Interrogations in war and peace - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
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Interrogations in war and peace

Written on 9 September 2011

During my RAF career, I had been both a trainee prisoner subjected to interrogation, and later an instructor teaching Prisoner Handling and Tactical Questioning (PH&TQ), Resistance to Enemy Interrogation (R to I) and, to a very limited few, permissible interrogation techniques to be used in wartime. I found Sir William Gage’s presentation live on TV yesterday of the Baha Mousa Public Inquiry particularly interesting.

Baha Mousa, an Iraqi citizen, had died while in British Army custody in Basra, Iraq in September 2003. The Gage inquiry found that Mousa's death had been caused by "factors including lack of food and water, heat, exhaustion, fear, previous injuries, and the hooding and stress positions used by British". The report also states that Mousa had been subjected to several practices banned under both UK law and the Geneva Conventions. Seven British soldiers were charged in connection with the case: one pleaded guilty to inhumane treatment of a prisoner and was jailed for a year and dismissed from the Army; six others were found not guilty.

I was interested to learn from Sir William’s presentation yesterday at the Baha Mousa Public Inquiry that the use of so-called ‘stress positions’ had been banned from 1972. Curious, therefore, that at JSIW we still taught the use of stress positions in the 1980s. The JSIW ‘bible’ was a classified document with a very limited distribution called Conduct After Capture Training Document (CACTD). From memory, I believe the version we used was dated 1978.

While I was serving at JSIW it was mandatory that personnel of all military services who might ‘come into contact with the enemy’ (as the CACTD put it) were taught how to behave in captivity and how to resist enemy interrogation. It was a thankless business trying to convince sceptical servicemen that they could hope to get away with providing only number, rank, name and date of birth – the so-called Big Four – as laid down in the Geneva Conventions. That hadn’t worked in WW2 or later in Korea where prisoners of war were treated appallingly. It seemed to me unrealistic that we had to teach our students, should they ever be unfortunate enough to become a prisoner of war, that they could only answer with the Big Four. Every time without fail we, the instructors, were asked by our students, “What do we do if we’re tortured and cannot stick to the Big Four?” – to which we had no answer, other than to say lamely, “Those are the orders.”

The four most senior officers on JSIW, of whom I was one, were the only ones permitted to train interrogators for war and only certain categories of servicemen, often reservists with foreign language qualifications, were allowed to be trained. I cannot say more than that. However, the principles we taught certainly included blindfolding or hooding, white noise (electronic white noise not very loud pop music!), stress positions, and sleep deprivation.

Those same four senior officers were the only ones permitted to control exercises where our own servicemen were being interrogated, usually at the end of an escape and evasion exercise. Those ‘prisoners’ were mainly personnel in the so-called ‘special forces’ and active RAF aircrew. Each prisoner could be held for a maximum of 24 hours in the Interrogation Centre during which they could be subjected to a maximum of eight hours interrogation, always split into several short sessions so the ‘prisoners’ could experience different interrogation techniques. Each ‘prisoner’ knew that he could opt out at any time simply by calling for the independent umpire but, in all the exercises I controlled, not a single one did that. Everyone being interrogated knew that it was an exercise and they could be in no doubt whatsoever that it was anything else. Well, actually I did become aware of one ‘prisoner’ who apparently became convinced that it was for real. I immediately withdrew him from training and handed him over to the umpire and the doctor.

Debriefs were given orally to individuals in private by the Centre Controller, or his deputy, as soon as the exercise was over and there were no written reports of any individual’s behaviour. It was a training exercise for whatever benefit each serviceman could get out of it.

Whenever I was the Centre Controller, I never slept for the duration the centre was open (sometimes up to 36 hours if there were a large number of trainees) and I remained in and around the control room the whole time, monitoring the guards, the interrogators and the behaviour of the students. I could check on any of the ongoing interrogations through peepholes in the door of the cells and I regularly visited the ‘holding areas’ to ensure that none of the 'guards' were getting over-enthusiastic about their duties. (CCTV only started to become available as I reached the end of my tour of duty.) There was always a doctor on hand in the Centre should he, it was always a male doctor, be needed. Had any ‘prisoner’ come to any harm, however slight, during his 24 hours in my Centre, then I would have been to blame.

My tour with JSIW ended in 1984 and I have no knowledge of what is now taught and to whom, so please do not read anything contemporary into what I’ve written in this post. I cannot cast any light on the apparent conflict between Sir William Gage’s mention of stress positions being banned from 1972 and the fact that we used them, practised them, and taught them, in the early 1980s. Furthermore, nothing in this post should be read as having any relevance to the Irish troubles from 1969. I was never involved in any training or exercises my Army colleagues conducted to do with what was known as ‘screening’.

My tour at JSIW was the one tour of duty in all my 47 years in RAF that I did not enjoy, and I was very relieved when I was posted away.

At the time of writing this anecdote, the official website of the Baha Mousa Public Inquiry was here: (opens in a new window).

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