Obama's Churchill-Torture Claim Examined

At a news conference this week, President Obama evoked the name of Winston Churchill when he said the British Empire didn't torture its prisoner during World War II. Ian Cobain is a reporter for the Guardian newspaper. He says the British actually tortured a number of prisoners during the war.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

At his news conference this week, President Barack Obama defended his decision to release confidential memos outlining harsh interrogation techniques that were used by the CIA. Responding to a question from a reporter, the president compared the treatment of America's detainees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with those held by the British during World War II.

President BARACK OBAMA: Churchill said we don't torture when the entire British - all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And the reason was that Churchill understood you start taking shortcuts, and over time, that corrodes what's best in the people. It corrodes the character of a country.

SIEGEL: Well, as it turns out, that might have not been entirely accurate. Harsh interrogations were carried out in London during the war in a center known as the Cage. And joining us now to talk about it is Ian Cobain, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper in London. He joins us from the Guardian. Hi.

Mr. IAN COBAIN (Reporter, The Guardian): Hi, there.

SIEGEL: What happened in the Cage? Would it have been harsh interrogation, torture? What would you say?

COBAIN: The Cage was one of a number of interrogation centers that the British ran during and immediately after the Second World War, which German officers, suspected spies or some civilians would be interrogated. And the methods used there, most people would agree, were torture. We used sleep deprivation. We used beatings. We used exposure to extreme heat and extreme cold. And at the Cage, at least, we used the threat of unnecessary surgery.

SIEGEL: Were operations actually carried out?

Mr. COBAIN: Not as far as I'm aware, no.

SIEGEL: When did all this come out?

Mr. COBAIN: This came out in 2005. So the details of this, of what happened lay secret for 60 years, and the Guardian then used freedom of information legislation requests to obtain details of what happened in the London Cage, and perhaps more importantly, in the interrogation centers that the British ran in Germany in the days immediately after the Second World War, where people were treated far worse than they were at the London Cage.

SIEGEL: Now President Obama was quoting Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Do we know that Churchill, when he made those remarks, knew very well of what was going on at the interrogation centers?

Mr. COBAIN: No, we don't. No, we don't. We don't know what detail he knew about what was happening in interrogation centers. Clearly, he would have known there were interrogation centers. There's no evidence that Churchill knew that people were being tortured there. And of course, Churchill was himself a prisoner of war, and during the Boer War, and wrote at length about his horror of war and his horror of imprisonment.

SIEGEL: When the Guardian got a look at the documents that showed what had happened, could you tell if there had been much back and forth or debate among either civilian or military officials in Britain as to whether this was the right way to go in interrogation?

Mr. COBAIN: Most of the revealing documentation that we found came from the immediate post war year, by which time Churchill had lost an election, there had been a change of government. But it's clear that there were government ministers, including the then prime minister, were made known about what had happened at one particular interrogation center near Hanover in Germany, because of the excesses that were carried out there.

SIEGEL: You say that what happened in Hanover, in Germany after the war, that was more extreme than what happened in…

Mr. COBAIN: It was far more extreme. And we killed a number of inmates there, a small number. We starved people to death, and we used beatings and we used torture implements that we'd recovered from a Gestapo prison at Hamburg.

SIEGEL: And this was against Nazis or against communists?

Mr. COBAIN: Both. We started off against Nazis. Sometime 'round about 46, we were losing interest in the Nazis and we were starting to prepare for what we thought was going to be the Third World War, and we started taking an interest in Soviet prisoners of war and also German Communists. It was an early Cold War interrogation center.

SIEGEL: Reporter Ian Cobain of the Guardian in London. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. COBAIN: Thank you.

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