Friday, 16 October 2009

The torture debate: don't ask, don't tell

The Director General of the Security Service, Jonathan Evans, has jumped with both feet into the increasingly heated debate about British use of intelligence obtained through torture. In a centenary speech at Bristol University yesterday (15 October), he made a valiant effort at having it both ways.

“I can say quite clearly that the Security Service does not torture people, nor do we collude in torture or solicit others to torture people on our behalf”, Mr Evans said. BUT (there is always a but)…..

We live in a nasty world, and it is an unfortunate fact that other countries’ intelligence services – including America’s, Mr Evans tut-tuttingly admits - do use torture to extract information about terrorist threats. We share intelligence with those countries. If we did not, we might suffer atrocities on our streets which could otherwise have been prevented. Indeed, according to Mr Evans, “many attacks have been stopped as a result of effective international intelligence co-operation since 9/11” (presumably including intelligence obtained through torture). How many attacks, and how seriously threatening, Mr Evans does not say: we have to take his word for it.

After 9/11 the UK and other Western countries were faced with the “fact” (Mr Evans’ word) that the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaida was “indiscriminate, global and massive”. Again, he does not provide any evidence for this flesh-creeping assertion, and admits that “now, 8 years on, we have a better understanding of the nature and scope of Al Qaida’s capabilities but we did not have that understanding in the period immediately after 9/11”. Why not, if our intelligence services are so competent and on the ball as they like to claim? And Mr Evans gives no indication of what our current “better understanding” is; presumably the bin Laden bugaboo has shrunk to a punier size, but we are still not told how serious the threat from Al Qaeda is today, or even what that shadowy non-organisation amounts to.

What Mr Evans does tell us is that “we” (that is, the security services) were aware that 9/11 was not the summit of Al Qaeda’s ambitions. But what those ambitions were he doesn’t reveal. What he does reveal – and should be ashamed to have to do so – is that “our intelligence resources were not adequate to the situation we faced and the root of the terrorist problem was in parts of the world where the standards and practices of the local security apparatus were very far removed from our own” – a euphemism for “they torture people as matter of course”.

Nevertheless, “we would have been derelict in our duty” (says Mr Evans) “if we had not worked, circumspectly, with overseas liaisons who were in a position to provide intelligence that could safeguard this county from attack”- ‘circumspectly’ presumably being another weasel-worded euphemism for “turning a blind eye to their barbarous methods”. The justification is that “Al Qaeda had indeed made plans for further attacks after 9/11” – when, where, on what scale? Again, Mr Evans doesn’t tell us.

Mr Evans assures us that “I do not defend the abuses that have recently come to light within the US system since 9/11”. Nor would he dispute the judgement of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee that MI5, among others, “was slow to detect the emerging pattern of US practice”. In other words, his office was asleep at the wheel. When the emerging pattern of US policy was tardily detected, Mr Evans assures us, “necessary improvements were made”. Again, no indication of what these were.

Pleading his agency’s tradition from its earliest days of “a culture of pragmatic decency that served it well in changing times”, Mr Evans concludes with the ringing pledge that “we have to work hard to ensure that we do not collude in torture or mistreatment”. “Enormous effort”, he says, goes into assessing the risks in each case but it is not possible to eradicate all risk. But the reality is that “we do not solicit or collude in torture. We do not practice torture.” So that’s alright, then: it’s all the fault of those degenerate Yanks (who will no doubt be highly gratified to hear it) and their Asian satellites. We’re in the clear.

This egregious performance reminds me of Pooh-Bah in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado’ who regales his sadistic sovereign’s ear with graphic descriptions of torture and execution and then, when it transpires that the hapless alleged victim was the Mikado’s son, pleads that he in fact wasn’t there, and had merely sought to add “a touch of artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative” . It’s all ‘look, no hands’, and – in true American army fashion – ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.

And, quite incidentally, Evans’ lame apologia blows sky high the reiterated Jack Straw defence of plausible deniability that, when Foreign Secretary, like the three wise monkeys rolled into one he hadn’t the slightest inkling that we might be using intelligence obtained through torture, because nobody had told him.

It used to be said that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. But as we no longer have any virtue to profess in our public life, why bother being hypocritical any more? If torture is OK, let’s say so forthrightly and use it ourselves unblushingly. If it’s not, let’s do everything we can to stop it, whoever is doing it. What we shouldn’t be doing is to make humbugging prevarications along the lines of “We only practice the highest standards of food hygiene, but if some of our foreign suppliers send us tainted meat we have no option but to feed it to our customers”.


Jose said...

Perhaps torture is being used because the Intelligence Services have lost what should be inherent in them: intelligence, brains. The system has so much tried to erase any hints of free-thinking that it has eventually affected the services. Or they are saving staff costs and therefore time is becoming pressing.

What is a fact is that the alliance of Western countries with Middle East tyrannies has given as a result that torture be at the head of the methods used to glean intelligence from suspects. That the outcome reflects what is actually taking place is another question, because we all know how a human being reacts to torture.

anticant said...

From ‘Our Own Worst Enemy’ (1987) by Professor Norman F. Dixon, sometime Professor of Psychology, University College London, author of ‘The Psychology of Military Incompetence’:

“Put the technology of modern warfare at the disposal of an authoritarian personality, then find him a scapegoat, and one is asking for trouble. Not only are such people rigid, dogmatic, closed minded and therefore incompetent at handling complex situations, but they also retain from their childhood almost inexhaustible reserves of hostility which they are eager to discharge. …One of the major risks to mankind is his readiness to trade survival for peace of mind. For authoritarian personalities peace of mind is at least partly achieved by the discharge of hate.

“All this is bad enough, but what is worse is that authoritarian people are probably the last to see anything wrong in unleashing their aggression upon their fellow men. Such people are ‘always right’. They always ‘know best’. What they do to other people is ‘always justified’. Even as the world might, largely through their own doing, come crashing about their ears they would manage to remain protected from guilt and shame by an impenetrable shield of self-righteous indignation. Part of their plight is that the shield precludes anything approaching a meaningful rapport with their fellow men. For an extreme example of this disability there is the abysmal incompetence of those who persist in trying, on the one hand, to extract information from, and, on the other, change the belief system of, their victims through torture and/or brainwashing. In fact, neither of these techniques is likely to produce either true and useful information or effect any permanent change in the victim’s ideology. On the contrary, such primitive methods only serve to harden resistance and intensify the need for revenge.

“The point was made most forcibly in 1972 in the following advice [in the Diplock Report] on how to deal with terrorists in Northern Ireland:

"‘The whole technique of skilled interrogation is to build up an atmosphere in which the initial desire to remain silent is replaced by an urge to confide in the questioner. This does not involve cruel or degrading treatment…such treatment is counter-productive.’

But if the methods of torturers are so unproductive why are they not abandoned? The answer is that though sanctioned by morality they are fuelled by desire. The fact that they involve extreme pain and slow destruction of the human body, coupled with the most obscene of sexual assaults, is quite consistent with the notion that they provide legitimate outlets for otherwise suppressed hostility and sexual excitement.” (pp.138-9)

It is unfortunate in the extreme that the wise words of the Diplock Report have been forgotten by later generations.

Jose said...

One person is not enough to make authoritarianism effective. The human being having those two essential traits becoming authoritarianism : ability to imitate and ability to flatter; do the rest. I don't know which is worse, if the leading person or the little yes-persons around.

Bodwyn Wook said...

This is the miserable shadow of an exhausted educational metaphor that places 'objectivity', 'authority', 'the' truth and every other kind of hear-say above direct human experience; and, likewise, encourages people to embrace the morality of the police-court as the highest ethical norm: hence the nervy legions of little people giving 'freely' their assent to the excesses of the dionysian sociopaths set over them by bureaucratic parliametarism. Naturally, a certain class of civil serpent tacitly or even overtly then threaten to bring down the whole government if their entertainment-needs are not met. This drollery is communicated by the manufacture of inflated terror-assessments derived from torture-based 'information'. The system is now become autarkic, blissfully self-referential, credentialled and professional; and, everyone by now is living an irreal life at an urbane third or seventh level of abstraction and doesn't as much as know a hawk from a handsaw. Hence, the CCTV videogrammes of the abused are 'just pictures'; and, so, at this stage Aunty's recommendation to drop the hypocrisy is clearly at full flood. Because of moral 'relativism' of course 'boys will be boys' and 'it's not as bad as all that', after all 'they' are foreigners who don't hold to our values in the first place...mustn't be too 'judgemental', eh!

zola a social thing said...

Torture is not OK and in fact it is sick and ......
Is that simple enough ?

anticant said...

Of course you are right, dear Zola - but isn't that a rather pre-postmodern attitude?

Merkin said...

'...Mr Evans does not say: we have to take his word for it. ...'

Fewer and fewer people believe the likes of him.

anticant said...

That is the problem not just with this expiring New Labour government, but with the entire Establishment.

Because of all the spinning, lying, and evasiveness of the past decade they have lost the trust of the people - and not of just one section, but of almost everyone across the political, social, and religious spectrum.

It is going to take a very long time to restore public faith in the utterances of not only politicians but of public 'servants' who were formerly considered impartial but are no longer seen to be so. Not to mention business leaders, bankers, and others intent on feathering their own nests.

Phil said...

Sadly, torture by the UK and it's allies is not new (and also, let's face it: we didn't just get the info from other peoples’ torture). Absolutes in this type of discussion are difficult - even though I think all torture is evil. What matters more is trends and their speed. The world was clearly trending toward the total abolition of torture and in the west this trend was accelerating. We now live in a backlash - a pendulum-period where the trend is in reverse. We can blame Al Qaeda or Sept 11, or Bush or who ever we want, but this is not an isolated blip on a chart. Our world is slowly (but accelerating) moving away from many of the liberal improvements of the 20th century and it is left to blogs like this one to point the finger in the right direction - the opposite one to many current trends.

anticant said...

What you call 'liberal improvements' are in fact civilised moral standards - those standards which my parents' generation fought for too tardily and only in the nick of time in World War 2.

There is no point in blaming anyone in particular for their wholesale abandonment today. This is the result of a general moral slippage which started immediately after that war and is grounded in the ancient doctrine that the end justifies the means.

What interests me about pronouncements like those of Mr Evans in this speech, and the increasingly weird utterances of 'statespersons' like Hillary Clinton and David Miliband, is that there is still a lingering uneasy recognition somewhere at the back of their minds that if they were honest about what they are doing the public, even today, wouldn't wear it. So they resort to prevarication and hypocrisy - the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

But for how much longer?