Andy Worthington Discusses Torture on BBC1’s “The Big Questions”


Yesterday, I took part in “The Big Questions” with Nicky Campbell on BBC1 (available on iPlayer here for the next week). The bi-weekly discussion show, which tours the country and covers three topics each fortnight, alighted on a Christian school in York on Sunday, and featured around a dozen “experts” on various topics (myself included) and special guests: the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, the journalist Anne Atkins and Huddersfield community leader Kiran Bali.

One of the topics covered — in light of the Court of Appeal’s recent ruling in the case of British resident and torture victim Binyam Mohamed — was, “Is it right to use information obtained through torture?” The other questions were, “Should marriage survive infidelity?” (following on from the John Terry story that has dominated the news) and “Is it time for the worldwide Anglican Church to divide?” and this latter topic — which focused primarily on infighting between various factions of the Anglican communion regarding gay rights and women’s rights — caused the most heated confrontations.

The torture question asked on the show was a refinement of the original question that was pitched to me — “Is torture ever justified?” — but my conclusion is the same. Torture — defined by the UN Convention Against Torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” — is illegal, with no exceptions (see Article 2.2 of the Convention, which stipulates, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture”). Moreover, those who authorize it, or are complicit in it, must be prosecuted.

Furthermore, the use of torture is morally corrosive, reducing us to the level of those we claim to oppose, has a devastatingly counter-productive effect on the intelligence services’ ability to recruit informers, is dismissed, in the strongest terms possible, by skilled interrogators who regard it with disdain (see the former FBI interrogators quoted here), and, in addition, is essentially useless. Although those subjected to torture may produce worthwhile information, they will also tell any lies necessary to bring the torture to an end, and working out what is true and what is not therefore involves countless wild goose chases, diverting attention from genuine threats (as happened in the US in 2002 and 2003, following the torture of two particular “high-value detainees,” Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed).

Perhaps even more significantly, relying on information extracted through torture also leads to the seizure of other people based on material which is almost entirely unreliable, with potentially devastating results for those named, who end up getting a knock on the door in the middle of the night, often, for example, based on little more than the fact that they attended the same mosque as a “terror suspect” (a process I call, “guilt by mosque”).

In the specific context of the question on Nicky Campbell’s show, there is, it is claimed, a grey area concerning information provided to Western intelligence agencies by regimes that are known to practice torture — or, indeed, that use it systematically (Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and various north African regimes including Algeria, Egypt and Libya, to name but a few). The British government denies collusion in torture, despite mounting evidence to the contrary in the case of Binyam Mohamed, and in the cases of several British citizens seized and interrogated in Pakistan, and other countries — with the active collusion of the British intelligence services — where torture is commonplace.

This terrible story is gradually being exposed, particularly in the British courts, but when it comes to using information obtained through torture, the government open admits that it does not rule out using it. In its 2008 report (PDF, p. 16), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated, “The use of intelligence possibly derived through torture presents a very real dilemma, given our unreserved condemnation of torture and our efforts to eradicate it,” but added, “Where there is intelligence that bears on threats to life, we cannot reject it out of hand.”

To some people, this argument appears to be acceptable, but it still involves dealing with the troubling and almost certainly insurmountable problems which I ran through above; namely, that, when the countries in question use torture on a regular or even systematic basis, the information is almost entirely unreliable, and therefore should not be used. Moreover, as the torture apologists also forget, while they try to brush away the UN Convention Against Torture and allied treaties and agreements, a case can be made that knowingly making use of information obtained through torture may in itself involve complicity in war crimes.

On “The Big Questions,” I had the opportunity to address many of these questions, along with Steve Hewitt, Senior Lecturer in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham’s College of Arts and Law, in the face of largely specious arguments made by apologists for torture, especially Jonathan Foreman, of Standpoint magazine, who raised the spectral example of the “ticking time bomb” scenario, so favored by the writers of Fox’s 24, which has no basis in reality. Foreman also attempted to claim that prolonged sleep deprivation is not torture, and flippantly compared it to the sleepless nights endured by the parents of young children, even though numerous sources, including the US State Department and the US military’s Army Field Manual, confirm that it is torture.

Foreman also attempted to claim that no torture had taken place at Guantánamo, and on this latter point, I was particularly pleased to have been able to explain that, in fact, Susan Crawford, a protégée of former Vice President Dick Cheney and the senior Pentagon official responsible for overseeing the trials at Guantánamo (the Military Commissions), refused to press charges against one particular prisoner at Guantánamo, Mohammed al-Qahtani, because, as she explained in January 2009, “We tortured Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture.” Had I had the opportunity, I would also have explained that the types of “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on al-Qahtani were, to varying degrees, also applied to over a hundred other prisoners at Guantánamo.

In conclusion, I thought that, in general, the debate came down squarely against the use of torture — as it should, of course — and although no firm conclusion was reached regarding information obtained from regimes that systematically torture, was pleased that both the topic — and the profound problems associated with it — were aired in a mainstream public forum. I remain disturbed, however, that the long struggle to eradicate the evils of torture should be so lightly dismissed by armchair apologists for its use, who, in closing, might want to reflect not on what torture does to its victims, but on what it does to those who practice it.

This is a quote from New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer, in an article on the CIA’s “black sites” that was published in August 2007. In it, a former CIA official described what happened to one of Khalid Sheikh Mohamed’s interrogators:

During interrogations, the former agency official said, officers worked in teams, watching each other behind two-way mirrors. Even with this group support, the friend said, Mohammed’s interrogator “has horrible nightmares.” He went on, “When you cross over that line of darkness, it’s hard to come back. You lose your soul. You can do your best to justify it, but it’s well outside the norm. You can’t go to that dark a place without it changing you.” He said of his friend, “He’s a good guy. It really haunts him. You are inflicting something really evil and horrible on somebody.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

12 Responses

  1. eawicga says...

    Have you seen this Alternet article re Cheney & the the ‘legalities’ of America’s authorisation of torture?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I have! I really ought to get onto it, but I’m finding myself a little stuck in British politics right now …

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are a few comments on the show from Facebook:

    Steve Cooke wrote:

    Just watched The Big Questions. You did well but it’s an infuriating programme. By the time they’ve established where people stand on a given topic, they move the discussion onto another, completely unrelated topic.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Michael Fisher wrote:

    I agree, it’s impossible to squeeze a issue like this into 25 minutes of TV. And Nicky Campbell hadn’t done his prep….good thing he had an earpiece.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Malcolm Bush wrote:

    Hi All, I watched and recorded this program. Yes I think this issue required more time. I noticed the people who played this whole thing down were very experienced and conveyed their views very well. The problem is that whatever argument is put forward, people perceive conspiracy theories or enemy propaganda to be the truth. Another problem is “special circumstances”: what ever they are? If you believe that there are some special circumstances where torture is OK, then you must know how long a piece of string is. So called ‘creep’ becomes a terrible problem, for a wide range of complex reasons, the special circumstances encompass ever more situations. The complexities of it all bring more problems: who should carry out the torture, should they be vetted, should torture be allowed in the private sector. What about generic research, are there correlations between torturers and other crimes committed later in life. I’ve typed my thoughts regarding these offbeat parts of this issue because I think they are easily forgotten.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Steve Cooke wrote:

    Twas a shame about the clergyman who made a useful intervention arguing against torture during the discussion on that only to undermine his credibility a few minutes later during another debate by going on and on about how gay people would end up in hell.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Malcolm Bush replied:

    Dear Steve Cooke, Yes this is another part of why it all became undermined too a degree. A subject like this deserved much more air time.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Rowan Farmer wrote:

    You did well 🙂 Couldn’t believe that idiot who didn’t consider sleep deprivation was a form of torture!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Jaq White wrote:

    Ditto — you were very commanding Andy and spoke with a lot of authority. It made me mad that no other forms of torture were mentioned other than the sleep deprivation, as there were many there who apparently thought that was a joke. It also concerned that me that that same guy was implying that people had made up the stories of torture, despite the evidence to the contrary. However, the point about the information extracted during torture being unreliable was very well made. So those who still support it must have other reasons for wanting it to continue — at least that’s how it seems to me.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply:

    Thanks, Rowan and Jaq. Much appreciated.
    And yeah, Jaq, those “other reasons” involve people getting all excited sitting in their armchairs thinking about it.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Steve Cooke also wrote:

    If Jonathan Foreman thinks that torture can produce useful information, does that mean he also accepts as legitimate the confessions made by kidnapped westerners in the videos often produced by their captors?

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    And Hich Yezza wrote:

    Fantastic performance Andy, you gave that ridiculous man (whose name I have no intention of remembering) no room for manoeuvre and he quickly ran out of his mantra-like “arguments”.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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