Torture and the diplomat, part 2: a closing exchange
On new year’s day I put on this blog a piece about the implications of the action by Craig Murray, crusading former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, in publishing on his website a number of confidential documents exchanged between himself and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office during his time in Tashkent. I also questioned Mr Murray’s condemnation of the practice of British intelligence in receiving, and when appropriate following up, information originating with the Uzbek intelligence service when much of it has probably been extracted by torture. (You can read my full post here.)
The next day, Craig Murray himself commented on what I had written, in moderate and informative terms, as follows:
January 2nd, 2006 at 12:06 am
I always read your blog with interest, but in this instance, obviously, even more so.
Allow me to make a couple of points in response.
In two years of seeing this Uzbek intelligence material, I never saw a single piece that even purported to concern a threat to the UK, or indeed to the West. Everything we were given was, without exception, designed to convey the impression that all the Uzbek opposition were Islamic terrorist and linked to al-Qaida (which is very far from the truth).
If the material had been about threats in Birmingham, certainly the analysts would have been better placed than I to evaluate it. But as it was about Central Asia, I don’t accept that people who had never even visited Uzbekistan were in a better position than I to evaluate.
What I found particularly chilling were instances where such intelligence was being deliberately accepted or interpreted, in order to justify continuing US support to this odious regime. The US was justifying its presence and policy in Uzbekistan by the common threat faced, and prepared to buy fictions that reinforced that threat as part of the raison d’etre of the War on Terror.
So when I call the intelligence dross, I really mean that. It wasn’t just not useful to the UK, it was positively and deliberately misleading.
In my view, the Uzbek security services really are just so terrible that we shouldn’t treat them as friendly liaison – just as we didn’t treat the KGB that way. That is not to say that if the KGB had sent us a message about a nuclear bomb in London, we wouldn’t have acted on it, just as we should any such urgent message from the Uzbeks. But regular friendly liaison channels? No.
I think there does have to be a line – if you will forgive the reductio ad absurdum, I presume you wouldn’t have argued that we should have links with the Gestapo in 1936 for info on Stalin?
You are quite right, of course, that in practice intelligence relationships in Uzbekistan were run by the CIA.
If the government had argued “Yes, we did accept a lot of information from the Uzbeks, knowing it might very probably come from torture, but we have to protect the UK”, (which I think is a fair summary of the line you argue above) I would not have released these documents. But the government has not been saying that. They have trotted out such obfuscations and circumlocutions, even in the face of direct parliamentary inquiry, that I think it now amounts to lying. When ministers are not honest with parliament, my own view is that the rules governing civil servants change. I realise that is not a universal view.
I am sure I was a pain to manage. I got more passionate than civil servants usually do, because in Uzbekistan the horror hits you in the face. The very nice old lady whose front gate was opposite mine, a member of a banned democratic opposition party, was attacked in the lane by the Uzbek intelligence services, not twenty metres from the Residence gate. They broke her legs, poured paint down her throat, and run her over in an army truck. She was my friend. (Fortunately she survived).
When I had dinner with the distinguished dissident Professor Mirsaidov in Samarkand, that same night his grandson was abducted and killed after many hours of appalling torture. The body was dumped outside the family home after I left. The Russian Ambassador told me, from his excellent sources, that this was intended as a warning to both dissidents and me not to meet each other.
My horror at all this and at the extent of US involvement strained my relationship with the office, and they asked me to resign (and be reposted, without stigma) but at this same meeting handed me eighteen incredible disciplinary charges. Let me stress 16 were dismissed as having no evidence to back them, and I was acquitted of the other two at a hearing. I was convicted only of an added charge, that of talking about the charges!!
Until the FCO took that extraordinary step against me, nobody had any idea, outside Whitehall, that I had any difference of opinion with the FCO on policy. I only started to “let my views be known” after that amazing attack on me.
I am not at all perfect. And there are two sides to every story (at least). That, however, is my side, and I hope explains my actions to you somewhat better.
This exchange has prompted a number of comments, ranging from the illuminating to the abusive. I have answered the former, often at length, and even responded to some of the latter. There have also been extensive discussions of these issues (in which I and others have participated) on the blog of Owen, my son. In the wrap-up comments that follow, I shan’t be able to avoid repeating here some of what I have said in those other exchanges.
What kind of intelligence have we been getting from Uzbek intelligence?
Craig Murray makes the interesting point that although as ambassador in Tashkent he saw many intelligence reports based on information originating froim the Uzbeks, not one of them concerned a terrorist threat to Britain or the west. He takes this to imply that there can be no justification for receiving or ‘using’ material from Uzbek intelligence on the grounds that it might enable our security agencies to uncover and forestall a terrorist outrage in Britain and so save lives. But since intelligence reports are distributed on the ‘need to know’ principle, any Uzbek-sourced intelligence relevant to terrorism in Britain wouldn’t anyway have been copied to the British ambassador in Tashkent, who has no need to know about anti-terrorist investigations in Britain. Mr Murray would have seen only material that had a bearing on his responsibilities in connection with UK-Uzbek relations, the situation in Central Asia, the political and other internal scenes in Uzbekistan and other countries in the area, and so forth. Indeed, he confirms that the reports he saw were all concerned with such matters. But it is unsafe to infer from his not having seen reports on other matters that no such reports existed. We have no way of knowing whether they did (and do) or not.
Should we receive or use intelligence originating with agencies that practise torture?
Much of the discussion in this and other blogs has focused, understandably, on the ‘ticking bomb’ dilemma (in which information that could lead to the prevention of an imminent terrorist attack can only be provided by the Uzbeks, and we know that if we ask for it, they will use torture to obtain it). This certainly raises acute ethical problems, and the least objectionable solution to them will inevitably depend on the precise circumstances at the time. But the scenario is in itself extremely improbable. It’s much likelier that by the time the information which might lead to the detection of a terrorist plot comes into the hands of British intelligence and security officers, the torture which produced it (if any) will already have occurred. Moreover, we have Mr Murray’s own word for it that "in practice intelligence relationships in Uzbekistan were run by the CIA" (as I had surmised in my original post), and so such information from Uzbek intelligence as might reach British intelligence officers and analysts will almost always come to them via the Americans as part of the world-wide sharing of intelligence that takes place all the time among the western intelligence partners. The implication of this, though, is that the Uzbek originators of the intelligence will have no way of knowing which other national intelligence services have received which specific information from the Americans: still less will they have any way of knowing what, if any, use an indirect recipient of the information has made of it. It’s therefore difficult to argue that by receiving, or using, information (via the CIA) that may have been extracted originally by Uzbek torturers, Britain is encouraging the Uzbeks to carry on torturing, or condoning their practice of torture, or in any other way ‘complicit’ in it. In any case, so deeply embedded in Uzbek practice does the habit of torture appear to be (not only for the extraction of information but also to punish, intimidate and deter dissidents and Muslim fundamentalists, etc.), that even if Britain were to thank the Uzbeks fulsomely for their information, tell them how useful we found it, and hint strongly that we don’t mind how they choose to get it, the Uzbeks would be unlikely to be influenced in the slightest degree in the direction of inflicting more torture than would otherwise have been the case.
But in fact we know that far from hinting to the Uzbeks that we don’t mind a bit of torture on their part so long as it produces good information, Britain consistently uses such little influence as it might have with the Tashkent government to persuade it to improve its human rights behaviour and to get a political and judicial grip on the unacceptable practice of torture with a view to eliminating it. Details of the specific ways in which we have sought to press a more enlightened line on the Uzbeks have been provided regularly by ministers to parliament and the media: many of them are conveniently quoted in a compendium of such statements on the useful and informative Blairwatch blog. Mr Murray’s own speeches about human rights and torture, when he was ambassador in Tashkent, were themselves part of the British government’s effort to get the Uzbeks to raise their game. (It’s worth noting in passing that these speeches were clearly not what prompted the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to dismiss Mr Murray from his position in Uzbekistan and ultimately to ease him out of the Diplomatic Service altogether, as commonly supposed: the speeches were actually expressly endorsed in parliament by Jack Straw as foreign secretary, and quoted with FCO public endorsement in the FCO’s published annual report to parliament on human rights around the world.) There are no grounds at all, I would argue, for asserting that the British government has abandoned its commitment to the rejection of torture in all circumstances at all times, or that Jack Straw was lying when he said that the government had never sought to instigate torture in Uzbekistan or anywhere else.
Thus the highly improbable ‘ticking bomb’ scenario has diverted attention from a number of relevant realities: that most, perhaps all, material of Uzbek intelligence origin probably reaches us via the Americans or other third parties, without direct contact with Uzbek intelligence (Mr Murray has confirmed in the leaked documents that British intelligence was not represented at all in Uzbekistan while he was there); that some of this material may be relevant to the detection of terrorist activity in Britain, but much of it may concern completely different areas relating to British national interests and may be valuable as corroboration or qualification or contradiction of other material available to our intelligence analysts, for example about the intentions and activities of other countries’ governments, dissident groups, voluntary organisations and individuals, and so forth; that even intelligence deliberately fabricated in order to deceive its recipients (e.g. so as to exaggerate Uzbekistan’s real importance in the so-called ‘war on terror’ or to discredit Uzbek anti-government elements) may be useful as evidence of what the Uzbeks want us to believe and what they prefer us not to know. It could well be, therefore, that the only way to stop ‘receiving’ information originating with the Uzbek intelligence service would be to ask the Americans to eliminate it from the UK’s copies (only) of their daily intelligence digests, so that our fastidious ears and eyes should not be contaminated by knowledge of it — however potentially valuable it might be in the promotion of British national interests. This seems to me a self-evidently absurd proposition. Others are entitled to differ.
Has the British government lied to us about its policies and practices regarding torture?
Despite the huge volume of material on numerous blogs purporting to identify the smoking gun in which Jack Straw (or Tony Blair, or any other minister) has spoken about the government’s attitude to torture and information likely to have been got by torture, I have not been able to find any instance of lying or of deliberately misleading. Mr Murray writes of the government that "They have trotted out such obfuscations and circumlocutions, even in the face of direct parliamentary inquiry, that I think it now amounts to lying." I have to say that I can’t find any example of this. Many bloggers assert that Jack Straw was lying when he denied that the British government had ‘instigated’ or encouraged torture. But this is a lie only if you confuse the receipt and limited use of information, indirectly received from its originator and potentially but not necessarily obtained in the first place by torture, without the knowledge of the originators, with ‘instigating’ or encouraging torture. That seems to me a manifestly unsustainable equation of two quite different things, and Jack Straw’s denial is consequently above reproach — at least until someone comes up with evidence to the contrary. (I believe that our ministers have deliberately sought to mislead us — lied — on other matters, including Iraq, Kosovo and probably extraordinary rendition: but I can find no grounds for accusing them of lying over torture.)
Has Britain become indirectly complicit in torture by supporting and propping up the Karimov government in Uzbekistan?
Again, where’s the evidence? The limited technical assistance we have given to Uzbekistan has all, including the small military training programme, been specifically directed at promoting democracy and improvements in human rights behaviour, including in particular programmes aimed at the elimination of torture (see the details of British ‘aid’ programmes on the Blairwatch blog, cited earlier). Indeed, these could well be seen as tending to undermine the Karimov regime rather than propping it up. The US government, despite its interest in preserving its air base and other facilities in Uzbekistan, has also been active in programmes designed to move the country into more democratic ways and to eliminate human rights abuses — with the result that Karimov has now broken with Washington, closed its bases, and formed a new and close relationship with Beijing (and Moscow). Much good that will do for the oppressed Uzbek people! Anyway, it’s a strange form of complicity in torture that takes the form of aid programmes designed to wean the government off it.
If most or all of the Uzbek-sourced intelligence seen by Mr Murray was false, misleading, and intended to deceive, was it right to go on receiving and acting on it?
This is a different issue from that raised by the question of torture. Mr Murray may well have been right to believe that much of the material from Uzbek intelligence was intended to exaggerate Uzbekistan’s role in the so-called war on terror and to misrepresent anti-government or religious groups in Uzbekistan as terrorists. He may also have been right in believing that American and British intelligence, and their governments, were being taken in by this bogus information. But in the end this comes down to a matter of opinion. Mr Murray as the ambassador on the spot had access to first-hand information that may well have contradicted much of the material being supplied by the Uzbeks — and no doubt he vigorously pointed out the contradictions to London and perhaps also to his American colleagues. But the intelligence analysts in London had access to a mass of other information from other sources which was not available to Mr Murray, and were better placed in principle to judge what material was potentially useful in the light of all that other available information. As Jack Straw said in a parliamentary reply, quoted on Blairwatch:
"All intelligence is validated and assessed. It is not the Government’s policy to confirm or deny details of specific intelligence reporting. The UK intelligence agencies evaluate the reliability of all intelligence they receive before it is passed into the assessment process. This evaluation takes account of the possible motivation of the source as well as what kind of reporting record the source may have and the circumstances in which it was obtained."
But what about the intelligence on Iraq?, I hear you cry. Butler, though, established that what was wrong there was not intrinsically faulty intelligence, nor faulty assessment of its reliability, but ministers’ misrepresentations of the intelligence experts’ assessments of its reliability.
It is not uncommon for ambassadors overseas to be sceptical or deeply critical of some of the intelligence reports that cross their desks, and most of them say so in trenchant terms to London. Presumably their views are given due weight, but so are the views of others who disagree. You can’t win ’em all. No great issue of ethics or principle is at stake here.
Is torture ever justified?
My own answer is clear: No. Others think up ticking-bomb type scenarios in which torture might be said to be the lesser evil compared with inaction. Such circumstances rarely, if ever, arise. The outlawing of torture in all circumstances has for centuries been part of British common and statute law and tradition, it’s enshrined in the UN Convention Against Torture, and it’s one of the few bans in the European Convention that can never be suspended or abrogated in even the direst of national emergencies. No-one in the civilised world defends it, advocates it, or excuses it (although some voices in the United States have recently come perilously close). So it’s hard to see how the debate is in any way advanced by vivid and detailed descriptions, sometimes verging on pornography, of the terrible things known to have been done to specific victims of Uzbek or other torture. These crop up all over the blogs, and in my opinion only serve to raise the temperature of moral outrage and thus to obstruct civil and rational discussion. Rejection of torture can be taken as a given. The vileness of examples of repulsive torture has no bearing at all on the ethics of making limited use of information that may or may not have been originally obtained by torture — "limited" use, because such information can’t of course be used as a basis for detaining or deporting suspects or putting them under control orders, nor can it be used in court, if there’s a reasonable suspicion that it has been obtained by torture, under the Law Lords’ judgment of 8 December 2005. It can only be used as a possible lead to avenues of further investigation by legal means.
Was Mr Murray justified in publishing on his website the texts of confidential government documents, including one conveying confidential advice from the FCO Legal Adviser?
In my view this has done more harm than good. Mr Murray’s own telegrams do little more than confirm what we already know — that he argued passionately with the FCO that we should stop receiving or using information from the Uzbek intelligence service (and that the FCO, probably rightly, rejected that advice). The Legal Adviser’s advice has subsequently been publicly confirmed in great detail by the Law Lords’ judgment of last month. I can find nothing in it that confirms, as I think Mr Murray believes it to do, that the government receives and uses information which it knows to have been got by torture. It only says that to do so would not be contrary to the UN Convention Against Torture, and one doesn’t have to be a lawyer to see that that is so. But by this major breach of confidentiality Mr Murray has damaged the convention, essential to the frank and uninhibited discussion and decision-making process within government, that advice from officials to ministers is kept confidential until it is no longer relevant to persons then in office or to current issues. If officials’ advice and recommendations, and legal advice within departments, is liable to be published more or less immediately, officials, legal advisers and ministers will be forced to consider the effects of possible publication before committing anything to paper. This would do immense harm to the quality of the policy debate which must precede decisions.
An official who cannot in conscience defend or help to carry out a government policy which he (including she) believes to be illegal or immoral has various courses of action available to him, including appeals up through the hierarchy to the head of the civil or diplomatic service, and if these are of no avail, by requesting a move to other work. If none of these remedies provides relief, and if the official feels obliged by conscience to go public with his accusation of illegality or immorality, he must say so to his employers and resign from his service. Even then he must honour his obligations under the Official Secrets Act. Elected ministers are entitled to make policy decisions against the advice of their unelected officials, who have no right in a democracy to assert the primacy of their own political or ethical views over those of their political masters. Those who can’t accept this constraint on their freedom of public expression have no place in the public service, and should take up journalism or politics.
In a democracy an elected government must be able to rely on the loyalty and discretion of its officials, just as a person accused of a criminal offence is entitled to the best efforts in his defence of his lawyers, whatever their private opinions. I am lucky that the only two occasions in my adult lifetime on which my government committed manifestly criminal and immoral acts, involving lying to parliament and the people (Suez and Iraq), occurred before and after my time in the public service respectively. I would like to think that if I had been a public servant on either occasion, I would have had the courage to resign, despite the potentially dire material consequences for myself and my family. But I can’t persuade myself that the issues raised over torture-tainted information from Uzbekistan are in anything remotely like the same category. An official is entitled to state his views strongly and make his recommendations with suitable emphasis. But if they are not accepted after due consideration by ministers and senior officials, the official’s duty is to accept the decision and do his best to make it work.
Was Mr Murray treated fairly and humanely by the Foreign & Commonwealth office?
By his own account, no. The elaborate ‘investigation’ of obviously far-fetched allegations against him, and his effective suspension for lengthy periods from his duties as ambassador in Tashkent, inevitably raise the suspicion that the FCO was casting around for excuses to get rid of him, not because the allegations were likely to be proved correct, but in reality because he was causing increasing exasperation by refusing to accept that his advice and recommendations had been rejected, continuing to plug away at his campaign against official policy long after the decision had gone against him. When one of his more passionate telegrams to London was leaked to the Financial Times, it must be possible that the FCO did not believe Mr Murray’s denial that he had been responsible for the leak, with the implication that his disagreement over the acceptability and usability of Uzbek-sourced intelligence would sooner or later enter the public domain, potentially creating real difficulties for ministers. But on the face of it, and without being able to hear the FCO’s side of the story, it does appear that the FCO failed in its duty of care towards one of its own staff by a lack of frankness about its real objections to his behaviour, by constant investigations amounting to harassment, by a disregard of the consequences of all this for his physical health, perhaps ultimately by a failure of nerve in shrinking from dismissing him.
I have now said all that I want to say, or can usefully say, on these difficult topics, both in my earlier post and replies to comments on it, and in comments on Owen’s and other blogs. Those who wish to pursue yet further points in this overlong essay are welcome to do so in comments here, although comments which descend into personal abuse or smears will in future be promptly deleted. Craig in particular is of course more than welcome to answer anything I have said which he believes, or knows, to be wrong or unfair. Those who want to come back at me privately rather than by public comment are welcome to do so by using the Contact facility of this website. But those who send me messages or who post comments on this subject will not, I’m afraid, henceforth receive any reply from me. My views are now available at inordinate length in the blogosphere, and I just have to live as best I can with the knowledge that many of you out there don’t agree with me.
Though I see you may have moved slightly on the effectiveness of the Law Lords ruling. when you say:
and your comment 9th December included this:
Brian replies: The second of your quotations is from Lord Bingham’s judgment, not by me. I just hope that he turns out to be wrong. (Damn, I’ve already broken my new year resolution to shut up on this subject! No more, though.)
I have emailed you. Your spam (disagreement?) filter appears to have found something objectionable in among the clarificatory points I felt needed making…
I suspect that I’m the main culprit in posting comments which you found objectionable. I’m sure that I could have found a more measured way of making the same points and I therefore apologise for any offence caused.
Brian replies: I very much appreciate this, Richard. We have now had a friendly (and frank, as they say in the communiqués) exchange of e-mails about all this and I think honour is satisfied on both sides. Happy new year!
I had determined not to bother people with fruitless debate. But it has somehow got under my skin, and I will just reply to a couple of Brian’s points, though I am sorely tempted to make at least another dozen.
If Tony Blair or Jack Straw has, in the context of Uzbekistan or the context of extraordinary rendition, made a statement intended to clarify and not obfuscate the fact that we are prepared to receive intelligence obtained through torture, I have yet to see it.
The argument I find most annoying is the one that confidentiality is necessary to ensure good policy advice. What arrant nonsense!! The best advice is that which stands up best to critical examination and scrutiny. The idea that the best advice is exempt from peer review, is nonsense. Lazy or dishonest advice will flourish in secrecy. The best advice will stand up to the light of day.
Now it may be that the darkest or most Machiavellian advice will flourish in the dark, but is that how we wish to be governed? No. I had twenty years in the diplomatic service, six of them in the senior grades, and I never gave any advice I would not stand by in public.
I find it dispiriting that someone so much his own man as Brian abides by the establishment claptrap that the people are so ignorant they cannot be trusted to know what advice is being given within the gilded circle.
Brian replies: It’s an interesting point of view, Craig (about the need, or lack of it, for confidentiality of policy advice). This isn’t the place to talk it through. But I would just observe that no comparable government in the world, so far as I know, thinks it feasible to conduct its internal business in a goldfish bowl. If anyone were to be prepared to have a trial run, though, it would be fascinating to observe the results!
Brian, You sidestepped Tony Hatfield’s sliding tackle of January 4 with a shimmy worthy of a Stanley Matthews. But, at risk of inviting you to break your New Year’s vow of omerta on the subject of the Law Lords’ ruling yet again, I have to say that he seems to me to have a strong point. Hitherto you have told all and sundry that the Law Lords’ ruling was virtually useless because of the fatal flaw detected in it by Lord Bingham – namely, that the test laid down to establish that evidence has been procured by torture is impossible to meet in the real world. Now you tell us that this is just Bingham’s opinion, that it may be wrong, and that in fact the Law Lords’ ruling will exclude from court any evidence or information about which there is " a reasonable suspicion" that torture may have been used. That is a marked shift of position, surely.
Brian replies: I don’t think it’s inconsistent or evidence of a change of mind to fear that Lord Bingham will prove to be right while hoping that he won’t?
That’s just the sort of FCO sophistry that’s truly to be admired! t