Obama Veers Into the Daily Ditch

Even if you are an intelligent man, reading Andrew Sullivan can make you stupid. It happened to President Obama this week. At his 100-day press conference, President Obama invoked Churchill rejecting the use of torture for interrogation in the days of the Blitz during World War II. Obama instructed the assembled multitude:

I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, ‘We don’t torture,’ when the entire British–all of the British people–were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat….the reason was that Churchill understood — you start taking shortcuts, over time, that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

Now if you’ve ever read much Churchill or any competent history of World War II, you would have a pretty good idea that one thing Churchill never said in the course of a long life is: “We don’t torture.” As it happens, Churchill scholar Richard Langworth has now attested to the absence of the words from Churchill’s vast corpus.

Churchill was not a liberal sentimentalist on the subject of means and ends in war. Is there anything he would not have done to advance Britain’s survival and victory in World War II? Not bloody likely. “If Hitler invaded Hell,” Churchill remarked with respect to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, “I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”

When the Allies first deliberated over the fate of the highest ranking members of the Nazis and German military who were ultimately tried at Nuremberg after the war, Churchill supported their summary execution. He didn’t think to send over Hartley Shawcross to represent Hermann Goering or give Goering his day in court. He preferred the “shortcut” (to use Obama’s word) between Goering and the gallows.

What on earth would lead an intelligent man like Barack Obama to stand before the world and pronounce that Churchill ever said: “We don’t torture”? Now we know. Obama’s “knowledge” on this point derived from the recent “Churchill vs. Cheney” post by Andrew Sullivan on his Daily Dish blog calling for the prosecution of Dick Cheney. (I have long held that Sullivan’s blog would more aptly be called the Daily Ditch.)

Why call for Cheney’s prosecution? Sullivan seems as foggy on the authority of the vice president as he is on British history. Nevertheless, despite the exposure of the fraudulence of his post, Sullivan reposted it after Obama’s press conference. A correction would have been more appropriate.

Sullivan is such a crude and hysterical polemicist on matters related to the Bush administration that he has long since become unreadable. His tirades regarding the Bush administration’s responsibility for “torture” are a torture unto themselves.

In his post, Sullivan asserts: “Churchill nonetheless knew that embracing torture was the equivalent of surrender to the barbarism he was fighting…” As Langworth notes, Sullivan’s “Churchill nonetheless knew” appears suddenly and with no evidence to back it up. Sullivan makes no other reference to Churchill, or to how he divined Churchill’s views on torture. The thought of Cheney in the dock appears to have inspired Sullivan’s fancy.

Sullivan derives Churchill’s purported disdain of torture from a 2006 London Times column by Ben Macintyre on the interrogation of captured German spies in London during the war at the interrogation center codenamed Camp 020. Yesterday Macintyre crowed over his contribution to Obama’s learning.

Even Macintyre’s original column belies Sullivan’s use of it. Sullivan and Macintyre hail the interrogation techniques of Colonel Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens, the commander of Camp 020. According to Macintyre, Stephens eschewed “torture” in favor of psychological duress:

Stephens had ways of making anyone talk. In a top secret report, recently declassified by MI5 and now in the Public Records Office, he listed the tactics needed to break down a suspect: “A breaker is born and not made . . . pressure is attained by personality, tone, and rapidity of questions, a driving attack in the nature of a blast which will scare a man out of his wits.”

The terrifying commandant of Camp 020 refined psychological intimidation to an art form. Suspects often left the interrogation cells legless with fear after an all-night grilling. An inspired amateur psychologist, Stephens used every trick, lie and bullying tactic to get what he needed; he deployed threats, drugs, drink and deceit. But he never once resorted to violence. “Figuratively,” he said, “a spy in war should be at the point of a bayonet.” But only ever figuratively. As one colleague wrote: “The Commandant obtained results without recourse to assault and battery. It was the very basis of Camp 020 procedure that nobody raised a hand against a prisoner.”

Drugs and drink go well beyond purely psychological duress, and Stephens’s “terrifying intimidation” exceeds the “name, rank and serial number” limitations prescribed for prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Neither in his original nor in his follow-up column does Macintyre quote Churchill for the proposition that “we don’t torture” or cite some rule of conduct supporting the statement. Macintyre purports to derive some high standard of conduct from the story of Col. Stephens’s interrogation of German spies, but the true story supports quite the contrary point of view.

How do I know? I know it from Ben Macintyre’s most recent book. Macintyre’s most recent book is Agent Zigzag, the story of British double agent Eddie Chapman. Macintyre’s book is essentially a chapter in the larger story of the famous British Double Cross system developed during the war to befuddle the Germans.

Sullivan and Macintyre praise the interrogation methods of Col. Stephens. Sullivan omits to mention that Stephens’s interrogations were only the entry point for the Double Cross system.

The interrogation techniques used by Stephens were instrumental to the Double Cross system of which they were a part. The interrogations were part of a system intended to turn German spies into British double agents. The British did not treat the German spies as prisoners of war and the object of the interrogations was not simply to produce actionable intelligence.

J.C. Masterman was the presiding genius of the Double Cross system. In his book, Macintyre also credits Thomas Argyll (“Tar”) Robertson, explaining that “Masterman and Robertson formed the linchpins of the double-cross operation.” Masterman coordinated the operation with the military brass and Robertson ran it. If the captured spies interrogated by Stephens were found suitable double agents, they were then handed over to Tar Robertson and his case officers for the operation.

On the other hand, if the captured German spies refused to collaborate, they were either imprisoned or executed. Macintyre quotes Masterman, who was unsentimental on this score: “Some had to perish, both to satisfy the country that the security of the country was being maintained and to convince the Germans that the others were working properly and not under control.”

Like Sullivan, Obama somehow left that out in his invocation of Churchill as a model for the United States at war. Properly understood, Churchill provides a great model. Sullivan, however, is an obstacle to understanding, as vividly demonstrated this week by President Obama following him.

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