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Samantha Newbery | Intelligence, Interrogation and Torture | Intelligence & Interview N.23 | Dr Giangiuseppe Pili

Intelligence & Interview #23 approaches one of the most controversial ethical topics of intelligence and intelligence studies. Yes, I mean the blurred limit between interrogation and torture. In particular, torture is conceived as part of interrogation. Interrogation does not imply torture, theoretically and practically; however, torture is sometimes used as a tool for interrogators within intelligence contexts. This is true for totalitarian regimes, which do not have to justify their systematic use (though restrictions can be in place). This is sometimes the case for democracies. Even after Cesare Beccaria’s masterpiece, we are still debating if torture can be a tool for interrogators. Few scholars are now more familiar with this crucial topic than Dr Samantha Newbery, Reader at Salford University (Manchester). I had the pleasure to meet Samantha in Dublin, during a guest lecture about the topic of this interview. It was an inspiring talk, in which I understood I didn’t know sufficiently about interrogation and other related techniques. Though it is tempting to approach this topic in a highly polarized way, this is not what you will find in this post, in which a clear analysis helps the reader on having a more informed view. Then, if covert actions were considered the most politically troubling aspect of intelligence, it is beyond any doubt considering torture as a form of interrogation, the most ethically sensitive. It is always good learning from the past and from who knows so much about this very difficult topic. It is then with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet; it is one of the leading cultural blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Giangiuseppe Pili, Samantha: thank you!

1. Dr Samantha Newbery, let’s start with the basics. How would you like to present yourself to the national and international readers and Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?

I’m a Reader in International Security whose research addresses areas where intelligence studies and terrorism studies intersect.  My last major research project addressed controversial methods of interrogation that many observers regard as torture used by British personnel in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency contexts.  I am now working on the use of what I’ve called ‘terrorist informers’, who have to be involved in criminal activities, sometimes of the very worst order, so as to be able to collect intelligence.  My interests are therefore in the ethical, legal, practical and policy issues raised by these practices.

2. You are an expert on one of the most difficult open debates on the entire Intelligence Studies, namely terrorism, torture, and intelligence. So let’s start with a very broad question close to your personal experience. How did you start to investigate this difficult but crucial topic?

To get to the root of this we have to go back to my decision to study for my undergraduate degree in the Department of International Politics in Aberystwyth.  At that time I had no idea that intelligence studies existed as an academic discipline, and I was so lucky to be exposed to it (and to terrorism studies) there.  I remained in Aberystwyth for a Masters in Intelligence Studies, which happened to coincide with important publications in intelligence ethics, chiefly in the form of articles by Toni Erskine and Michael Herman in Intelligence and National Security (2004, 19/2).  These were crucial in my decision to carry out a PhD in intelligence and ethics.

A potential case study for the PhD was brought to my attention by my PhD supervisor, Professor Eunan O’Halpin in the Department of History at Trinity College, Dublin.  This ended up becoming the focus for my whole PhD, and one of the three case studies in the subsequent book (Interrogation, Intelligence and Security: Controversial British Techniques, Manchester University Press, 2015).  It was the use of the ‘five techniques’ of interrogation against fourteen suspected members of the IRA, a republican terrorist group, during ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland in late 1971.  This time was arguably the peak of ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland, as violence was widespread.  The ‘five techniques’ comprised of restricting vision through the use of a hood (‘hooding’), a stress position called wall-standing that very quickly becomes painful to maintain, the use of white noise at loud volumes, limited access to food and water, and limited sleep.

The use of the ‘five techniques’ and other actions taken by the British in Northern Ireland at this time led the Republic of Ireland to bring a case against the UK for alleged breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights.  The material held in The National Archives of Ireland in Dublin on this case got me hooked on the subject, and interrogation and torture turned out to be a ten-year research project for me.  At its heart, this was a project that asked how such controversial interrogation techniques can come to be used by a democracy and what the results can be.

3. Historically, what is the relation between interrogation and intelligence? Is there an “art of intelligence interrogation”?

Interrogation involves questioning someone to obtain information, whether for evidence as part of a criminal investigation or for intelligence.  The term has become synonymous with the use of pressure, whether that be verbal or physical, but this doesn’t accurately reflect all interrogation practices.

Whether there is an art of interrogation for intelligence is a big question!  There are various memoirs by former interrogators who worked during the War on Terror, and who therefore tend to be writing either with the agenda of defending their actions or of criticizing others.  Persuasive evidence is put forward by Matthew Alexander (How to Break a Terrorist, Free Press, 2008) concerning a case where a detainee cooperated with his interrogators because he was shown respect.  Alexander emphasizes the need to develop rapport between the interrogator and the interrogated: after all, the aim is not just to get the detainee to talk, but to get them to genuinely want to cooperate.  Without genuine cooperation, they may talk but won’t necessarily tell the truth or share everything that they know.

Interrogation is a practice that depends very heavily on psychology.  The interrogator first needs to be briefed on all known information about the detainee (such as whether they have family, are they well-off financially, are they loyal to their comrades or their regime), then needs to assess the best way to persuade the detainee to cooperate.  That might be to say that they will be allowed to see their family if they cooperate, or will be given financial compensation for talking.  I am well aware that I’m writing this as someone who has no formal training in conducting interrogations, but I have seen enough convincing evidence to be confident in these assertions.

There will always be some detainees who cannot be persuaded, or appear unlikely to be persuaded quickly enough, and this is where physical and mental abuse can creep in, as I address in a bit more detail below.

4. The boundaries between interrogation and torture are quite blurred. According to your research, what are and should be the limits of intelligence interrogation inside a democratic set of values?

There are key issues concerning the use of terminology here.  I have long emphasized that interrogation and torture are not the same thing: they can indeed happen together, but interrogation involves questioning someone to obtain information, while torture is the intentional causing of severe physical or mental suffering.  Interrogation does not always involve torture (a police officer questioning a witness for evidence at your local police station is not likely to be using torture, I hope).  And torture does not always involve interrogation, as sometimes its purpose is simply revenge, for instance.  My 2013 article in International Politics (‘Terrorism, torture and intelligence’) emphasized how frequently the two terms were used interchangeably in the ‘torture debate’ that followed the arrest, interrogation and torture of Al-Qaeda suspects after 9/11, and that if the terms are used with greater care the debates that will follow will be more meaningful.

A universal prohibition of torture is enshrined in various human rights instruments such as the United Nations Convention Against Torture (1984) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950).  Although certain rights, such as the right to privacy, can legally be encroached on in certain circumstances such as when threats to national security arise, the right to be free from torture, cruel or inhuman treatment is ‘non-derogable’ and therefore cannot be put aside under any circumstances, though the behavior of various democratic states calls into question their respect for this prohibition.

5. Unfortunately, I need to ask a difficult question, but it would be the first that would be raised by any reader. Is torture a valuable means for extrapolating information by a person? Let me remember the great Italian legal philosopher, Cesare Beccaria. One of his classic enlightenment arguments against torture is that it is ineffective or, at least, it offers misleading results. Is this thesis, right or not? Is torture at least effective from a utilitarian perspective, as some have argued?

Let’s assume we are talking here about torture being used in aid of interrogation rather than for any other purpose.  The jury is out on this one.  As far as I can see, the reason there are so many answers to this question is that each person being interrogated is complex and unique, in terms of physical and psychological vulnerabilities that a skilled interrogator may (or may not) be able to identify and exploit, and in terms of their physical and psychological resilience both to questioning and to methods of torture.

I don’t think torture is justifiable on utilitarian grounds.  My argument on this is that we should take all long-term consequences of torture into account when making a utilitarian calculation.  The use of the ‘five techniques’ of interrogation in Northern Ireland in 1971 provides us with data on the widespread (and even internationally-felt) and long-lasting negative effects, including the extent to which it contributed to an escalation of violence in Northern Ireland.  Looking back on this example with hindsight, I do not think the methods were justified.  It is, however, a difficult judgment to make, as the use of the techniques was motivated by a desire to collect life-saving intelligence.  Further, a calculation made with hindsight will differ from one made at the time on the basis of potentially ill-informed forecasts about the likely positive and negative results of a decision to use such techniques.  Even if it looks likely that these methods will produce intelligence in a particular set of circumstances, those tasked with deciding whether to authorize them ought also to ask: is there any other way of obtaining this intelligence; is it likely to be collected in time to be useful; will it be reliable if it’s produced under duress; will it be disseminated to the right people in time to be used; and what are the chances of it actually being used in time.  These practical questions really need to be asked and it is these questions that are largely missing from the ‘torture debate’ about the wisdom of using such methods in conjunction with interrogation in the years immediately following 9/11.

6. In theory and practice, totalitarian states, despotisms, and other strong state forms of government do not have any problem with the (extensive) use of torture as a statecraft tool. However, also democratic states used it even in relatively recent years. What is the cause of the temptation to use torture even in our democratic societies, which should be grounded on human rights and liberal values?

Responsibility for the use of torture can be placed at all levels, from the individual who is using it, right up to the top levels of government.  At the level of the individual who is using torture, their motivations can range from following orders, to a desire to collect intelligence, to sadism or revenge.  Then there are questions about whether the individual concerned knew, or ought to have known, that what they were about to do was illegal: did they have sufficient training and were they issued appropriate written guidance?  Those at various levels of authority above that individual (from the immediate supervising officer up to the policy-makers) should be subject to questions such as whether they knew what was going on, whether they had a responsibility to make sure they knew, and whether they ordered it, authorized it, or simply turned a blind eye.  Once we acknowledge that there is this wide variety of factors that can motivate torture or fail to prevent torture, it is easier to understand how it comes to be used so much more frequently than would ideally be the case.

7. I’m thinking of the case of Northern Ireland. Your research covered that difficult situation extensively. What are the main lessons learned by the United Kingdom? According to you, was that story crucial for social awareness of the mistakes made?

The main lesson learned from the use of the ‘five techniques’ in Northern Ireland was that if you use techniques such as these within the UK there will be a huge public backlash, not only within the UK but further afield as well.  One country that was openly pleased to learn the UK had been treating its own citizens this way was the Soviet Union.

The other lesson learned was that they should not use these techniques again.  On 2 March 1972, in a Prime Ministerial statement in the House of Commons, the ‘five techniques’ were banned from all future use by British forces.

Lessons can be learnt and they can subsequently be forgotten.  By 2003, the ban on the ‘five techniques’ had been forgotten by the UK’s Ministry of Defence.  This contributed to the use of the techniques against a group of detainees held by British troops in Basra.  These techniques contributed to the death of one of those detainees, Baha Mousa, which led to a large-scale public inquiry.  Lessons identified by this inquiry included that any member of the armed forces who was exposed to illegal interrogation techniques in the course of ‘resistance to interrogation training’ (designed to prepare them should they be captured by hostile forces) had to re-take their interrogation qualification so as to receive a firm reminder of which techniques were prohibited before being able to conduct interrogations again.

8. How difficult is investigating these topics? This is a question I ask all the people that explored very sensitive issues in our societies. After all, you had to study all the misdoing of one of the oldest democracies in the world. Was it difficult, or did you find an open encouragement in pursuing your research?

It is astonishing how much written archival material is in the public domain on this topic.  I am finding the same with my current research on informers.  Controversial topics, especially those that prompt public inquiries, create paperwork.  Some of this paperwork is unclassified or, over time, gets declassified.  Material relating to earlier inquiries, such as the 1971-2 Parker Committee’s investigation into whether the ‘five techniques’ should continue to be available for use by British forces, can be found in The National Archives in London.  More recent inquiries, such as The Baha Mousa Inquiry (2008-11) and others that relate to intelligence during ‘the troubles’ (e.g. the Rosemary Nelson Inquiry (2004-11) and The Billy Wright Inquiry (2004-10)) have not only produced rather long and detailed reports, but have put their raw material online for all to see.  The Baha Mousa Inquiry’s Report is around 1,400 pages long, and their website contains transcripts of almost all of the inquiry’s 115 days of hearings (the exceptions are those witnesses who were heard in private for security reasons).  This material will always be incomplete but there is a large amount of it and it can be supplemented by memoirs and by interviews carried out in accordance with strict research ethics principles, for instance.

9. How can our readers follow you?

Via LinkedIn and via my department’s Twitter account (@SalfordUni_PCH).

10. Five keywords that represent you?

This is by far the most difficult question in this interview!

Political science, history, intelligence, terrorism.

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