Investigative journalist Ian Cobain spoke to Simon Basketter about his new book on the cover-up of torture
According to the prime minister, there is “no evidence” of torture by Britain.
In reality the British state has tortured people throughout its history—and continues to torture today.
The abuse isn’t carried out by “rogue soldiers”. It is a policy sanctioned by the highest levels of the military and political establishment.
Ian Cobain’s new book, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, exposes this brutal reality and how those in power have tried to hide it.
Ian started looking at the cover-up of torture while covering a terrorism trial in 2007. “One of the defendants alleged that he was tortured,” he explained. “He said a succession of British agents would come along and ask the same questions.
“I heard a second person giving a similar account. Then I heard of a third person as he was being flown from Pakistan to London, minus three fingernails.”
Ian started to ask why this pattern existed. “Either intelligence officers are seeing what they can get away with,” he said. “Or there’s a policy they’re working to.”
The question is who ordered the abuse and why. Ian said, “You have to ask at what level was that policy agreed. Could it be lower than the prime minister? Could it be lower than the foreign secretary?”
The Baha Mousa case
Baha Mousa died under interrogation in Iraq in 2003. He was held for days in a stress position, deprived of sleep, covered alternately in urine and cold water, and repeatedly beaten.
Ian points out that the torture of Baha Mousa was allegedly to condition him for interrogation. But “what was actually going on was that people were just walking in, kicking the living daylights out of him, and walking out again”.
Thousands of people were abused in interrogation in Iraq. As a tool for gathering information Ian described it “ often utterly pointless”.
But he added, “Maybe it was an attempt at wider repression. The purpose of it could be to intimidate an entire people. And if that’s the case, who’s taking the decision?”
The British state has long used torture to terrorise those who challenge its power. Beatings, sexual humiliation, hooding, sleep deprivation, bombardment with white noise—the British army pioneered all these techniques.
In Kenya in 1952 British occupiers declared a state of emergency in response to demands for independence spearheaded by the Mau Mau organisation. Brutalities included castration, slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums and flogging people to death.
In the early 1970s the British army used torture in Northern Ireland in response to a growing Republican movement and agitation for Catholic civil rights.
Ian charts the development of interrogation and torture techniques. The army developed what became known as the “five techniques”—hooding, starvation, sleep deprivation, and the use noise and stress positions.
He says these methods were “guaranteed to leave no marks that would result in either official embarrassment or the risk of war crimes prosecutions”. But they would “cause intense pain and terror, plus lasting psychological damage”. The techniques were banned in 1972. But they continue to this day.
Denial and outsourcing
Those in power try to hide the truth of who orders torture through a process of mutual denial and outsourcing. Outsourcing has become particularly useful as the British “don’t even have to be in the room”. They can be “standing on the outside passing in the questions” as Ian put it.
The fact that the West uses torture has become more widely known. Ian warned that some can use the apparent “inevitability” of torture as a means of justifying it.
“There are enough people who think torture is in some way acceptable or inevitable,” he said. “You get David Miliband in his private conversations saying things like, ‘There’s a difference between torture and cruel and degrading treatment.’
“Because he’s not in the torture chamber on the receiving end, he presumably feels able to repeat the line that he’s heard from Foreign Office lawyers.”
But when it goes wrong, establishment figures lash out at each other. Ian recalled an interview given by former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw.
“Straw said no foreign secretary can know everything. At which point the head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, crops up to make it clear that everything they did was ministerial authorised.”
Put simply, “Ministers were not only authorising torture, they were encouraging it—yet were prepared to deny it”.
The Libyan connection
There is still more to be revealed. From late 2003 the West decided to bring Libya back into the fold. That meant enemies of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime became enemies of the West.
According to Ian, “We decided the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were dangerous. So we grab their leadership in the Far East, then fly them to Tripoli in front of their pregnant wives and six year old daughters so they can be tortured.
“It’s all about getting closer to their monstrous regime for commercial reasons. It’s as much about money as it is about weapons. It’s grotesque. And torture plays its part along the way.”
Ian is far from confident about either stopping torture or revealing the full truth about it. “We know a lot,” he said. “But there are unknown unknowns. We don’t have an acknowledgement—we have denial. I don’t think there’ll be an acknowledgement for a long time.
“Bloody Sunday showed us, as did Hillsborough, that when the state is involved in wrongdoing that leads to lots of people dying, it can’t be trusted to examine itself.
“When people in an organisation act like they’re hiding something, it’s usually because they’ve got something to hide.”
During the Second World War one of the poshest addresses in Kensington, London, became a torture centre. Prisoners passed through the unit that became known as the London Cage.
They were beaten, deprived of sleep and forced to assume stress positions for days at a time. Some were told they would be murdered and their bodies quietly buried.
Others were threatened with unnecessary surgery carried out by people with no medical qualifications. Guards boasted that they were “the English Gestapo”.
The London Cage was part of a network of nine “cages” around Britain. Three, at Doncaster, Kempton Park and Lingfield, were at hastily converted racecourses. Another was at the ground of Preston North End Football Club.
The British set up another torture centre in Egypt. According to Ian Cobain, “In 1944-45, the Joint Intelligence Committee talked about the anticipated need for widespread repression in post-war Germany.”
In reference to murderous paramilitaries used in Ireland in the 1920s, “They talked about having to have a Black and Tan type operation.”
In the four years after the war, 95,000 people were interned in the British zone of Allied-occupied Germany. The town of Bad Nendorf was evacuated and turned into an internment camp.
One “Tin Eye” Stephens, on attachment from MI5 and drawing on torture used during the war, was in charge. Over the next two years 372 men and 44 women passed through his hands.
One German inmate recalled being told, “We are not bound by any rules or regulations. We do not care a damn whether you leave this place on a stretcher or in a hearse.”
He was made to sleep on a wet floor in a temperature of minus 20°C for three days. Four of his toes had to be amputated due to frostbite.
At least one Communist who had been tortured in Buchenwald by the Nazis was tortured again by the British.
As Ian said, “The use of torture by the British is always concealed behind denials and obfuscation and lies. It was in the 1940s, and it is today.”
Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture by Ian Cobain. The book draws on previously unseen documents and witness accounts to expose torture by the British state.
Cobain exposes a systematic use of torture that is far from being the work of a few rogue interrogators. He shows how those in power have used torture to protect their position. And he exposes the lie behind Britain’s claims to civilisation and democracy.
Cruel Britannia is available from Bookmarks for £18.99. Go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or phone 020 7637 1848