LibDem ministers accused of complicity in torture: it’s for the birds

A blog post entitled “Lib Dem Ministers Complicit in Torture” appeared yesterday. It concludes:

I accuse Nick Clegg of complicity in torture. I am beginning to wonder whether the man has any connection to liberalism at all.

The author of this scurrilous piece is in some danger of being taken seriously, being (as he constantly reminds us all) a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who has achieved a certain fame through having insisted, I believe wrongly, that he was sacked from the Diplomatic Service for criticising the practice of torture by the Uzbek authorities and for having repeatedly denounced his own government for receiving, and sometimes acting on, information from the Americans but originating with the Uzbeks, some of which may well have been obtained by torture.  He certainly did both these things, with characteristic gusto, but he was eased out of the Diplomatic Service — to put it politely —  for other reasons.

Craig Murray, for it is he (you guessed?), is a friend and former Diplomatic Service colleague.  I respect his moral passion and his furious energy and often admire his quixotic courage.  But on the subject of the use of information that may have (and sometimes probably has) been obtained by torture, the main theme of his post yesterday, he is simply and straightforwardly wrong.  The dozens of admiring and mostly uncritical comments appended to Craig’s post are in many cases even more misguided.

I have tried repeatedly to contribute a comment to Craig’s blog setting out my reasons for accusing him (I hope in civil terms) of misrepresentation of facts and of drawing conclusions from a recent speech by the head of the Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6) which the text of the speech does not support.  My comment has not however so far been selected for publication on Craig’s blog (although at least one equally critical comment by another former DS colleague is there).  So I offer it here, in the faint hope that one or two readers of Craig’s blog might find their way to it on this one:

I’m sorry to spoil the self-righteous party here, but virtually everything in Craig’s post and almost all the comments on it so far are based on assumptions that don’t bear examination and that have indeed been repeatedly debunked elsewhere. They gain nothing whatever from constant repetition. On the contrary, by deliberately ignoring the exposure of their false premisses, their authors inevitably lay themselves open to the suspicion of intellectual chicanery.

Much of the original post’s argument depends on this assertion:

‘Now parse [the speech of Sir John Sawers, head of SIS] very carefully. It says we do receive intelligence from torture, and we know we do. It says this happens all the time – “real constant operational dilemmas” – and that the decisions to receive intelligence from torture have specifically been approved by ministers.’

But if you read the full text of Sawers’s speech (freely available at ) you will see that he says no such thing. The statement about the obligation to make use of intelligence from whatever source if it might help to save lives is unrelated to torture and doesn’t even mention it.

The comment by ‘Nextus’ above [i.e. on Craig’s blog] asserts that —

‘Just after declaring that “Torture is illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it”, Sawer [sic] muses, “Suppose we received credible intelligence that might save lives, here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it. We will normally want to share it with those who can save those lives.”‘

But that’s quite simply untrue. Sawers’s sentence about the duty to act on intelligence that might save lives comes four paragraphs before, not “just after”, his statement that torture is abhorrent, and has no direct connection with it. This is argument by sleight-of-hand.

Contrary to what Craig and some comments imply, Sawers’s remarks about difficult decisions being referred to ministers are about decisions on the action to be taken on intelligence, not whether to “receive” it in the first place, and not whether it is acceptable to act on intelligence even if there are grounds for suspecting that it has been obtained by torture.

For the record, there is no legal, moral, ethical or practical ban on scrutinising information, and where appropriate acting on it, regardless of the way it has originally been obtained or is suspected to have been obtained. It is illegal and immoral to encourage or condone torture, for example by asking a foreign intelligence service known to use torture for information that it is likely to obtain by torture. But we have Sawers’s and ministers’ assurance that British services and ministers do not encourage or condone torture and that if individuals are suspected of doing so, their transgressions are investigated and, if substantiated, punished. Neither Craig nor anyone else, to the best of my knowledge, has ever produced a shred of evidence to the contrary.

Sawers’s statement that there is a clear duty to act on information assessed as likely to be reliable if doing so may lead to the prevention of terrorist or other crimes is clearly and undeniably true, just as any assertion to the contrary is self-evidently absurd. Expressions of disgust and anger about it say more about those who voice them than about the security and intelligence services or about ministers. Similarly, those who (presumably deliberately) misrepresent Sawers’s speech by juxtaposing what are in fact separate and unrelated extracts from it have some pretty awkward questions to answer.

Constant repetition of half-truths, misrepresentations and downright untruths doesn’t make them valid or reputable.

I respect and admire Craig’s moral passion and often his courage, as he knows. But it becomes fatiguing to have to keep on pointing out that in this particular segment of his familiar crusade, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. It’s time to move on, Craig.

PS (30 Oct):  I wrote this early yesterday, 29 Oct, and tried twice to post it as a comment on Craig’s blog post (before I had seen Charles Crawford’s comment covering some of the same sceptical ground).  Each time I got a message that as this was my first comment on this blog (which it isn’t) it would be reserved for approval in due course by Craig.  Meanwhile Craig has posted a comment on Charles Crawford’s blog saying that the ‘reserve comments for moderation’ function on Craig’s blog has been turned off.  Weird.  This is my third attempt.  If this doesn’t work, I’ll have to put it on my own blog with a suitable link.


It would be a pity if this calumny were allowed to merge into the received wisdom about torture, the British government and the security and intelligence services, through lack of anyone prepared to spend some time pointing out that it’s rubbish.  But every time on of us knocks it down, up it pops again. I suppose we just have to resign ourselves to knocking it down again, and again, and again.   (Some time ago I wrote a much fuller critique of Craig’s main complaints that can still be read here, if anyone is sufficiently interested.)


6 Responses

  1. nextus says:

    Dear Brian. A quick clarification. I (nextus) did not reorder the text (deliberately or otherwise), so any motives you impute on that basis are mistaken. My source for Sawers’s speech was the BBC report “MI6 chief Sir John Sawers says torture illegal: where it says,
    He said: “Torture is illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

    “If we know or believe action by us will lead to torture taking place, we’re required by UK and international law to avoid that action, and we do, even though that allows that terrorist activity to go ahead.
    “Some may question this. But we are clear that it’s the right thing to do. It makes us strive even harder to find different ways, consistent with human rights, to get the outcome we want.
    “Suppose we received credible intelligence that might save lives, here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it. We will normally want to share it with those who can save those lives.”
    It’s represented there as an uninterrupted quote; and I took it on face value. I didn’t append the quotations, which would have been a misrepresentation. I dropped out a few sentences and used the term “just after”, which seems fair to me on the basis of the BBC report. There was no intent on my part to misrepresent, paraphrase or any of the other things you allege; I don’t know who the BBC correspondent was, but I doubt whether that was his or her intention either. In any case, you haven’t explained how it makes any difference to the argument, either for or against. I don’t see any contextual implication that changes the meaning of the statements.
    I can understand the thrust of your ethical disagreement with Craig, but imputing false motives on the basis of trivial syntax and typos and the automated behaviour of outdated blogware, is hardly a good way to highlight it. The hyperbole and rhetoric may attract attention, but ultimately not of a favourable kind. It may better to focus on the clash of moral principles and intuitions.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this explanation. It’s perfectly clear to me that the juxtaposition of two extracts from a published text to imply that one is related to the other, when it clearly wasn’t, in support of a vicious attack on a named politician and his colleagues (i.e. the attack in Craig Murray’s post) is absolutely unacceptable. In view of your comment here, I recognise that you were relying on a seriously misleading BBC report, but even then “just after” seems to me to be stretching the phrase well beyond breaking-point. The moral, surely, is that if you are going to launch or support this kind of defamatory attack — not only on all LibDem ministers but also on the head of the Secret Intelligence Service — you have a duty to check what you write with original texts, wherever available (as this one is), and not rely on second-hand summaries. Of course Craig’s absolutely indefensible misrepresentation of what Sir John Sawers said in his speech, as exposed in my response to his blog post (and as also exposed independently by Charles Crawford), is much more objectionable than anything in your own comment.

    I certainly don’t regard the misleading juxtaposition of unrelated statements as a matter of ‘trivial syntax’, especially when it’s used in such an intellectually disreputable cause and even when it was apparently not deliberate. Nor have I imputed ‘false motives’ to whoever or whatever has prevented me from posting my comment on Craig’s blog, where it should have gone. Finally, I reject your charge of ‘hyperbole and rhetoric’ on my part. There’s plenty of both in the relevant texts, including many of the comments on Craig’s original post, but not in my response to them.

  2. craig says:

    Have replied at great length on my site – and challenged you to address some points.  Will only here make the point that the quotes were separated clearly by words of mine not in quotes, and it was plain this was not continual sequential text.  But your points are in any case extraordinarily weak – see my blog analysis.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Craig. I will reply on your own blog, although not necessarily today. I stand by ‘my points’, of course, just as you stand by yours — each seeming ‘extraordinarily weak’ to the other. But that’s life.

    As to the misleading juxtaposition of quotations from the Sawers speech, I think I made it clear that my criticism was directed mainly, but not solely, at the comment on your blog by someone calling himself ‘Nextus’ (if you and I can use our real names on the blogosphere, why can’t others?), with whom I have subsequently exchanged further messages. In his case I accept that he was relying on the misleading BBC website summary of the speech, although anyone making serious accusations against Sawers on the basis of his speech ought, in my view, to check first with the original full text and not rely on a summary.

  3. Clark says:

    In hindsight, it is obvious that the incoming government would inherit complicity in torture, as torture had already become an integral component of the system. We’ve spent years watching the evidence emerge, denied or blocked at many steps, so why should we expect it to have suddenly stopped just because there were elections?

    Sawyers’ speech is a masterpiece of rousing, emotive stuff. I felt moved, reading it. Indeed, there *are* worse powers than the UK, and secret service agents *do* risk their lives. But most people know at least something about the less noble operations of the secret services, such as plots to bring down governments or subvert pressure groups. None of this is mentioned, so the speech comes across as a marketing campaign to enhance the image of the secret services.

    It is in this context that the speech is so alarming. Sawers is presenting the secret services in the most favourable light possible, [and yet somehow] / [so of course] his speech precisely matches the contours of the system as it is currently running, just as it was inherited from the previous government. The secret services can just about do what they were discovered to be doing, without contradicting the letter of that speech. Nowhere does it say “it was wrong that we did this, and we’re never going to do it again. We’re implementing the changes right now”.

    Good on Craig for pointing it out. People shouldn’t get upset about his accusations against ministers. Rather, they should slap themselves on the forehead and say “oh yes, we should have thought of that”.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Clark. I think you are much less than fair to Sir J Sawers. It’s unrealistic to expect him not to put the best possible face on the work of his organisation in the first public utterance by any holder of his office — why would he do otherwise? would you in his shoes? — and even more unrealistic to expect him to issue a public apology for matters which are still no more than allegations and which are currently under investigation. A word of appreciation for the clarity and frankness of the assurances and explanations in his speech wouldn’t come amiss. As for Craig Murray’s comments on the speech, they are full of obvious misinterpretations of what Sawers actually said. I suggest that you re-read the speech, slap yourself on the forehead and say “Oh Lord — how could Craig have got it so badly wrong?”

    I hope to spell this out more fully in reply to Craig on his own blog soon.

  4. Clark says:

    But Brian, portraying things in the most favourable light has become a big problem.  It is popularly known as “spin”, and it has become so ubiquitous that when a public or government figure makes an announcement, most of us automatically analyse it not for what it seems to be saying, but for the precise meaning of the words, and what they will let that organisation get away with.  Surely you understand where such suspicion has come from.  First, a report comes in suggesting the UK may be involved in some way with, say, torture.  A categorical denial is issued.  Further reports add to the evidence, and we are told it will be investigated.  UK records are requested; the authorities decline, citing “national security”.  The evidence becomes impossible to deny, and after much foot dragging, the authorities admit something, generally as little as possible, with the standard disclaimer that “mistakes were made”, when in fact there was a policy in place.  Some of us have lost our trust, you see, and we’re fed up with being taken for idiots.
    I’m sorry to say it, but your reply to me forms part of this problem.  You dismiss matters as “no more than allegations”.  The UK supports the US, which runs Guantanamo Bay and repeatedly used waterboarding.  Rendition flights routinely landed at British airports; I assume that they still do.  British forces in Iraq were shown to have abused prisoners.  And the UK government smeared their ambassador to Uzbekistan, who was too hot on human rights for the liking of the US.  They then tried to prevent him from telling his story.  This is just a selection.  The UK is clearly deeply involved with torture, it’s not just the individual incidents, it’s the big picture that is alarming.  No, of course I don’t expect Sawers to issue an apology for specific cases that are still going through the courts, and it’s silly of you to suggest that I do.  But an admission that we did wrong and an assurance that we are putting things right would have helped the speech avoid being pure “spin”.  But maybe there was no way to make such an assurance without resorting to outright lies; I’m just a voter, one of the people whose name these acts are performed in, so I’m not in a position to know, am I?

    Brian writes: You’d have to go further back than classical Greece to find political and security leaders behaving any differently. There’s always going to be a tension between openness and accountability on the one hand and secretiveness in the interests of security on the other. Both are intrinsically valid and governments will always release as little as they can get away with, as governments always do. I don’t know what you think our security services should have done about the vile practices of the Americans, such as waterboarding, in their panicky attempts to extort information from suspected terrorists: break off intelligence and diplomatic relations? We don’t yet know whether SIS or MI5 officers overstepped the mark in condoning or colluding in such unacceptable practices and until we do, it’s correct to say that at this stage these are only allegations. If you really believe that “portraying things in the most favourable light has become a big problem”, you are simply saying that politics and public information are a big problem, in which case we’re jolly lucky if these are the biggest problems we’ve got. Time to get real, perhaps?

  5. Clark says:

    Brian, I’ve seen your comment at Craig Murray’s blog that you’ve been having trouble posting a comment. This is usually caused by including more than two URLs in a single comment. The software looks for http:// so if you leave that bit off you can post as many URLs as you like.

    Brian writes: Many thanks, Clark. That did the trick!

  6. Clark says:

    Good morning Brian.

    The first thing I saw on the news today was that former president Bush is claiming that UK lives were saved by information extracted under torture. I urge you to reconsider your position on this matter. I really don’t like the look of the direction this is headed in. I hope you can see why.

    Brian writes: Thank you, Clark. I see no need to reconsider my position on torturing people to extract information from them even if the information might save lives: that is clearly obscene, illegal under both international and domestic law, strictly forbidden under the rules of our security and intelligence services, utterly indefensible in all circumstances.

    Nor do I see any need to revise my opinion on the completely separate and different question of being prepared to act to save lives or to prevent crime on the basis of information received from third parties, whether or not you suspect or believe that torture may have been used to extract that information in the first place — always provided that doing so does not entail encouraging or condoning torture in any circumstances by anyone, anywhere. I find it hard to believe that any sane person could seriously advocate ignoring or even refusing to read available information which, if carefully assessed as probably credible and independently corroborated, might enable innocent lives to be saved and crime prevented, with the same proviso that acting on it must not entail condoning or encouraging torture. That too seems to me plain common sense and basic morality. It is also unquestionably perfectly legal.

    Finally, I am a little surprised that you seem to be surprised by what former President G W Bush is reported as having said or written. The practice of water-boarding is unspeakable, loathsome, and according to most competent lawyers, contrary to international law. If it’s true that it has resulted in British or any other lives being saved (and it’s quite possible that it is true), then I rejoice. Don’t you?