I recently watched Safe House, an espionage thriller about a former intelligence service officer who goes on the run to guard a deadly secret. Most of these thrillers are just the same humdrum storyline rehashed, but at least this film was clearly written by someone who knows something about the job: the tradecraft was accurate (if you're trying to lose surveillance, walk, don't run) and Denzel Washington as an ex-CIA officer truly characterised the world weariness exhibited by many retired secret service personnel. At the end of a career when you have seen dozens of agents go to their deaths in a war that ultimately doesn't change anything, whether it's the Cold War or the war against terrorism, then you do tend to wonder what it was all for.
But the part of the movie that really set me to thinking was the section where Denzel is repeatedly waterboarded by some of his former CIA buddies. It's certainly authentic. We all know that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and several other captured al-Qaeda terrorists suffered this and similar techniques at the hands of the CIA. But you would never find MI6 using this sort of method to get information. As a former MI6 officer it made me wonder whether we are simply more moral than American officers? And furthermore Denzel acts as though he's been trained to resist this sort of technique. Can you really train modern spies to face this sort of torture?
As to the morality, British reasoning is simple: we don't use torture because it doesn't work. Like the CIA we had to learn the hard way. In Northern Ireland, IRA terrorist suspects were waterboarded in the 1970s. Even using such techniques, it took time to overcome the subject's resistance and by then the intelligence gained was virtually worthless. Intelligence is nothing if it is not timely. Compare those cases with Moussa Koussa, the head of Libyan Intelligence, who fled to the UK in March 2011. He was responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent people, but we didn't beat or torture him. Instead he was installed by MI6 in five star luxury in a country house and he was interviewed there as if he were an honoured guest. The result was that he gave us just about everything he knew. Partly as a result, Muammar Gadaffi's regime collapsed just six months later. The British Government then released Koussa to a non-extradition country (which is where they and I differ). But the point is that a wealth of genuine intelligence was gained, above all quickly - and without any officers having to get their sleeves wet.
As for resistance to interrogation training, the agencies try to make it as realistic as possible (I lost a tooth when I was hit in the side of the head with a cosh during my first course). But no secret service expects its agents to hold out under interrogation indefinitely. CIA and MI6 officers constantly live with the risk of being kidnapped and held by groups who have never even heard of the Geneva Convention. Compared to these guys, we're beginners when it comes to torture: for instance, one technique favoured by the IRA was to take their subjects to a kitchen, turn on all the rings on an electric cooker until they were glowing red hot and then hold their victim down on them. No one can be prepared for that kind of brutality by any kind of training exercise.
Instead modern spies are taught that interrogation is a game of time - and it is something that those IRA suspects who were water boarded understood just as well. From the moment an agent is picked up and his loss is reported, the service is working to establish who and what might be compromised. Other agents will be moved, codes will be changed and, if necessary, entire operations will be closed down. You are not trying to hold out forever. You are holding out for as long as you can. You know that every minute before you break can be counted as another life saved. And I suppose that's where Safe House really gets torture right: Denzel's character surrenders himself to his enemies not knowing if he will be able to hold out, he only knows that he has to try. For the real spies too, that is all anyone can ask.
SAFE HOUSE - ON BLU-RAY™ WITH ULTRAVIOLET™, DVD AND DIGITAL DOWNLOAD 15 JUNE 2012 FROM UNIVERSAL PICTURES UK
Harry Ferguson's latest book Operation Kronstad is available now on Amazon.co.uk