Page last updated at 05:01 GMT, Monday, 16 November 2009

Britain's WWII brainwashing

By Mike Thomson
BBC Radio 4

Gloved hand holds a syringe
Prime minister Harold MacMillan denied the use of such techniques

Brainwashing techniques were used by some British interrogators during World War II, according to evidence unearthed by the BBC.

Their methods included the use of drugs, hypnosis and sensory deprivation to extract confessions from suspected spies.

It was not until 1960, well after end of the war, that the first allegations of brainwashing were made.

These followed a lecture given in London by Alexander Kennedy, a highly-respected professor of Psychological Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

His speech was aimed at applying the lessons of wartime interrogation techniques to the peacetime treatment of psychiatric illness. In it he referred to the effects of a string of brainwashing techniques. Outrage followed.

Growing storm

The press of the day concluded that his knowledge of such methods must have come from work developed in Britain. This is a charge strongly denied by Prof Kennedy, who had served with British intelligence during the war.

But his denial failed to calm the growing storm and ministers faced searching questions in the House of Commons.

Finally, the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, tried to put an end to the brainwashing scandal during prime minister's questions..

Harold MacMillan
One former intelligence officer believes Harold MacMillan was lying

He said: "The techniques to which these questions refer have never been used by any organisation responsible to Her Majesty's government."

Those firm words, and Prof Kennedy's death just three months after making his speech, seemed to put an end to the controversy.

However, the archives reveal that three years later, MP Francis Noel-Baker, who like Prof Kennedy had served with military intelligence, wrote the following letter to Mr Macmillan:

"It is within my own personal knowledge, and that of people with whom I served during the war, that a technique of brainwashing certainly was used by Major Kennedy, as he then was, and other interrogators at the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC), outside Cairo, during the last war."

It is not known how, if at all, the prime minister replied to this letter, but it certainly contradicts his denial that such methods were never used by British interrogators.


So, too, does another document, held in the National Archives. It is a report written by Dick White, a man who was later to become head of M16.

It focuses on interrogation methods that he witnessed being used by British officers in Cairo during the war. Prof Kennedy, then Major Kennedy, was a psychological advisor guiding some of these interrogations.

One was with an Egyptian man called Ellie Haggar, who was suspected of being a German spy. Mr White was to write:

"Among other methods employed by Kennedy, certain drugs were used to induce Haggar to confess. As might have been expected, the only result was that Haggar become mulish and indifferent to his fate and contracted pneumonia.

I think if one wants to be brutally honest, MacMillan was seeking to deceive. In fact, to use un-Parliamentary language, he was telling lies
Col John Hughes-Wilson

"The extraction of a confession took a fortnight and was, even then, not fully satisfactorily achieved. With this example before me I suggested to all the officers concerned that this was not the way to interrogate a spy."

It could always be argued that MacMillan might have been unaware of Mr White's report when he made his emphatic denial in the Commons.

But a former senior British intelligence officer, Col John Hughes-Wilson, believes that is unlikely.

He said: "I would be very surprised if a minister of any stamp were to stand up and talk on intelligence matters without whistling for the head of that service and saying, 'what is going on, draft me an answer'.

Ends and means

"I think if one wants to be brutally honest, MacMillan was seeking to deceive. In fact, to use un-Parliamentary language, he was telling lies."

This evidence has come as a shock to many, even including those who served in military intelligence during the war.

One such person is John Oswald, who worked as an interrogator at CSDIC, the British base in Cairo, around the same time as Alexander Kennedy.

But Mr Oswald insists he had no idea that brainwashing techniques were being used there and would have had nothing to do with them if he had.

He said: "Among my colleagues I don't think that any of them would have used those methods. I just feel that it's wrong to treat people that way."

There is no reason to doubt that Prof Kennedy was acting in anything other than what he saw as the best interests of his country, at a time when Britain was at war with an often brutal enemy.

But critics like Mr Oswald insist that the ends should never have been allowed to justify the means when techniques like these were involved.

Mike Thomson's investigation was broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday 16 November and can be heard at the Document website.

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