Last night, Jake Tapper asked Barack Obama about enhanced interrogation techniques, and Obama firmly stated that he thinks waterboarding is torture — although he doesn’t apparently want to pursue the matter any further now after it blew up in his and Nancy Pelosi’s faces. In support of that position, Obama quoted Winston Churchill to show that a national leader facing possible annihilation can take a strong stand against torture and prevail anyway:
Q: Thank you, Mr. President. You’ve said in the past that waterboarding, in your opinion, is torture. Torture is a violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions. Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?
OBAMA: What I’ve said — and I will repeat — is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don’t think that’s just my opinion; that’s the opinion of many who’ve examined the topic. And that’s why I put an end to these practices.
I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do, not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.
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.
And then the reason was that Churchill understood — you start taking shortcuts, over time, that corrodes what’s — what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.
There are two things wrong with this anecdote. First, Obama himself notoriously removed Churchill’s bust from the Oval Office, and it was widely reported that Obama resented Churchill for the treatment his grandfather received during the Mau-Mau uprising. Specifically, he thinks Churchill ordered abusive treatment and torture of his grandfather and his cohorts, which is why I actually understood Obama’s rejection of the Churchill bust. After all, I’d hardly keep a bust of Oliver Cromwell in my office, gift or not.
Suddenly, however, Churchill becomes the paragon of treatment of prisoners. Except, of course, that he’s actually not. Almost exactly three years ago, The Guardian got the government to release information about torture and murder in the British zone in Germany from 1945-1947, targeting primarily Communists:
The pictures show suspected communists who were tortured in an attempt to gather information about Soviet military intentions and intelligence methods at a time when some British officials were convinced that a third world war was only months away.
Others interrogated at the same prison, at Bad Nenndorf, near Hanover, included Nazis, prominent German industrialists of the Hitler era, and former members of the SS.
At least two men suspected of being communists were starved to death, at least one was beaten to death, others suffered serious illness or injuries, and many lost toes to frostbite.
The appalling treatment of the 372 men and 44 women who were interrogated at Bad Nenndorf between 1945 and 1947 are detailed in a report by a Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Tom Hayward. He had been called in by senior army officers to investigate the mistreatment of inmates, partly as a result of the evidence provided by these photographs.
Afterwards, the British took a remarkably relaxed attitude towards the people who ran Bad Nenndorf. Only one got convicted of anything, a doctor whose punishment consisted entirely of a discharge from the Army. The commander got reinstated and was given a transfer to MI-5 to work on national security.
Does anyone in the White House actually do research?
Update: Ben Smith has more, from earlier in the war. What I find most amusing about this is that Churchill was a big proponent of reciprocity. He bombed German population centers because Germans had no compunction about bombing Britain’s. He also initially objected to the Nuremberg trials, preferring the traditional methods of drumhead courts-martial followed by first-class hangings.