The Sunday Telegraph reports today that British military interrogators are no longer permitted to shout at ‘terrorist suspects’ as part of a tightening up of rules for interrogation. This is designed to avoid subsequent legal challenges and the payment of large amounts of compensation to the supposed victims of apparently angry shouting.
What on earth have we come to?
Firstly, context. The prisoners who have been shouted at are detainees in a war, not some ordinary punter who has been picked up for shoplifting razor blades in Tesco. They have been picked up because they and their associates are known or believed to have been involved in actions in which British military personnel, and far larger numbers of their own compatriots, have been killed and maimed. The reason that we have been in the places where the alleged shouting is supposed to have taken place is to attempt, however futilely, to bring the killing and maiming to an end. Because it is a war zone, the normal rules for collecting evidence, charging and bringing suspects to trial cannot be applied because it is not safe or practical to do so. By the normal customs and usages of war, detainees in these circumstances remain in detention until hostilities come to an end or until they are deemed unlikely to pose a further threat.
A couple of fall-outs from this. These detainees are not ‘suspects’ in the sense of being persons who are being investigated for future criminal charges: they are being held because we want to disrupt possible future attacks against us and the civilian population. The nature of the attacks being launched against us and the civilian population has, in the past eleven years in both Iraq and Afghanistan, been of savage brutality: IEDs, rockets and small arms attacks have been of a high-intensity and would, in other circumstances, be classified as military operations. They are not, in this case, because the attackers do not usually wear distinguishing markings or uniforms, nor do they carry arms openly when not involved in attacks against us and the civilian population, as they are obliged to do in order to be classified as lawful combatants under the Laws of Armed Conflict. In fact many of these attacks would fall under the definition of ‘treachery’ which, in the past, almost universally carried the death penalty after a conviction by court-martial.
Secondly, shouting. I did what was then called the ‘Long Interrogation Course’ at the Joint Services Interrogation Wing at Ashford in Kent in 1987. I’m not going to go into the details of the course but I will highlight a couple of key points about it. The first is that it was underpinned throughout by an understanding of how the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war applied to the practise of ‘tactically questioning’ and interrogating prisoners captured in the context of open war and insurgency. Consequently we were reminded again and again that both physical and psychological duress was banned. We were not to torture suspects, nor could we subject them to prolonged psychological ordeals of the type that had been inflicted on IRA suspects under Op CALABA during internment in 1971. We did learn the so-called ‘5 Techniques’ (hooding, stress positions, white noise, sleep deprivation and limited food and water) because we used them in training exercises on volunteers from within the British Armed Forces and other government agencies, in order to teach them how to resist hostile interrogation but we were reminded, again and again, that we could not do so for ‘real’.
The process of interrogation is really designed to develop a relationship and rapport between the interrogator and the prisoner. In my experience, this is best done by using a reasonable approach to encourage co-operation. However, for this reasonable approach to work it often needs to be juxtaposed with some alternatives and consequently some detainees will, at some stage in the process, be exposed to a ‘harsh’ interrogation in which one or more interrogators will shout and yell verbal abuse and threats at the prisoner for a relatively short period. This is not an approach that yields much, if any, information but it does remind detainees that they’re better off communicating with an interrogator who will be reasonably nice to them.
Let’s just go back to the context here. These people are being interrogated because we know or have good reason to believe that they have been involved in violent attacks against us and/or the civil population and we want to stop it. We are not trying to obtain evidence for a court of law, we are trying to gain intelligence to frustrate future violence and save lives, military and civilian.
Parties to the Geneva Convention agree that they will not subject prisoners to ‘humiliating or degrading treatment’. What does this mean? In the original context, it was about banning the practise of parading prisoners of war through civilian areas where they would be subjected to attack, physically and verbally, and things of that ilk. A modern parallel might be putting prisoners in front of TV cameras and subjecting them to hostile questioning from the media. An interrogation is very much a private process: it’s certainly uncomfortable and at times probably frightening, but I would question whether 30 minutes or so of shouting in an interrogation room is really humiliating or degrading in the sense that the convention was framed. It is a normal operation of war, and a comparatively mild one at that.
Finally, we need to apply some realism to the situation. We have an absolute duty to do our best to protect both our soldiers and the civilian populations in the areas in which we operate. In order to do that, we need to collect intelligence and sometimes that requires a degree of subterfuge, like throwing a harsh session into an interrogation sequence. I’m very doubtful that it causes ‘enduring harm’ outside the fevered imaginations of ‘human rights’ lawyers and their fans.
There do need to be safeguards and there are. When I was an interrogator, all interrogations were conducted under medical supervision and I doubt that has changed. Abuses can and do occur and we should be mindful of them and take strong action to bring perpetrators to justice but I suspect that, in the British context, they are relatively rare.
Shouting at prisoners has only become a problem for us because we have not thought through the consequences of adopting poorly drafted human rights legislation. In the context of the savage insurgencies we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, shouting seems a pathetic thing to become exercised about. Let’s remember that many so-called human rights lawyers are members of the hard left who regard any Western intervention overseas as a form of Imperialism and feel justified in using whatever tools are available to stop it. In this context, the UK Government has placed the tools in their hands.