans are using now, with tacit British support.
"It certainly makes me very, very angry," says Auld, about news reports about the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Guantánamo. "It justifies the opposition to America and Britain in Iraq. What they are doing is wrong, they know that, and no matter what noble reasons they are giving, they are prepared to corrupt them by engaging in that sort of process."
When the case came before the European court of human rights in 1977, the court ruled that although Britain had breached article 3 of the European Human Rights Convention, and must pay the men compensation, it had not actually "tortured" them. The five techniques of wall-standing, hooding, noise, sleep deprivation and reduced diet, it ruled, amounted to "inhuman and degrading treatment", not torture.
What at the time seemed like a partial victory for the defence of individual human life and dignity now looks like a defeat. For it is exactly that distinction the European Court made 30 years ago that the White House has used as a precedent to claim that the US government may inflict pain and suffering on any foreigner it suspects of doing something it doesn't like. The European Court ruling was cited not only by Bybee but by Diane Beaver, a US military lawyer based at Guantánamo, when she gave a formal written opinion in 2002 that the water-boarding technique didn't constitute torture.
In 1977, the British government gave a solemn undertaking to the European Human Rights Commission that it would never again use the "five techniques". Yet British prisoners released from Guantanamo have testified that British soldiers and intelligence officers interrogated them at the US base and in Afghanistan while they were being subjected to hooding, noise and sleep deprivation, as well as beating and short-shackling.
One of the reasons torture persists may be that the voices on the inside of any country's security establishment arguing for increased brutality inevitably sound louder to the interrogators than those on the outside, urging restraint. After the second world war, Kim Philby, the MI6 man Helenus Milmo had consulted about how to crack the most stubborn wartime prisoner, turned out to be one of the most successful traitors ever to infiltrate the British secret service. In the early 1950s Milmo was asked to interrogate him. He never managed to break Philby, and the KGB man escaped to Russia. Milmo's peers were not entirely forgiving. "Some felt," wrote Peter Carter-Ruck when Milmo died in 1988, "that he was perhaps too much of a gentleman for that daunting task."