Policy Papers

Torture and intelligence gathering in Western democracies

Calder Walton |

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Executive Summary

  • The use of torture in interrogations is one of the most controversial problems facing governments and intelligence communities at present waging the so-called 'war on terror'.
  • Evidence suggests that since 11 September 2001 the United States, and some of its partners, have used interrogation practices which constitute torture.
  • However, historical examples suggest that the use of torture should be prohibited during interrogations, not just because it is morally reprehensible, but because, as historical precedents show, it does not produce reliable intelligence.
  • Recently declassified British Security Service (MI5) records reveal that, during the Second World War, MI5 ran a highly successful top-secret interrogation facility in Britain.
  • MI5's wartime interrogation facility was operated on the strict rules that torture would not produce reliable intelligence even though Britain was at risk of invasion by Nazi Germany.
  • The experience of France in Algeria shows that even where torture does produce useful intelligence, it is counter-productive in the battle to win the 'hearts and minds' of the civilian population.


The use of torture during interrogations is one of the most controversial aspects of the so-called global 'war on terror'. Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, the United States administration developed several 'new' methods for combating the threat of global terrorism. Some policy-makers in Washington argued that America's struggle against Islamist terrorism necessitated that the United States government should not be shackled by previous constraints, especially concerning international law. Central to the United States' struggle against global terrorism since September 2001 has been the detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects. The US administration argued that because detained terrorists were not fighting as lawful combatants, according to the international rules of warfare, those same rules did not need to be applied to them. Given the urgent threat that terrorism posed to innocent US civilian lives, some hard-line policy-makers in Washington advocating a tough counter-terrorist response, argued that in some extreme circumstances, torture should be made permissible to gain intelligence. These opinions were supported by some eminent legal academics, such as Alan Dershowitz, who following Jeremy Bentham and notions of the 'lesser evil' and 'greater good', argued that the use of torture should be legalised for use in extreme circumstances. Dershowitz went so far to propose that, in the spirit of public transparency, the United States should establish 'torture licenses', which judges could issue to interrogators for use in extreme conditions. Such conditions would exist in the so-called 'ticking timebomb' scenario, when a terrorist detainee knows the location of a bomb that is about to explode.

Since 11 September 2001, and especially since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a series of investigative studies and testimonies have revealed that at least some terrorist detainees have been subjected to torture by US interrogators. The US interrogation facility at Guantanamo Bay has attracted widespread criticism over its alleged use of torture. Indeed, Guantanamo Bay has become almost a byword for abuse, coercion, degradation, and torture. The horrific scandal that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004 further highlighted the lack of constraints over at least some US forces during the interrogation of terrorist suspects. Since the scandal at Abu Ghraib, the US Defense Department has reformed its interrogation rules to bring them further in line with international law, but the interrogation methods employed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) remain more ambiguous. The 'accidental' destruction in 2008 of key videotapes of the interrogation of terrorist detainees held in CIA custody has further fanned the flames of suspicion regarding the CIA and torture. Indeed, the current head of the CIA, General Michael Hayden, is on record refusing to describe water-boarding, the technique by which a prisoner is gagged with a wet cloth to simulate drowning, as torture. Linked to these revelations and allegations has been the controversial US policy of 'extraordinary rendition', by which terrorist suspects allegedly have been detained and transported to third party countries, with dubious track-records in human rights, where apparently they have been tortured. It has been alleged that the United States has used this method to 'outsource' torture.

These revelations have recently been accompanied, in a much more subtle way, by a tendency within the US media to portray torture as a normal part of the process of interrogation. Thus, we find that in smash-hit US television series like 24 and Alias suspected terrorists are often subjected to third-degree measures during interrogations to beat confessions - reliable confessions - out of them. The Hollywood star of the programme Alias, Jennifer Gardner, was actually for some time one of the official celebrity faces of the CIA on its website. The implication of programmes like 24 and Alias is that torture can work; that good guys sometimes have to use torture to win the war against the bad guys; and most importantly, that physical coercion can produce reliable intelligence.

Lessons from history show this is emphatically not the case. Leaving aside the moral and ethical aspect of the use of torture, those governments which have used torture in counter-terrorism, and those television programmes which have portrayed it as normal or even glorified it, have missed arguably the most important point: history shows that torture during interrogations does not produce persistently reliable intelligence. Critics will presumably argue that this is merely the opinion of a squeamish academic sitting in an ivory tower, who does not have to deal with problems of extracting intelligence from prisoners in as short a time as possible. However, the fact is that historical precedents show that using torture to gain reliable intelligence simply does not work in the long run. The present author has found no historical evidence to show that the application of torture can produce systematically reliable intelligence. Likewise, there does not seem to be any evidence, at least in the public domain, that torture has prevented a major terrorist attack since September 2001. Some advocates of the use of torture in counter-terrorist interrogations have argued that harsh interrogation techniques could act as deterrents against terrorism, much like the kind of disciplining 'spectacle of violence' described in the writings of the Michel Foucault. It seems highly doubtful, however, that any ideologically committed terrorist, prepared to commit suicide, would be dissuaded by torture carried out by interrogators. In fact, those policy-makers who have advocated the use of torture in interrogations have failed to heed the lessons of history. Studying the way that different governments interrogated prisoners effectively in the past, one quickly comes to the conclusion that governments and intelligence communities today are not making new mistakes but simply repeating old ones.

British intelligence and the use of torture in the Second World War

During the Second World War, the British Security Service (MI5), which was responsible for overall British security intelligence, ran a secret interrogation facility for captured German and Axis agents, codenamed Camp 020. It was housed in the buildings of a former lunatic asylum on Ham Common, in south-west London. On first impression, Camp 020 definitely has the air of a secret interrogation facility and seems uncomfortably similar to notorious modern-day facilities, such as Guantanamo Bay. Prisoners at Camp 020 were cut off from the outside world and essentially placed in a legal vacuum, outside of both national and international law. Since detainees at Camp 020 were captured agents (spies) or suspected agents, they were not classified as combatant prisoners of war, which meant that the Geneva Conventions (which only applied to combatants) and other international military regulations did not apply to them. Camp 020 was also neither listed nor inspected by the International Red Cross.

In keeping with these characteristics, Camp 020 was run by a forbidding MI5 officer, Lt. Col. Robert Stephens. Stephens allegedly had an extraordinary ability to 'break' even the hardest of spies and get the most reticent of prisoners to talk. MI5 records reveal that 'Tin Eye' Stephens - so called because of his thick monocle - used every kind of what he termed 'mental pressure' to 'break' prisoners at the camp. Such methods included tricking prisoners with fake newspapers, typically stating that the U-Boat or airplane they had arrived on had been destroyed; stool pigeons or agents planted in prisoners' cells to get them talking; bugging equipment (usually located in hollowed-out bed posts); terrifying prisoners; sleep deprivation; and disorientation.

However, almost certainly the most important interrogation tool at Camp 020 was derived from the information provided by broken German codes. After the successful breaking of German codes by British and Allied code-breakers at Bletchley Park in late 1940, interrogators at Camp 020 were able to use decrypted German intercepts, codenamed 'Ultra', to convince German prisoners at the camp that British intelligence knew everything about their missions, and that their game was effectively up. Declassified MI5 records reveal that captured German agents were often offered a stark choice: they could either work for the British or be hanged. Ultra was also used by interrogators at Camp 020 to convince German prisoners that one of their colleagues had betrayed them. A well established interrogators' dictum states that it is one matter to suffer for a secret, but quite another to cling to a secret that is already out.

From our perspective, at the start of the twenty-first century, the distinction between what constitutes 'mental pressure' and 'physical pressure' would seem much more ambiguous than the way Stephens and his wartime MI5 interrogators at Camp 020 understood it. The Oxford English Dictionary states that torture is 'the infliction of severe bodily pain, as punishment or means of persuasion... for the purpose of forcing an accused or suspected person to confess'. Before the development of international humanitarian law in the second half of the twentieth century, torture seems to have been understood specifically as physical harm. The word torture is derived from the Latin, torquere, meaning twisting or turning, which carries with it connotations of physically twisting confessions out of suspects. Almost certainly some of the so-called 'soft' forms of 'mental pressure' which Stephens employed at Camp 020, such as disorientation and sleep deprivation, would today constitute forms of torture according to international humanitarian law as it exists through the conventions against torture. For Stephens, however, there seemed an unambiguous distinction between soft forms of 'mental' pressure and hard forms of 'physical' pressure. Stephens defined 'physical pressure' (or third-degree measures) as leading to the physical harm of a prisoner. This included hitting a prisoner and any sort of mechanical method used to inflict pain.

Contrary to what we might assume, Stephens governed Camp 020 according to a strict rule of non-physical violence. 'Violence is taboo', wrote Stephens in his in-house history of Camp 020, which has recently been declassified, 'for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information'. We can assume that if he had so desired, Stephens could easily have physically abused prisoners at the MI5 interrogation facility. It was, after all, a top-secret facility with little or no interference from outside authorities. Despite effectively having free reign to do with prisoners as he wished, Stephens outlawed the use of 'physical pressure' at the facility. Stephens did not do this because he was some sort of humanitarian at heart. During the course of the war 14 German agents held at Camp 020 were executed and Stephens later admitted that he wished more had been. Instead, Stephens forbade the use torture at the camp because, in his opinion, as soon as an interrogator physically abused a prisoner, the intelligence produced automatically became unreliable.

Stephens' axiomatic rule of non-violence at Camp 020 is supported by other contemporary records, which significantly were intended to remain permanently secret. The recently declassified wartime diary of Guy Liddell, then head of MI5's counter-espionage department and a future Deputy Director-General of MI5, shows that Stephens sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to outlaw physical violence at Camp 020. On one occasion in September 1940, Stephens expelled a War Office interrogator from the camp for hitting a prisoner, the MI5 double-agent codenamed 'Tate'. As Liddell noted in his diary: 'It is quite clear to me that we cannot have this sort of thing going on in our establishment. Apart from the moral aspect of the whole thing, I am quite convinced that these Gestapo methods do not pay in the long run'. Stephens saw to it that the officer in question never returned to the camp, and, indeed, from that point on, only MI5 interrogators were allowed to interrogate prisoners at Camp 020.

It is important to appreciate the atmosphere in which many of the interrogations at Camp 020 were conducted. In the summer of 1940 Britain's intelligence services had to deal with an unprecedented threat to national security. Following Hitler's lighting war (Blitzkrieg) through Europe, and as the Battle of Britain raged, it seemed that Britain was on the verge of being invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. Contemporary reports from the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), Britain's highest overall intelligence assessment body, described the urgent fear of what, at the time, seemed would be an inevitable Nazi invasion of Britain. One JIC report from June 1940 sombrely speculated on what the JIC itself would do when the German army landed on the south coast of England. In fact, the extreme threat to its national security that Britain faced in the summer of 1940 seems to be broadly comparable to the 'ticking timebomb scenario' discussed in relation to counter-terrorism today. As with counter-terrorist interrogations today, in the summer of 1940 it was necessary for interrogators to get useful operational intelligence from agents as quickly as possible. Not only did the intelligence held by agents have a limited shelf-life, but it was clearly necessary for agents to be broken, and if possible turned into double-agents, in as short a time as possible. Interrogations were time-dependent, for any protracted silence on the part of agents would obviously make their German handlers suspicious. Yet even at this moment of unprecedented threats to national security, interrogators at Camp 020 did not resort to physical violence. As Stephens explained, Camp 020's astonishing successes were achieved precisely because interrogators did not use physical violence, rather than despite it.

The successes of MI5's interrogations at Camp 020 are clear. Camp 020 played a significant role in the 'Double Cross System', the now legendary system by which MI5 and Britain's other intelligence services captured all wartime German agents operating in Britain, and turned a number of them into double-agents. Through the careful interrogation of captured German agents, interrogators at Camp 020 also built up a unique card-catalogue index on the German intelligence services, which provided valuable operational intelligence to Allied forces. At the end of the war, MI5 interrogators at Camp 020 also worked closely with Allied prosecutors and were responsible for effectively interrogating and gaining intelligence from some of the most notorious Nazi war criminals, some of whom were then delivered to Allied prosecutors at Nuremberg. Let us be clear, however, that none of this is meant to imply that Camp 020 was somehow a nice place to visit: it was clearly Stephens' tactic to isolate, disorientate, humiliate, and terrify prisoners at Camp 020 in the most effective ways he could. As far as 'Tin Eye' Stephens was concerned, however, the bottom line was that physical coercion simply did not work. This conclusion was shared by other successful wartime interrogators. The most successful US interrogator in the Pacific in the Second World War, Major Sherwood F. Moran, also discovered that far more useful operational intelligence was acquired by abstaining from violence during the interrogation of Japanese prisoners - many of whom were extraordinarily ideologically committed - than by using violence.

During the course of the Second World War, Britain's intelligence services became involved with a process of 'rendition' that closely resembles the US process of 'extraordinary rendition' today. German intercepts obtained by British code-breakers at Bletchley Park revealed the location, and sometimes the identity, of a series of German agents operating across the world, often in British imperial territories. In order to interrogate these agents effectively and efficiently, MI5 wanted to bring them to Camp 020 in Britain. This, however, raised awkward legal difficulties for MI5 over the detention and transportation of individuals from one place to another, which, as some contemporary officers in MI5 noted, was not dissimilar to kidnapping. Thus, although there are some broad similarities between British 'rendition' policies during the Second World War and American policies of 'extraordinary rendition' today, there was also a fundamental difference. During the Second World War, captured German agents were brought to the metropolitan power, Britain, in order to safeguard their effective interrogation, which essentially meant interrogation by every method short of physical coercion. By contrast, the US policy of 'extraordinary rendition' today is apparently designed to hand terrorist suspects over to third-party countries, specifically - it is alleged - so that they can be tortured. These, and other related subjects, will be discussed by this author in a forthcoming book.

The use of torture against ideologically committed enemies post-1945

It could legitimately be argued that there is a fundamental difference in the kinds of agents who arrived in Britain in the Second World War, who were successfully broken by British interrogators, and the types of ideologically committed terrorists faced by security and intelligence services today. German agents in the Second World War were usually poorly trained and were not usually ideologically committed Nazis. Perhaps, then, the successes enjoyed by MI5 through refraining from violence during interrogations in the Second World War only occurred because German agents were not ideologically committed. However, this is where lessons from other conflicts can be useful. Evidence suggests that MI5 replicated with success the rules it had developed at Camp 020 in the Second World War in post-war counter-insurgency campaigns in British imperial theatres like Malaya, which were waged against ideologically committed communists. Moreover, MI5's most successful interrogator in the early Cold War, William 'Jim' Skardon, who successfully obtained confessions from several Soviet espionage agents, including some of the notorious Soviet 'atom spies', similarly applied strict rules of non-physical coercion during interrogations.

Even the French military campaigns in Algeria, which some commentators have used to argue that torture can work, should, in fact, be regarded as a warning against the use of torture. In its counter-insurgency campaigns in Algeria in the 1950s, the French army gained the distinction of being the first army of any modern democratic state explicitly to allow torture. The French army was certainly able to gain some useful intelligence from torture in the short term. However, the history of the French campaigns in Algeria show that, in the long term, the use of torture was counter-productive. Torture was originally permitted in Algeria in 'extreme circumstances', but the history of the French counter-insurgency campaigns show that its use gradually increased, so that 'extreme circumstances' in fact became the norm. The use of torture also had a counter-productive effect on the French 'hearts and minds' campaign in Algeria and alienated important sections of the Muslim population, which were needed to provide intelligence. Decades later, the man in charge of the French campaigns in Algeria, General Jacques Massu, admitted that in reality torture had only produced negligible military benefits.


Critics of the arguments presented in this paper will presumably maintain that the events of 11 September 2001 had such a profound and permanent impact on the nature of international security that historical lessons no longer apply. However, as Christopher Andrew has argued in a paper on this website, this is a dangerously mistaken view. In fact, Britain's experiences with interrogations half a century ago can be instructive for governments and intelligence services today. Stephens' rule of non-violence in interrogations seems to be as important now as it was then. Stephens believed that in any protracted war, the quick benefits that might be gained from physical abuse in interrogations were far outweighed by the long-term damage to intelligence-gathering which those acts would cause. Stephens believed that the objective of interrogations should not be to obtain quick answers to a few specific questions. Rather, interrogations should induce a prisoner to give all the information in their possession and the only way to do that, Stephens judged, was to refrain from violence. As we have noted, Britain's historical experiences with how to interrogate prisoners effectively is supported by the experiences of other countries. History shows that the use of violence during interrogations invariably produces unreliable intelligence and ultimately is counter-productive.

This short paper has not addressed the question of what governments and intelligence services today should do with intelligence that may have been acquired by torture. One high-level British official involved with counter-terrorism has argued that if Britain were to dismiss all the information that may have been acquired by torture, Britain would effectively be fighting terrorism with one hand tied behind its back. At the same time, however, counter-terrorism officials and policy makers should be aware of the striking lessons that history provides regarding the use of torture. I am not arguing here that torture can never produce reliable intelligence. Instead, policy makers should be aware that cases where it works, such as, to a degree, in French Algeria, are the exception rather than the rule. Historical precedents show that information acquired by third degree measures will in the long term be less than reliable. In fact, it seems that those countries today which are making use of torture in the so-called 'war on terror' are doing so because of a catastrophic failure on the part of their intelligence services. They are using torture to make up for failures in what should be the ordinary business of intelligence services, namely gaining useful human intelligence. At best, using torture will produce unreliable intelligence. At worst, it could serve to recruit and radicalise would-be terrorists. This opinion was perfectly summarised by the French-Algerian philosophical writer, Albert Camus:

Torture has perhaps saved some, at the expense of honour, by uncovering thirty bombs, but at the same time it arouses fifty new terrorists who, operating in some other way and in some other place, will cause the death of even more innocent people. Even when accepted in the interest of realism and efficacy, such a flouting of honour serves no purpose but to degrade our country in her own eyes and abroad.

When viewed from an historical perspective, one cannot escape the conclusion that governments and intelligence communities today are not making new mistakes, but simply repeating old ones.

Further Reading

Alex J. Bellamy, 'No pain, no gain? Torture and ethics in the war on terror', International Affairs, 82, no. 1 (2006), pp. 121-148.

Stephen Budiansky, 'Truth extraction', The Atlantic Monthly, 295 (June, 2005), pp. 32-35.

Camp 020: MI5 and the Nazi spies, with an introduction by Oliver Hoare (London, 2000).

Council of Europe, 'Alleged secret detention and unlawful inter-state transfers of detainees involving Council of Europe member states', (Council of Europe,12 June 2006).

John C. Curry, The Security Service, 1908-1945. The official history, with an introduction by Christopher Andrew (London, 1999).

Karen J. Greenberg and Jashva L. Dratel (eds), The torture papers: the road to Abu Ghraib (Cambridge, 2005).

Stephen Grey, Ghost plane: the untold story of the CIA's secret rendition programme (London, 2006).

Jane Meyer, 'Outsourcing torture: the secret history of America's 'extraordinary rendition' program', The New Yorker (14 Feb., 2005).

Sarah Miller and Calder Walton, 'British intelligence, detention and 'rendition' during the Second World War' (in preparation).

National Defence Intelligence College, Educing information. Interrogation: science and art. Foundations for the future, (Washington DC, Dec. 2006).

Philippe Sands, Torture team: deception, cruelty and the compromise of law (London, 2008).

Calder Walton 'British intelligence and threats to national security, c.1941-1951', (PhD dissertation, Cambridge University, 2006).

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