Torture and the diplomat’s role
A respected fellow blogger has pointed me at some fascinating documents on the ‘leninology’ blog. These are the texts of long telegrams, all marked ‘Confidential’, sent to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London by Craig Murray when he was British ambassador to Uzbekistan. They are on Craig Murray’s website too, along with the verbatim text of the FCO legal adviser’s advice on a point raised by Murray. It’s possibly significant that the three Murray telegrams are referred to on his website as either ‘letters’ or ‘memos’, terms which no British diplomat would use in describing what were plainly ‘telegrams’ in Diplomatic Service parlance. (So who used this outsider terminology in putting the texts on the Web?)
Mr Murray’s three telegrams to the FCO were written in the context of his campaign to persuade the FCO that the UK security and intelligence services were morally, pragmatically and legally wrong to receive, or having received it, to make any use whatever of information originating with the Uzbek intelligence services, on the grounds that those services widely practise torture to get their information, that almost all information originating from them should be assumed to have been got by torture, that by definition no such information could be reliable or useful because people under torture will say anything to stop it, that the US and UK were turning a blind eye to the practice of torture by the Uzbeks because of the strategic and political importance of Uzbekistan to the west in the so-called ‘war on terror’, and that on all three grounds — moral, practical, legal — our government should no longer either receive or make any use of information received from Uzbek intelligence.
The telegrams read to me like a curious blend of crusading journalism with political reporting plus policy advice to London. I don’t suggest that this combination of three normally separate functions into single documents was illegitimate, nor even necessarily ineffectual in persuading policy decision-makers in London to Mr Murray’s point of view. On the evidence of his telegrams he writes eloquently and with passionate sincerity, although I suspect that the main reaction to them of his readers in Whitehall will have been exasperation. That probably tells us more about them than about him, but I can’t help wondering whether a less emotional, more hard-nosed approach, concentrating mainly on British national interests rather than arguments from morality, might have rung more bells, sad though that suspicion might be. But in the end his arguments were never going to prevail, because fortunately or unfortunately they don’t stand up to scrutiny.
There are several problems with Mr Murray’s recommendations and comments. The main problem concerns his condemnation of western security and intelligence agencies (and their governments) for receiving information from the Uzbek intelligence service, knowing that much of it has probably been obtained by torture: and, having received it, using it. The recent House of Lords ruling, issued of course after Mr Murray’s three telegrams, predictably distinguished between (1) the use of torture-tainted evidence in court proceedings in the UK (plainly contrary to the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), although there was previously an argument about whether that Convention was binding on UK courts, not having been incorporated in UK law), and (2) the use of torture-tainted information by the security services as a possible pointer to illegal activity in the UK requiring further investigation. As the FCO legal adviser said at the meeting in London attended by Mr Murray, and again in his written advice quoted on Mr Murray’s website, the former is contrary to UNCAT, but the latter probably isn’t. If torture-tainted information comes into the hands of our security services which points to the existence of a terrorist cell in, say, a specified address in Bradford, led by a named individual, is Mr Murray seriously suggesting that the Security Service (or Special Branch) would be wrong to investigate and to seek corroboration of the information by non-torture-tainted means ? Such a purist position on the part of those responsible for our security would be frankly absurd. Mr Murray of course says that we should refuse to receive such information in the first place. But whatever we do, fastidiously placing our hands over our ears when we meet Uzbek intelligence officers, we can be quite sure that the Americans and other western intelligence allies will not follow suit: and such is the pooling of intelligence within the intelligence community that the relevant information would anyway surface sooner rather than later in London, and at that point anyone suggesting that we should ignore it would inevitably and rightly be regarded as off his (or her) trolley. We have the word of the head of MI5 (Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller) for it that information can be operationally valuable even if it is known to have been extracted by torture, and it would be surprising if that weren’t so. The point surely is never to rely exclusively on the tainted information, but never to ignore it and always to seek untainted corroboration or refutation of it. Are we really bold and purist enough to say that even if we have grounds for believing that specific information was got by torture, we should primly draw back our skirts and ignore it? Even when there can be no absolute certainty that it really was got by torture? Mr Murray claims that virtually all the intelligence that he saw was ‘obviously’ got by torture and that all of it was ‘useless’, but (a) both assertions are inherently implausible, and (b) Mr Murray was in fact in no position to make such assertions compared with professional intelligence analysts who knew more than he did about the provenance of the information and about the extent to which it corroborated, or was corroborated by, other information of which Mr Murray can’t have been aware.
There’s another point about the extent of our ‘collaboration’ with Uzbek intelligence. According to Mr Murray’s own account, Britain’s intelligence service is not represented on the ground in Uzbekistan, or at any rate wasn’t when Mr Murray was ambassador there. It seems to follow from this that information from Uzbek intelligence is not passed to its British counterpart directly: presumably our intelligence and security services receive it via the Americans or other intelligence partners, along with a mass of other material of various kinds and from various sources. It’s hard to imagine how in such circumstances our intelligence and security services could be expected to single out material (a) from Uzbek intelligence and (b) likely to have been procured by torture, and refuse to accept it. And having read it (if only to discover the nature of its source and possible taint), it would be on the most charitable view quixotic — others might call it daft and irresponsible — to fail to follow it up or to seek corroboration of it if it seemed to provide a lead that might permit the detection and prevention of terrorist activity in Britain or activity aimed at Britons. Yet that is what Mr Murray has been demanding, and continues to demand.
In two important areas Mr Murray deserves our sympathy and a degree of support. First, it must be wrong, as he points out, for the US government (and to a much lesser extent the British) actively to prop up, subsidise and protect from international criticism a régime as odious and repressive as that of Uzbekistan’s President Karimov, purely because it suits US military, strategic and intelligence interests to have a regime in a sensitive area which allows the stationing in the country of American forces and which collaborates in the supply of intelligence. American sponsorship of such a régime undermines the west’s case in the ideological battle against extremism and terrorism and actually encourages the spread of Muslim extremism in Uzbekistan and neighbouring countries. But it would be naive to suggest that Washington should set aside its own short-term interests in maintaining the status quo in Uzbekistan and not try to balance them against the conflicting longer-term objective of encouraging a more democratic and better behaved régime there. Moreover the British FCO not only gave its prior approval to Mr Murray’s speeches as ambassador in Tashkent denouncing its government’s human rights abuses: the FCO even quoted those speeches subsequently, with its express endorsement, in its annual published report on human rights around the world. Even Mr Murray doesn’t accuse the FCO of having tried to stifle his efforts, as the British government’s representative in Uzbekistan, to publicise abuses and to call for a more enlightened form of government.
Secondly, it seems on the face of it impossible to justify the behaviour of the FCO in its efforts to get rid of Mr Murray, first from his position as ambassador in Tashkent, and subsequently from the Diplomatic Service altogether. The mounting of formal investigations into a raft of wild and improbable allegations, virtually all of them eventually droipped for lack of evidence, about his private and official behaviour and the aspersions apparently cast on his mental health, give every impression of shabby and disreputable handling of an employee to whom the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had a duty of care. It was only when classified documents which he had written began to be leaked to the British press (Mr Murray denies having leaked them himself) and then Mr Murray started to give media interviews about the way he was being treated by the FCO (in which he also confirmed the authenticity of the leaked documents and of the views and accusations expressed and made in them) that the FCO seems to have acquired a reasonable ground for ensuring that Mr Murray left the public service. Yet we shouldn’t withhold all sympathy from the FCO’s managers in all this: Mr Murray must have been an exceptionally difficult customer to manage, with his persistent and passionate advocacy of policies that no government could realistically have accepted, his refusal to accept that his recommendations had been considered but rejected, his yen for going public with his views, and his sometimes admittedly unconventional behaviour as an ambassador. Unelected public servants have to accept extensive constraints on their freedom to go public with their private opinions, especially where these conflict with the considered policies of elected ministers; and those who can’t or won’t accept those constraints can’t ultimately be accommodated within the public service.
My own conclusion from all this would be that we should use such limited influence as we might have with the Uzbeks to desist from the practice of torture (and other human rights abuses), stressing that they obstruct a mutually beneficial relationship between our two countries; we should press the Americans and others to do the same; we should not hesitate to make public our condemnation of such abuses; and we should devise material incentives to induce the Uzbeks to improve their performance. In our intelligence service’s relations with their Uzbek opposite numbers, to the extent that such relations exist, they should explain that Uzbek information provided to us but obtained by torture is far less valuable to us than information fromn untainted sources, since torture-tainted information can’t be used in our courts and can’t therefore be used by our ministers as a basis for detaining or deporting terrorists (because it can’t be used in court in response to any appeal). They should also constantly stress to the Uzbeks that torture-tainted information is inherently less likely to be reliable and accurate than information obtained by legitimate means. They should remind the Uzbeks repeatedly that information got by torture is largely useless to us, is contrary to Uzbekistan’s international obligations and is harmful to UK-Uzbek relations. They should do everything possible to bring home to the Uzbeks that in practical terms as well as ethically, torture is a lousy way to extract information. They should never give the slightest hint of encouragement of or connivance at torture. But if, after all this, they still find themselves receiving information, however tainted, that might enable an act of terrorism against the UK or British citizens to be thwarted, or detected, or terrorists identified and taken out of circulation, it must be right to act on it so as to seek to corroborate or refute it, and anyone suggesting the contrary can’t expect to be taken seriously. That, at any rate, is my admittedly somewhat reluctant view.
I haven’t attempted in this post to deal with the separate but almost equally interesting question of the rights and wrongs of publishing on the internet classified documents of this kind (i.e. Mr Murray’s three telegrams and the written advice of the FCO legal adviser). It’s right that the issues they raise should be publicly aired and debated, but there’s also a question of the damage done to the confidence of officials, diplomats and politicians that their private exchanges and advice on sensitive policy matters won’t be leaked and published, with the risk of inhibition and lack of frankness if there is a well-founded fear that they will: cf. Sir Christopher Meyer’s recent book, which I have just read with the greatest interest and considerable disapproval. It looks on the face of it as if the publication of the documents by Mr Murray is in breach of the Official Secrets Act, and indeed Mr Murray has challenged the government to prosecute him under the Act if it takes that view. Perhaps there will be a reluctance to prosecute for fear that during any trial too much dirty washing would be held up to public scrutiny over the government’s treatment of Mr Murray: and that despite clear evidence of a breach of the law, a jury might refuse to convict out of sympathy for a crusading moralist plausibly if unfairly represented as standing up to a cynical and unethical establishment. But if Mr Murray escapes unscathed from his action in publishing the documents, there’ll be a price to be paid in the quality of the essential policy debate within government and of the advice given by officials to ministers.
Postscript: After posting the comments above, I had a look at Technorati to see how much attention Mr Murray’s publication of the classified documents is getting in the blogosphere. Answer: 4,299 posts about Craig Murray including 20 posts in the last 18 hours (as of 10 pm GMT on new year’s day). I was away over Christmas and have been largely bed-bound by a filthy cold since getting back, so I hadn’t realised what a stir all this has been creating. A random sample of the blogging on the subject doesn’t inspire much confidence in the calm, objective analytical powers of a fair number of those with a view, but one or two of the appended comments do exhibit some awareness of the realities and of the moral dilemmas with which real governments, intelligence officers and diplomats are obliged to wrestle. It’s discouraging, though, to find so many people seemingly unable to accept a government’s right and duty to try to protect the confidentiality of its own classified documents and wherever possible to penalise those who betray it. And the casual elision of "complicity in torture" with "operational but not evidential use of leads for investigation regardless of their sources" is not far short of intellectual trickery. Surely there are bloggers out there who can do better than that?