Diplomacy, Dictatorship and the Uses of Torture 126

There is a major profile of me in the latest Der Spiegel.


It is slightly overdrawn in its desire to paint a contrast between Ambassador Neuen and I, but is not unfair. Where it is wrong is its easy acceptance of the false dichotomy: is it better to suck up to a dictator and gain quiet influence over him, or to take a moral high stand but have no influence?

The mistake is in believing that crawling to a dictatorial regime makes them respect you. In fact the diplomatic cringe posture only enhances the super bloated ego and confidence of power of Karimov and his minions. They perceive diplomatic circumspection as weakness, and they despise the weak.

Remember, the senior officials of the Karimov regime have not encountered a single person — except Karimov himself – who dared to speak to them roughly, for decades. Almost everyone they meet, they have the power to have killed. Let me say that again so it sinks in. Almost everyone they meet, they have the power to have killed. They do have people killed, not infrequently.

The example given in the Der Spiegel article of forcing diplomats to wait for three hours in baking 105 degree heat – quite deliberately – for a ceremony to start, is not a major thing in itself, but is a demonstration of contempt.

By taking a different, robust and forceful approach, I shocked the Karimov regime and I simultaneously gave them world exposure they really didn’t like. In consequence I had far more influence with them – they hated me, but could not ignore me. When the British government moved to remove me, every single British company in Uzbekistan wrote to Jack Straw to protest, stating in terms that I was the most effective Ambassador for British interests. You will find the letters in Murder in Samarkand.

British influence evaporated when the British government made plain to Karimov I did not have their support for a strong line. Britain has had no influence ever since. On your knees is not a position of influence.

Diplomacy is also on my mind with relation to torture. Two former British Ambassadors, Brian Barder and Charles Crawford, have both attacked my analysis of the recent speech of John Sawers, head of MI6. Sawers’ speech was a defence of torture thinly disguised as a condemnation of torture.


I will not waste much time on Charles Crawford, whose efforts are less of a blog and more a public exhibition of Attention Deficit Disorder. But Brian Barder is in an altogether different class, and his views merit further consideration.


Brian makes an argument that I have juxtaposed quotes from Sawers’ speech which were not actually next to each other. He claims that Sawers does not say that we receive intelligence from torture, or that Ministers have approved it.

Brian is talking total rubbish, To quash these accusations of misrepresentation, this is an unedited extract from Sawers’ speech:

“We also have a duty to do what we can to ensure that a partner service will respect human rights. That is not always straightforward.

Yet if we hold back, and don’t pass that intelligence, out of concern that a suspect terrorist may be badly treated, innocent lives may be lost that we could have saved.

These are not abstract questions for philosophy courses or searching editorials. They are real, constant, operational dilemmas.

Sometimes there is no clear way forward. The more finely-balanced judgments have to be made by Ministers themselves.”

There is no doubt that this means that we receive intelligence from torture by other security services, and that this is decided by Ministers. It can mean nothing else. Especially if you consider the background given here.


Of course, Sawers carefully does not use the “T” word here and only uses it in a passage condemning torture, passed to and swallowed by our complacent media. That is precisely the dishonesty which so annoys me.

The curious thing is that both Brian and Charles, like Sawers, are enthusiastic supporters of the argument that we ought to get intelligence from torture by others. As Brian says:

“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.”

Let us state the points where I agree with Brian. I accept that MI6 does not torture people. I accept that MI6 does not specifically hand over people to be tortured, request that detainees are tortured, or observe torture.

But Brian completely fails to take account of the UK/US intelligence sharing agreement. Under this. MI6 and the CIA share all intelligence. The Americans do all the things in the above list. Waterboarding and other physical tortures are just one part of the American arsenal. Under extraordinary rendition, hundreds were knowingly delivered up to torture. I have received direct eye witness evidence of CIA staff physically present at torture sessions in Uzbekistan. As Brian knows, MI6 will have received every US intelligence report received from all this activity. And there are numerous examples of MI6 staff assisting the CIA in getting suspects into the extraordinary rendition system. As Brian knows, the human intelligence reports circulating Whitehall are perhaps three to one CIA not MI6 sourced – but the CIA reports in London have been processed and issued through MI6. How does this affect the “Clean Hands” claims Brian accepts from Sawers.

But the fatal flaw in Brian’s – and Sawers’ argument is the frankly pathetic notion that, by regularly and gratefully receiving intelligence from dictatorships which they obtained by torture, we do not condone or encourage torture. Brian hides behind the “ticking bomb” argument that falsely posits that intelligence from torture is rare and relates to an instant and preventable threat. Brian has simply not answered this entire section of my article:

“It is the old man I met who had his children tortured before his eyes until he admitted false family ties with al-Qaida. It is the woman raped with the broken bottle, It is the lady who lived opposite me whose father was blinded as a political prisoner, and who was held down while a truck was run over her legs. All of that and thousands more did not stop the government, despite my profound objections as Ambassador, from accepting intelligence from the Uzbek torture chambers via the CIA.

John Sawers relies on the “ticking bomb” fallacy – the idea that torture happens to real terrorists and they give precise timely information to avert an imminent threat. That is a Hollywood scenario. There has never ever been a real life example that meets the ticking bomb cliche.

We encourage torture, we create a market for it, by accepting its fruits. The regimes who pass us this intelligence know we accept it, and they feel supported and reinforced in their abuse of human rights. Why would they take Western rhetoric seriously on human rights when they know we lap up the products of their torture chamber?

Remember the torturers are not altruists but agents of very nasty regimes. The information passed to us by those regimes is not for our good, but for the good of those regimes – and normally to convince us that the opponents of those regimes are all terrorists, whether true or not. In Uzbekistan, every bit of intelligence we could verify from the Embassy, eg on terrorist training camps in named locations in the hills, turned out to be untrue. Yet the intelligence services lapped up the Uzbek information because it greatly exaggerated the strength of al-Qaida in Central Asia, thus providing a spurious justification for our support of Central Asian dictators, whose help we wanted for our Afghan policy and for access to their hydrocarbons.

Torture does not get you the truth. It gets you what the torturer wants to hear. People will say anything, as their arm is held in boiling liquid, to make the pain stop. The regimes who do this do not hold truth as a high priority.

The torture material regularly received by the UK government is from countries where the vast, overwhelming majority of the people tortured are not terrorists at all but merely dissidents from abhorrent regimes. I speak from first hand knowledge.”

PerhapsBrian would like to answer it now.

Lastly, I am genuinely very saddened to see Brian joining in the smears against me with this:

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.

Forget politeness Brian. I have no doubt you have been fed poison from some FCO related source. The best thing with poison is to spew it up.

A final point. The main object of my original post was to start some debate within the Lib Dem blogosphere. Yet no Lib Dem blogger has come forward to defend our ministers. I am not sure many activists currently see some of them as worth defending.

If after reading Brian’s harrumphing you need an antidote, there is an excellent article on Sawers’ pro-torture diatribe here:


126 thoughts on “Diplomacy, Dictatorship and the Uses of Torture

1 2 3 5
  • Freeborn

    And there was me thinking Der Spiegel was part of the Zionist-owned media network hyping the neo-Nazi threat and “antisemitism” in Germany.

    There was me thinking Der Spiegel has been avidly spewing Wikileaks smears against Israel’s chosen enemies.

    Lo and behold suddenly the guy who presented Julian Assange with an award for his “leaks” last month is now feted to the skies in none other than Der Spiegel!

    Maybe Der Spiegel needs reminding that Craig Murray once described Zionism as bullshit!

    I’ll just get this email off now to jog their memories!


    Waiting for the scissors Mr Truth Suppressionist!

  • anon

    Craig, tell the guys that do your website that they need to ensure that any hyperlinks open another window and keep you page open. You get what i mean.

  • Steelback

    Now who said the Germans have no sense of humour?

    The Der Spiegel piece has been read as a paeon to a man of courage by Craig’s narcissism but by the rest of us ordinary mortals as one big piss-take!

    The film with its working class hero with a rebellious streak and a pronounced sense of justice will be a box office smash destined to see Craig achieve international stardom.

    Are Der Spiegel with their description of Craig as sporting blonde hair and tinted glasses trying to make our Scottish Braveheart just a little bit too German? I mean making him sound like Himmler the chicken-farmer made good is bit below the belt isn’t it?

    This piece is a film trailer isn’t it. The images in it are etched on to my memory already.

    Our “Maharaja of Whiskeypur” turning up when the sun had gone down (i.e. deliberately LATE) in his kilt at a Karimov junket in Tashkent. That is so filmic by God! It’s The Last King of Scotland all over again!

    The same protagonist trawling the bellydancing and strip-joints of Tashkent like a “macho party animal” ultimately to be tamed by Nadira.

    According to Der Spiegel there’s a real possibility that Angelina Jolie will play Nadira and the film will be produced by Brad Pitt!

    You couldn’t make it up!

    ADL says as long as Craig plays by the rules and makes no more speeches re-Zionism being “bullshit”; as long as his comment board gives no quarter to “Holocaust deniers” and “anti-semites” they have no objection to Metro Goldwyn going ahead with the project!


  • craig

    I fear that the news about Pitt and Jolie is no longer relevant – they have lost interest.

    Please keep you obnoxious and entirely irrelevant views on the holocaust out of it.

  • Leo


    If you want a link to open in a new window, right-click it and choose Open In New Window.

    (Or, in a tabbed browser, click it with the middle button. Or hold shift or ctrl when you click it… Or configure your browser to open new windows by default.)

    With normal links everyone has the option of opening them how they want at the time. You just have to know how to use your web browser.

    OTOH, if all links are forced into new windows it removes that option. (I don’t want links opening new windows if I’m done reading the a page they’re on or only came back to a page to find that link I saw earlier.)

  • the_leander

    When did the comments get like this? Before there was discussion and information sharing.

    Now it seems infested by trolls like Steelback at every new post.

  • Tom Welsh

    Sawers declared that

    “Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not there as a cover up. Secrecy plays a crucial part in keeping Britain safe and secure”.

    The trouble is that, ever since Tony Blair assured us all that Saddam Hussein could deploy nuclear weapons to attack us in 45 minutes – a statement he knew to be entirely untrue – I have not been able to believe anything that our government says without independent confirmation. So when they say that secrecy is vital to combat terrorism, but that they can’t give us any details, I tend to suspect that there is no terrorism and they are making the whole thing up.

    Sawers also stated, quite amazingly, that

    “There is no one reason for the terrorist phenomenon. Some blame political issues like Palestine or Kashmir or Iraq. Others cite economic disadvantage. Distortions of the Islamic faith. Male supremacy. The lack of the normal checks and balances in some countries. There are many theories”.

    It is indeed possible that some Muslims (and others) might be unreasonably upset just because we killed about 1.5 million of them, wounded and bereaved at least as many again, made several millions homeless, destroyed their nation’s infrastructure and government, and (last but not least) turned Iraq into a playground for terrorists whom Saddam never tolerated.

    Note how Sawers carefully places Iraq third and last, behind Palestine and Kashmir. Also how he hedges: “Some blame…”

    Frankly, I don’t trust this man any more than I did Blair and Bush.

  • Clark

    “The mistake is in believing that crawling to a dictatorial regime makes them respect you”.

    Precisely. It is clear that UK/US treatment of a regime depends upon what the UK/US wants from it, not how it treats its people. Compare and contrast UK/US treatment of Uzbekistan and Iraq circa 2002 for a glaring example.

  • Charles Crawford


    You accuse me of Attention Deficit Disorder? Excellent.

    As per the private email exchanges going on, the disagreements between us are all about some simply stated but broadly unanswerable moral/political questions:

  • Alfred

    “But the fatal flaw in Brian’s – and Sawers’ argument is the frankly pathetic notion that, by regularly and gratefully receiving intelligence from dictatorships which they obtained by torture, we do not condone or encourage torture.”

    So when will you advocate termination of intelligence sharing arrangements with the US and an end to British “crawling” to an American regime that engages in kidnap, torture, criminal wars of aggression and assassination?

  • Clark

    Charles Crawford,

    there is much in your posts with which I would argue, but for now I’ll just take your last point, about the Pole who was tortured. In this case, the truth and what the torturers wanted to hear happened to coincide – this cannot be determined in advance. The effective part was finding that man, not torturing him.

    The Uzbek policy of using torture to extract confessions, be they true or false, ensures that the chance of finding (and importantly, recognising) any truth by this method is vanishingly small.

  • Anonymous

    John Sawers relies on the “ticking bomb” fallacy – the idea that torture happens to real terrorists and they give precise timely information to avert an imminent threat. That is a Hollywood scenario. There has never ever been a real life example that meets the ticking bomb cliche.

    But that’s the whole point Hollywood IS REAL. It’s the reality which these people operate in!

  • Alfred


    I do advocate those things. I thought that was clear.”

    Oh, OK. Thank you for the clarification. That makes for consistency.

  • Charles Crawford



    Aren’t there two possibilities:

    – the torturers want X to confess to belonging to a secret group. The victim says whatever they want to hear to shut them up. All they want is a confession, true or false.

    – the torturers want to know who else is in the group or where their weapons are hidden, ie specific facts unknown to them but known to the victim. He tells them. This is new information which they did not have – and can verify independently, perhaps without using torture on others.

    Very different situations. My Polish interlocutor confessed to both. In those circs the torture ‘worked’. Not of course that this justifies it.

    It goes without saying that ‘information’ extracted from oppressive methods overseas should not be believed a priori. But there are some categories of information which can be independently verified. It’s that sort of information which the House of Lords ruled COULD be used by HMG eg for national security purposes, but COULD NOT be used in court by HMG eg to convict a terrorist who might not be convicted without that evidence.

    This is a key moral and policy distinction in the whole debate which is often overlooked, not least alas on this website.

  • Freeborn

    Better let Foxman,Angelina Jolie and Jon Voigt know the humourless Ubersturmfuhrer Murray has now taken down their emails.

    Still let’s hope Craig Murray has now learned his lesson and remembers to spell Holocaust with a capital “H” from now on.

    Otherwise he can kiss Hollywood’s butt goodbye!

    P.S. Mind you I think we can now take it that Mr Murray is less obsessed with celebrities like these than he was before they dumped him!

  • Alfred

    Talk of “ticking time-bombs” is solely for the purpose of convincing your average more or less cowardly Daily Mail reader that if they don’t support Karimov’s practice of boiling people alive they face a terrible risk of being blown-up on the tube. But in fact the presumed value of intelligence from Uzbekistan is in its relevance to the real war in Central Asia and has nothing whatever to do with domestic security.

    So the justification for accepting intelligence from torture depends on two lies. First, that there are people in Uzbekistan or some other far-away country about which Britons know nothing who are seriously intent on blowing up London commuters. And second that the risk of being killed by terrorists is something to be really, really afraid of, and almost as great a danger as drowning in your bath tub or falling down an unguarded elevator shaft.

  • Brian Barder

    No time to respond today in the detail that your post here demands and deserves, Craig. I’ll do so as soon as I can. Fortunately Charles Crawford’s extremely lucid comments here will save me the trouble of making the same points again. I often disagree with Charles, sometimes rather strongly, but on the questions at issue here, he’s spot on.



  • technicolour

    Alfred: well put. Still, Daily Mail readers have consciences: they are not so easily persuaded to abandon them. What matters is that we think they are.

    Otherwise I find it almost unbearable that the story of some poor tortured soul is being used to prove that torture ‘works’, as Charles Crawford puts it. Charles, you add: ‘not that this justifies it’, but you are using this man’s agony to justify your claim that torture can extract useful information. Is that, I wonder, what he would have wanted?

    In fact, whether torture ‘works’ or not should be beside the point, I think. Many vicious crimes seem to ‘work’ – for the perpetrator: the Krays, for example, were extremely successful. Should we have applauded them, rewarded them, claimed them as partners? Should we have let them carry on, on the grounds that at some point they might be useful to us?

    ‘Yes’, say Brian Barder and Charles Crawford. ‘You, member of the public’ they continue; ‘you may personally never torture your neighbour in order to find out information which might or might not be useful or true, but let us assure you, it happens, and let us further assure you, it is necessary for us to argue that it is necessary’.

    As Clark pointed out on another thread, there is another way which doesn’t involve jesuitical inhumanity and pointless wrangling over ‘fine details’. But whether we have an FCO of the calibre to pursue it, after years of diplomacy being subordinated to apparently commercial interests (I like the fact that Craig was successful in pursuing UK commercial interests too), is another question. No, is the obvious answer. And so the slope gets slippier, until we all slide down with it.

  • somebody

    For Barder and Crawford


    And nothing in life shall sever,

    The chain that is round us now,

    And nothing in life shall sever,

    The chain that is round us now.’

  • Alfred

    Charles Crawford states:

    “Getting ‘information’ direct via ‘liaison’ from a government practising torture which gives you that information is one thing. Getting the same information eg from an agent working for you or by secretly intercepting that government’s communications is surely another.”

    So we are to differentiate between intelligence from torture that has been supplied by the torturer and for which some reciprocal consideration, or reward, will be expected, and intelligence obtained by bugging the bastards’ telephone lines or torture chambers without thus placing the recipient under an obligation to the torturer.

    This, it seems to me, hardly disposes of Craig’s objection to intelligence from torture since we can assume that for the most part we are talking of intelligence voluntarily supplied by torturers acting in collaboration with US government intelligence agencies or contractors and most likely also with the British SIS or Canada’s CSIS. Moreover, even if intelligence from torture is intercepted without the torturer’s knowledge, there is an incentive both to avoid actions that could bring the torture to an end and to undertake actions that promote torture — thereby creating a serious moral dilemma.

    It is not difficult to conceive of rare circumstances under which most people would agree that the application of torture was morally justified. In such circumstances, intelligent and responsible members of the police or military will usually act in accordance with the interests of society, even at grave risk to their own interest.

    The problem with legalizing torture is that it becomes a routine bureaucratic process conducted on a large scale and with little intelligence or moral judgment applied in particular cases. That’s what we saw at Abu Ghraib and what, apparently, happens in Uzbekistan.

    The West won the cold war not only because we had jeans and sneakers but because western society was judged to be morally superior to that of the communist dictators, with their torture chambers and slave labor camps. By advocating the use of intelligence from routinely employed torture, the British Government inflicts damage on the credibility (what remains of it) of Western civilization.

  • Charles Crawford


    I mentioned the dismal issue of whether torture ‘works’ only because Craig and many others here insist that any information gained from torture is necessarily worthless/wrong.

    It’s surely exactly the other way round. It’s because torture sometimes ‘works’ (ie it sometimes produces new and accurate information) that we have a moral dilemma over using it or not!

    Alfred makes a huge and wrong logic leap, somehow assuming that somehow I am calling for ‘legalising’ torture or somehow ‘advocating it. I’m not, of course.

    All I am pointing out is that the law of the land – in a judgement praised by Craig himself – allows certain sort of ‘tainted’ information to be used for certain limited purposes but not others.

    Finally, the significance of the distinction between dealing directly (or even indirectly) with torturers and bugging their telephones is a key one as a matter of law. The first takes one down the ‘complicity’ road which Craig rightly objects to. The latter (I think) doesn’t.

    On diplomatic technique, Craig claims that he had influence with the Uzbek regime:

    “By taking a different, robust and forceful approach, I shocked the Karimov regime and I simultaneously gave them world exposure they really didn’t like. In consequence I had far more influence with them – they hated me, but could not ignore me.”

    I see what he is getting at. But I suspect that having an impact (as he did) is not the same as having influence. That’s the issue the Spiegel article rather limply tackles.

    One of the ways you get influence in places like that is working closely with torturers or the people who preside over torturers, hoping to get them slowly but surely to change course. Dirty work, and not that different from what MI6 have to do?

    Which is why Craig rightly was pleased that the ghastly President’s own daughter came to his Reception. And why it makes just no sense for him to jeer at the current Ambassador for meeting her at a fashion show she organised.

    A huge weakness in Craig’s core position is his inability to articulate how best to make and sustain influence in a place like Uzbekistan over time, including by building up alliances with other Ambassadors and key people at HQ.

    His book describes with painful accuracy how, far from doing this, he quickly fell out with almost all of them. Never his fault, of course.

    Energy and passion are really important. But just not enough?

  • nextus

    Credit to you, Charles, for an admirably level-headed analysis (@3:39pm). That one’s worth pinning on the noticeboard. Your follow-ups on diplomacy are worth noting too, and I don’t mean to distract by returning to Sawers’s speech (which I welcome, incidentally).

    The speech dealt with some uncomfortable topics, but it was replete with rhetoric and misdirection. It pays to analyse the rhetoric and understand why it was used in favour of more neutral expressions.

    He did indeed condemn torture. Hooray! However, in his moral machinations, he only alluded to idealistic torture scenarios where cruelties are inflicted on “terrorists or would-be terrorists” (devils that they are!) to force them to reveal crucial secrets which are then wired back to the Western intelligence network which passes it on to governments so that lives can be saved. Hooray again! Yet he emphasised that the UK does not command such cruelties. More hoorays!

    Do you see what’s missing? What about the dodgy information from dubious sources? What about politically-motivated human rights abuses in the name of the war on terror? The only allusion to foreign intelligence agency abuses were generic and ambiguous expressions such as “weighed alongside other information”, “placed in a wider context”. When he spoke about the JIC’s actual practical dilemmas (“Let me explain how it all works in practice”), his language changed. The torture talk was euphemistically softened (“may be treated badly”), and his descriptions of MI6 operatives’ activities built up to a crescendo of superlatives, as if they can do no wrong. The selective downplaying of authoritarian brutality by “partner” regimes and the human suffering it inflicts requires some explanation. Craig has argued that compliance with unethical regimes is strategically advantageous to the government for reasons other than security – an idea that is at least worth considering.


  • nextus

    Now those ‘idealised’ cases of torture are controversial enough; they have exercised moral philosophers for centuries. You favour a consequentialist argument, which relies on some element of quantification (how many people are tortured, how many plots foiled, how many lives saved?). But there are other crucial factors in the moral calculation. You cannot ignore the real abuses that occur as a consequence of accepting the fruits of torture. Amongst many other points, Craig is protesting that some regimes engage in a much more sinister torture strategy – in which dissidents are mutilated, raped, or executed – under the false pretext of procuring information vital to national security. I think we are agreed that he has proved that it actually happens. A responsible consequentialist can’t pick and choose which consequences to acknowledge and which to exclude. But that’s what Sawers and other establishment figures are conspicuously trying to do. The euphemisms and the fudging are giveaways.

    In his speech, Sawers focused on the idealised “ticking-bomb” scenario and reflected on the genuine moral dilemmas it entails. He denied that the UK initiates torture, but he admitted that in some cases “credible” intelligence is passively received from dubious sources. He neglected to mention the non-credible intelligence, or the transitive co-operation agreements with abusive intelligence agencies (shhh! we must have “secrecy”!). These things are protected by the “blind-eye” policy implemented by the government. Craig has witnessed the horrors it implicitly allows, and he has evidence of that the UK government is unwilling to challenge them, at least directly. What does that say for our respect for human rights?

    The idealised moral argument being touted by MI6 and the FCO excludes the consideration of consequential human rights abuses that should have a serious bearing on foreign policy decisions. If you don’t initiate abuses, don’t look at them, and don’t talk about them, you don’t have to take responsibility for any influence your actions may have on them, right? (If you are tempted to assent, please drop the utilitarian banner and enrol on an Ethics101 course. You may be a pragmatist, but you’re not a utilitarian.)

    If the government was to officially acknowledge the additional ethical complications of torture in abusive regimes, that would be a great advance of political rationality. Of course, it would probably affect the public attitude towards complicity with the CIA and other intelligence agencies, which may be embarrassed by the revelations. Sawers’s carefully crafted speech is yet another example of the absolute unwillingness to acknowledge these problematic cases in official policy statements. The evidence of rhetorical spin is there in black and white. It’s immature and insulting.

    And the LibDems appear to be signing up to it. Jeremy Browne’s speech to the LibDem conference exemplified a wilful neglect of the most appalling cases of human rights abuse. This is a hypocritical stance for a supposedly anti-authoritarian party.

    Foreign affairs are extremely complex, as are international economics, and both phenomena are resistant to manipulation by ideologues. Turning a blind eye to abuses for pragmatic reasons, while concealing the policy from the public, may work in short term, but the growing discrepancy between the idealised model and the real world soon leads to gross misjudgements, and major discrepancies start to accrue. The financial bubble has burst catastrophically, and its ethical analogue is already upon us, not just in the “toy” examples of international terrorism, but in a global political backlash which is affecting multiple domains (including domestic policy, travel and immigration). The US/UK alliance will have to progressively adapt its position or retreat, and it had better do so in a controlled manner. One hopes that the lessons of the abuses during the staggered demise of the British Empire have been noted and heeded. One is not yet optimistic that this is the case.

  • Alfred

    “Alfred makes a huge and wrong logic leap, somehow assuming that somehow I am calling for ‘legalising’ torture or somehow ‘advocating it. I’m not, of course.”

    Charles, I clearly did not say that you were calling for “legalizing” torture. When I spoke of “legalizing” torture, I spoke of those regimes that routine practice torture, presumably in accordance with law, e.g., the US in Iraq and the Uzbeks in Uzbekistan.

    Thus practised, I said that torture “becomes a routine bureaucratic process conducted on a large scale and with little intelligence or moral judgment applied in particular cases. That’s what we saw at Abu Ghraib and what, apparently, happens in Uzbekistan.”

    Further, I said that by advocating the use of intelligence from routinely employed torture (i.e., legalized torture), “the British Government inflicts damage on the credibility (what remains of it) of Western civilization.”

    The reason, I suggest, that the British Government publicly justifies use of intelligence routinely obtained by torture is to validate its claim that Britain is under constant and massive terrorist threat, that is to say, a threat that can be countered only by the most extreme measures including collaboration with regimes that habitually engage in crimes against humanity.

    Perhaps you would like to address the argument; namely, that collaboration with tyrants and torturers has a down side that may exceed any derived benefits.

  • Charles Crawford


    Very eloquent, if I might say so. I agree with much of the broad sense of it.

    I’m at a loss to see what else you want. You’ve just had the head of MI6 talking with unprecedented frankness about some of these dilemmas. Sure, he used some euphemisms, but we all know what he meant, at least as far as the examples he gave were concerned. He was (I gather) much praised by many journalists afterwards for his frankness, including in the ‘background’ Q&A afterwards. ‘Spin’? Or a big step forward?

    You say this: “A responsible consequentialist can’t pick and choose which consequences to acknowledge and which to exclude. But that’s what Sawers and other establishment figures are conspicuously trying to do.” Really? I don’t see it that way.

    We all know these torturous places are ghastly. Good grief, the whole point about Sir John and Craig and myself is that we have all lived as British diplomats in countries where desperate human rights abuses were perpetrated, and we have each done our best to draw honest policy conclusions about what works to make things better – and what is the best way to sustain what works. Reasonable people do differ here.

    Take it from me, this sort of work in such places is wearying and as Sir John put it even ‘draining’, in good part because we do take these issues seriously. I take strong issue with Craig in part because he leaps to denounce everyone among his former colleagues who disagrees with him as motivated by hypocrisy or bad faith, or claims that they must be ‘advocating’ torture. Not fair.

    Sir John did not I think mention a ‘ticking bomb’, let alone focus on it as you claim. He did talk about cases where we get information which may save lives – not the same thing. See this latest aircraft bombing threat for a real-life example.

    Jeering as Craig does (in effect) that that bomb was not going to go off, ergo public concern is contrived, strikes me as contemptible. Because the hard-core terrorists are under so much pressure from a wide network of governments, they often end up using amateur killers instead. All over the world these people do get lucky almost every day, mainly murdering people in poorer countries who lack the skilled services needed to thwart them.

    You drew a distinction between credible and non-credible intelligence. I don’t think that takes us far. We only know which is which by a lot of painstaking work, often done in great urgency behind the scenes as Sir John bluntly described.

    Hope that helps.

  • Charles Crawford


    “Perhaps you would like to address the argument; namely, that collaboration with tyrants and torturers has a down side that may exceed any derived benefits.”

    I 100% agree with you. The whole problem arises because it is not easy to weigh up all the imponderables to work out where the right balance of action lies. Short-term v long-term. Likely modest successes against less likely larger successes. And so on.

    Isolating these places (not that everyone wants to isolate repressive regimes – see Burma) never gets quick wins and usually makes things worse. Engaging with them legitimises the regime and demoralises local reformers.

    I have written extensively on my own site and indeed within the FCO on the dilemmas our diplomats and politicians face precisely for these reasons. See indeed Craig’s pride that he was promoting UK business in Uzbekistan – some of which will have helped indirectly boost the regime’s credibility.

    None of this is easy.

  • technicolour

    Charles: Surely you know that Craig was faced with 17 false charges and effectively driven out of post. How was he supposed to ‘sustain influence’, exactly?

    As for your other points, I hear the sound of moral compasses being crushed under the boot of casuistry. It is not the FCO’s fault that they currently represent this government, admittedly. But you must remember the enthusiasm which greeted the idea of an ‘ethical foreign policy’, before New Labour quickly disabused everyone of that notion. Have you ever speculated what might happen if we adopted one, or what one would look like?

  • Alfred

    “None of this is easy.”

    But one has to decide.

    One does not defend the Western tradition of respect for human rights by conniving at hideous torture routinely conducted by corrupt and brutal dictatorships, even if such torture occasionally saves a few innocent lives.

    If human rights are important, they are worth fighting for and, if necessary, dying for.

    That must be obvious to the great majority of thoughtful people. Therefore, when governments claim the right to accept intelligence routinely obtained by torture they clearly demonstrate that they are not with us, but against us.

1 2 3 5

Comments are closed.