In a recent post at The Sharpener, I mirrored Craig Murray’s telegrams on the British government’s attitude to the situation in Uzbekistan, with particular reference to torture and intelligence obtained through torture. I also put down some thoughts about the Uzbekistan story, which had been bothering me for a while. On one hand, the Foreign Office appeared to attach great importance to Uzbek intelligence, even if it was produced by torture – to the point where the message the British government was sending Uzbekistan was surely that torture was OK, as long as it produced more of the same. On the other, I didn’t (and don’t) see any reason to doubt Murray’s assessment of the ‘intelligence’ produced by Uzbek government thugs as ‘dross’. But if this was the case the British government’s position was both morally dubious and – perhaps more importantly – logically incomprehensible. As I wrote:
“the argument that the torture of Uzbek detainees can sometimes be justified, because it sometimes produces useful information, directly promotes the continuing torture of many other Uzbek detainees – most of whom have nothing ‘useful’ to say to any spook, and all of whom will say anything to make the torture stop.”
Following the argument to its logical conclusion, and feeling ever more like a conspiracy theorist, I added:
“And perhaps that’s what the argument is meant for. Look at it this way: Murray’s argument that the information produced by the Uzbek torturers is ‘dross’ is logically compelling and founded on first- and second-person experience (i.e. he’d talked to torture victims). If MI6 genuinely believe that the information is ‘useful’, either they have better information than Murray (which seems unlikely – ‘MI6 have no operative within a thousand miles of me’) or they’re extraordinarily dim. If we dismiss both possibilities, we must assume that they know as well as Murray that the information’s no good – and that information isn’t what all this is about. Perhaps the fundamental, non-negotiable starting-point isn’t the War on Terror but the Uzbek government itself, and its alliance with the US and Britain.”
Murray has subsequently written a very interesting comment on Brian Barder’s blog. From which:
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.
Perhaps ‘selling our souls for dross’ is an emotive phrase which didn’t belong in diplomatic correspondence. Perhaps Murray should have acknowledged that there might be broader international considerations which, in the view of the Foreign Office, justified or even mandated conniving in Uzbek torture. But that’s as far as I can go in meeting Murray’s critics halfway. The situation he describes is morally disgusting and of borderline legality; it’s also strategically myopic, answering more to Britain’s current subordinate role within Bush’s neo-conservative alliance than to any longer-term assessment of the prospects for Central Asia. As such, it sets a dangerous precedent and should end.