Hugh McManners: The truth about torture and interrogation

Military police may suffer from a desire to make up for their lack of combat experience
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The Independent Online

British soldiers have come in for stinging criticism following publication of the Daily Mirror's dodgy photographs, and for allegedly hooding and blindfolding prisoners.

British soldiers have come in for stinging criticism following publication of the Daily Mirror's dodgy photographs, and for allegedly hooding and blindfolding prisoners.

Yet the interrogation of prisoners is a legitimate and vital part of any military, police or counter-terrorist operation. So rather than telling Parliament that British soldiers in Iraq were acting illegally by breaking a ban on hooding, the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, ought to have explained, in defence of our forces, that sensory deprivation and creating a sense of isolation can be an important part of the process of military interrogation. That process has long included blindfolding - or hooding. We blindfolded prisoners in the Falklands War, and it used - until civil rights protests stopped it - to be part of the interrogation of terrorist suspects in Northern Ireland.

In his statement, Mr Hoon did little to help MPs or civilians understand the essential difference between what legitimately happens to a small group of selected captives in a military interrogation centre, and torture. Apart from the moral objection, military experts know that torture is completely useless when it comes to retrieving reliable intelligence. But where high-value suspects are clearly hiding information, there is nothing wrong with deliberately using disorientation and tiredness coupled with professional interrogation if it can secure vital information that may save lives.

Creating a sense of disorientation and isolation is vital for the limited period of an interrogation (not more than a few days), but must only be imposed on prisoners already identified and filtered off, as important.

Time is of the essence as battlefield intelligence has a very short shelf life, and such detainees soon recover their equilibrium as the shock of capture wears off. In an interrogation unit, isolation is vital, so prisoners cannot compare notes and start building up cover stories. Disorientation can only be achieved for a few days at most, after which the specific details of information held by suspects become much less useful.

In between interrogation sessions, candidates might be held in isolation, which could include being hooded, blanked off from the rest of the world by white noise, and then "stressed" by being made to spread-eagle against a wall, followed by sitting cross-legged on the floor with hands on head. Perhaps the Red Cross noted instances of this treatment and erroneously reported it as torture. In fact, British military regulations governing this sort of treatment are very tight, with constant surveillance, mandatory sleep periods, and each candidate timed and checked constantly; with close medical supervision to ensure blood circulation is healthy.

Simple tricks, such as short periods of fanning with cooler air and playing recordings of angry, shouting interrogators, can make candidates shiver - with cold, which could be interpreted as fear.

Highly trained prisoner handlers never wear watches so prisoners lose track of time. The essence of the process is that there is absolutely no contact with the prisoners, who are made to feel totally isolated from the rest of humanity - except their interrogator, who assumes a position of inordinate importance for the period of the interrogation process. Interrogation of this intensity can only be kept up for a limited period, and candidates are continually evaluated. As time progresses, they will either become less likely to produce reliable information, or their information will become too out of date to be worth the effort. They are then moved down to a lower priority facility and a normal regime.

It is a reality of war that prisoners are vulnerable to ill treatment. Frontline combat soldiers are usually more considerate of their fellow combatants once surrender has been accepted. Non-combatants like military police and logistics troopsmay not respect prisoners. They may also suffer from a strange, even perverted desire to make up for their lack of real combat experience by mistreating prisoners.

But effective interrogation requires respect and professionalism. Attempts to explain the shocking behaviour of US army military police at Abu Ghraib prison as part of a process of gathering human intelligence are derisory. The 320th Military Police battalion was apparently untrained, over-worked and very poorly led, which allowed a number to behave in a sick and spectacularly stupid fashion.

For those sad people to believe they were doing anything other than living out their perverted fantasies with real people reflects very badly on the professionalism of the United States' military. Furthermore, there is no connection between their actions and the operational tactics of British troops.

They have made fools of tens of thousands of very brave and well-intentioned people.

Hugh McManners is a former British Army special forces officer