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 http://www.mi6.gov.uk/output/about-us.html ) 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.)