Several have pointed out that Obama’s use in last night’s press conference of an anti-torture quote by Winston Churchill is highly suspect, in that there’s a great deal of evidence that the British did exactly that—used torture—during World War II. Not to mention the fact that Churchill was a great one for “reciprocity”—for example, bombing German civilians because the Germans had done the same to the British.
No doubt Obama will call for an investigation, ex-post facto.
But I’m more interested in finding the source of the Churchill quote. I wonder what was the exact context, and what Churchill’s definition of “torture” might have been, because there is little doubt in my mind that waterboarding would not have fallen under it, any more than it did for the Bush administration. Come to think of it, Bush himself would have been quite confident he was telling the truth if he’d made the same assertion: “We don’t torture.”
Here’s Obama’s full statement on the subject:
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.
I’ve done quite a bit of Googling to find what article it might have been that Obama was reading “the other day” about this, and could find nothing. Obama himself was not helpful enough to say who might have written it or where it appeared. I could find no independent source for the Churchill quote, and no description of who these “200 detainees” might have been.
But I very much doubt that those detainees were illegal enemy combatants and/or terrorists such as the waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who were rightly suspected to hold information about future peacetime attacks on innocent civilians. And although in Churchill’s time London was indeed being bombed pretty much round the clock, it’s not as though the 200 detainees would have held information that could have prevented future bombings.
So what would the point of torture have been in such cases, anyway? And I highly suspect that when he said “We don’t torture,” Churchill had in mind some of the more classic and extreme examples of the genre.
Remember, the “torture memos” themselves allowed nothing worse than waterboarding, and even that was permitted only in very limited situations. This is the relevant passage:
The ‘waterboard,’ which is the most intense of the CIA interrogation techniques, is subject to additional limits,” explained the May 30, 2005 Justice Department memo. “It may be used on a High Value Detainee only if the CIA has ‘credible intelligence that a terrorist attack is imminent’; ‘substantial and credible indicators that the subject has actionable intelligence that can prevent, disrupt or deny this attack’; and ‘[o]ther interrogation methods have failed to elicit this information within the perceived time limit for preventing the attack.’”
Unless Churchill was speaking of waterboarding (highly unlikely), and unless at least one of the 200 detainees in question fit the criteria above (highly unlikely as well), whatever Churchill said about torture is irrelevant to the present situation.
And Obama should (and perhaps does) know that. But, like Humpty Dumpty, that doesn’t stop him from using the Churchill quote however he sees fit.