Sunday, July 16, 2006
I arrived in Shepherd's Bush, dimly wondering what I would be thinking about if I were The Guardian's Emma Brockes or The Independent's Johann Hari. I should be thinking of trying to tease a quotable out of him, and perhaps peering around looking for incidental geographical or physical facts that could somehow be used to imply something about his character. Clothing, furniture, street names, anything that might be used to indicate the subject's guilt. I'm still thinking this when I enter the sitting room and scan the bookshelves and things, but my imagination fails me. Historical books. Novels. Languages. Nothing portentous here. The stock of literary cliches escapes me. And that, boys and girls, is why I run a blog, and Brockes gets paid by the Guardian Media Group. Anyway, after some banter - Murray has a diplomat's way of putting you at ease - I'm off with my questions, ones that I'm acutely aware must have been asked a few thousand times already. First of all, if you've read the accounts, you know that the Uzbek government stands accused of boiling dissidents to death, raping them with broken bottles, smashing their teeth in, pulling out their fingernails - one of the West's principal allies in the 'war on terror', which is often cast as one for liberal values, has been a dictatorship that, according to Murray, is every bit as bad as Saddam's was. This regime also happened to be one of the main suppliers of 'intelligence' to the West. I wonder was there any sense in which he expected to encounter this repression and terror when he decided to work in Uzbekistan?
"No," he replies, "I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was. I had worked under dictatorships, for example in Nigeria and in Ghana under Rawlings. Rawlings wasn’t a nice man, he was a bastard, he killed people, but in the whole of his reign it was probably around a dozen people actually killed by him. Ibrahim Babingida in Nigeria was also a bastard, but his dictatorship was tempered by inefficiency. An effective totalitarian state was something I had never seen before, and unless you have seen one, it is very difficult to explain what it was like – the fear, no one trusts anyone, any form of social cohesion has been totally stripped away by the state. I wasn’t prepared for that."
He goes on with a slight smile: "In a way, of course, I didn’t have to be prepared because unless you lived down there in society, you wouldn’t really notice any of this. My predecessor, and I fear my successor, would spend time in the golf clubs and with businessmen and military attaches, and they would have no encounter with the terror. I have been known for getting my hands dirty – going out and seeing what it’s like. I’ll give you an example: in Poland in, I think it was around 1995, Aleksander Kwasniewski – the former communist – won the Presidency. I was the First Secretary in the Embassy in charge of the political and economics section. And I had not spent much time in Warsaw at all, I’d been round the country speaking to local people, police and so on. A lot of information came from drinking in pubs with local people, and it became very obvious to me that Kwasniewski would win it. Everyone had taken for granted that Lech Walesa, the post-communist hero of the West, would win. And I wrote telegrams explaining this. Indeed, on the very night that Kwasniewski won, I wrote a telegram back to London, explaining that he would win and predicting by what margin – I can’t remember the figure, but I was very close, within 0.01%. Immediately that same evening, my boss sent an urgent message back to London urging them to ignore it, no one else in the embassy thought that Kwasniewski would win it, Craig Murray’s talking bollocks. Kwasniewski did win, and the reason I knew he won and he had won handsomely, was that Walesa had done very well in Warsaw, Gdansk and Krakow, which is where most diplomats spend their time if they’re in Poland, but I had been all over the country and he had lost almost everywhere else."
I asked Murray how he first came to encounter the repression that he describes. I wondered if he had been presented with a lot of documentary evidence or if he witnessed some persecution himself.
Well: "It started with me in first three weeks of arriving going to witness a dissident trial, and it was absolutely terrifying. It was like a Nazi show trial, they had dissidents signing confessions saying not only that they had been to Afghanistan, but that they actually met bin Laden – it was that obvious. And the prisoners were looking dishevelled and beaten, and they were surrounded by armed guards and the judge was screaming at them. It was an extraordinary, terrifying experience. Within a few days of that, I received photographs of one prisoner who had been boiled to death at the notorious Jaslyk prison complex. He later turned out to have been a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. But word got around – the attendance at a dissident trial created a ripple effect because in general no one showed any interest. Very soon, people were beating a path to my door, relatives of those who had been imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, murdered. And over time I started to get a picture of torture at an industrial level, with the common factor that if they were dissidents they were made to sign confessions indicating that they were connected with Al-Qaeda and if they weren’t dissidents, they had to name ten other people as being connected with Al Qaeda – and it was ludicrous, these were people they had never even met!
"Then I began to get CIA intelligence reports repeating these exact claims as trustworthy intelligence, and it didn’t take much to notice that connection. But I made one tactical mistake when I discovered it. I imagined that MI6, although they have no station in Tashkent because it’s too dangerous and poor for them – they don’t have a station anywhere you can’t get a cappuccino – but I imagined that it was low-level MI6 and CIA operatives collaborating with Uzbek officials and channelling this dreck out as information. I thought that if I sent back this information to London, the Home Secretary would read about it and it would stop. In retrospect, that was incredibly naïve of me, because in the end I got stopped."
That brings me nicely to the next question: how did the conflict with the British government and their allegations against him unfold?
"In late August 2003, I think it was, they started coming out with allegations. They had asked me to step down, and I said ‘bugger off’ and I refused, and that’s when all these claims started to appear. I fought them, successfully, and I was able to stay on in my role. The allegations were finally defeated in January 2004. It was in October 2004 that one of my telegrams was leaked to the Financial Times, and then the allegations came out again. I didn’t leak the telegram; I suspect that someone in the government did. And in the previous fortnight, I had been trying to return to Uzbekistan and it had constantly been delayed, and then when that telegram was leaked, that was it, I was sacked from the ambassador’s role. The worst thing about it was, they told the Uzbeks I had been sacked before they told me. So that suggests that they were in constant dialogue with the Uzbek authorities over the getting rid of me. But I remained on the Foreign Office payroll until I later resigned."
I ask why they might leak a telegram when it contained material that, as we now know, they’re eager to suppress.
"Well, that whole thing is a conundrum really. I mean, the telegram was a thunderous document on the use of torture, but the FT didn’t make much use of it. They had a couple of quotes on page seven, but that was it."
It is not an unreasonable assumption, Murray avers, that someone in the government had leaked the document on the understanding that its actual contents would hardly be used. It did provide the opportunity to have Murray dismissed from his role. By that time, however, he had already begun his fight-back.
"I first started leaking material to the media in August 2003, when the allegations came out about drinking and sex. Until then, the fight had been purely internal and no one knew anything about torture. But as they were leaking these totally spurious claims about me, I decided to release some information about what the government was doing. That worked quite well in media terms."
The government campaign was extremely crude in many respects. Today's Sunday Times, for instance, discusses a campaign by the government to dig dirt on Murray's private life when they realised that he was not going to clam it. These allegations, I gingerly probe, and the way they were made, caused him to suffer a breakdown.
"Yes, I go into great detail about that in the book," he says. "I spent about six weeks in St Thomas’ Hospital. You see, I was not allowed to fight the allegations, and I was not allowed to tell anyone anything about the allegations – not even that they existed. The Foreign Office had written them out and sent them to every member of staff. Now, the thing is, when you’re accused of being an alcoholic – I had spent a lot of time with British businessmen there, because there is a large British business community in Uzbekistan, and I wanted to ask them to testify that I was not a drunk. But I couldn’t. And I knew I was being stitched up, and could do nothing about it. I was told that I couldn’t even go into my office, I couldn’t speak to anyone about it, and eventually I had a total nervous breakdown. But then I got a lawyer, Gareth Peirce, onto it – and she put an end to any idea of a stitched up investigation."
And, having thwarted that stitch-up, he was able to disseminate a series of classified documents, some of which he had written himself as telegrams explaining what the Uzbek government was up to.
"Most of the documents I obtained through the Data Protection Act. The telegrams I had anyway, because I had written them. Some of the documents were obtained by newspapers under the Freedom of Information Act. But I left the office for the last time, not expecting it to be the last time, so I didn’t have a load of documents under my arm. Some of the documents, weirdly enough, ended up on an official Uzbek opposition site! I have no idea how, but they were totally genuine, and I didn’t leak them. I remember being in New York addressing a Stop Bush meeting with Barbara Olshansky of the Centre for Constitutional Rights (who is like an American Gareth Pierce), and she told me that her people had received these documents shortly after I sent them out to the other embassies – so, clearly, there were quite a few sympathetic little leakers in these embassies. But there were quite a lot of people in the Foreign Office who were sympathetic to what I was doing as well, I wasn’t isolated in that respected: it’s simply that when it became serious, when it was something you could lose your job over, people weren’t standing alongside me."
I ask how he came to the strategy of releasing this information over the internet.
"I decided to set up a website for myself, around the time I stood against Jack Straw in Blackburn, and at the time Tim Ireland (of Bloggerheads) e-mailed me to say 'can I design your website for you, because it’s fucking terrible?' And I said 'yeah, thanks.' And then Dan from Blairwatch came up to Blackburn to help, and I met him, and I got into the world of blogging. And I realised then that the Official Secrets Act was dead, because there too many channels for the release of this information. You don’t get the same audience as with the big mainstream media, but it’s catching up. I mean, the most recent releases had about 6,000 people visiting my site per day, and that’s higher than the number of people who visited after the documents were released over Christmas. And now that the documents are out, it is impossible to get them back in. That’s why I’m sorry to the guys who got the Al Jazeera memo, and tried to leak it through the Mirror. They were technologically behind, because if they had released it through the internet, it would have been published and it would have then made the mainstream press anyway.
"But I do feel a little bad about giving in to the government and removing the documents from my site. Unfortunately, I feel they do hate me enough to pursue a vendetta and have me bankrupted – and as you can see, I don’t have much left! So, I’m avoiding bankruptcy."
I looked around - for a former ambassador, the surroundings were quite modest. "They do seem to hate you," I said. "There’s a curious tendency for them to expend a lot of effort blackening your name in secret, then be very publicly dismissive and condescending."
"Yeah," he nods, "I think their public strategy has been to make me out to be imagining it. You know, 'this guy’s crazy, unstable' and so on. Their line was that the story simply wasn’t true. But the documents disprove that. And I would personally have put them in the book and let the government sue, but the publishers felt you had to give in to the government. Much better was the copyright thing because it meant that the government absolutely, explicitly acknowledged that the documents were 100% genuine, except I think for part of document 13 which is something written by myself. You know, by saying these documents belonged to the crown, they absolutely vouched for their authenticity, whereas previously they had said 'we refuse to comment on their authenticity'. Interestingly, a couple of bloggers have tried using the line that the government really wanted to exercise copyright only to prevent ‘tampered’ documents getting out there! But that was total bollocks."
Murray has always been clear that he sees this as a fight for liberalism - he is not especially radical. He simply thinks that it's a bad idea to support torture, or indeed to engage in it, to manipulate the public with false intelligence wherever and however concocted, and he thinks that you can't pretend to be waging a war as The Good Guys if you are complicit with someone like Islam Karimov. I ask him how he thinks his particular story fits into the whole ‘war on terror’.
"First of all, a lot of what I’m saying impacts on Afghanistan. The Taliban virtually stopped the production of heroin in that country, and it has now come back. Now, about 40% of what was produced was smuggled into Uzbekistan under the control of General Dostum and Islam Karimov. And we turned a blind eye because both are or were US clients. Dostum, I think, is now the Chief of the Army staff – a terrible, evil man, who killed people under tank tracks and by keeping them in containers until they died. But of course he’s an Uzbek, and that’s an important part of the dynamic in Afghanistan itself. The north of the country is Uzbek, as were the Northern Alliance for the most part.
"The other thing is about intelligence from Uzbekistan, which is basically designed to exaggerate the threat from Al Qaeda. I think, similarly, the ‘war on terror’ is a mask for a very standard imperialist grab for resources, and it fits into people’s illiberal agendas. Just as they know the intelligence from Uzbekistan was totally false, so they knew that the intelligence about Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ was false. I mean, the FCO is not full of idiots, they’re extremely clever, informed people who know what they’re doing. They knew there were no WMDs in Iraq. I discussed it with colleagues. A man named William Patey, another aluminus of Dundee University, who is now the British ambassador to Baghdad, was at the time the Head of the Middle Eastern Department. I asked him if it’s bollocks, and he flatly said 'Yeah, it’s bollocks.' But this false intelligence helps to justify control orders, Belmarsh, torture flights, all these things that are happening now, and many people suspect that it is false. I am able to say, from the inside, that it is. And I feel a duty and a responsibility to do it. I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life, but I’ll be around for a while to fight the government over it."
That, I think, with my pen frantically scratching out the last few sememes onto a notebook donated by my former employers, is a rather wonderful and pithy end to the interview. Before I go, Murray points me to one of the inside pages near the start of his book. The reproduction of a document in which Ken Lay instructs Governor Bush to meet with a representative of the Uzbek regime and thereby help midwife a $1bn gas deal, is so small that the text is barely legible. "All of this could be making me a little paranoid," he smiles, "but I wonder if they did that on purpose?" I wonder too, but murmur that it's probably there purely as a signifier to indicate to the reader that privileged information is contained within the book. I was ready to develop my thesis a bit further, before I realised that my pedagogic tendencies wouldn't be strictly relevant here.
Anyway, the book. I said I would come back to the book, and I have. I started to read it on the bus home, and I have continued today. Murray warned me that it was not politically correct, "and I'm not, as you'll gather, a socialist". I hadn't thought that an extremely successful career diplomat was likely to be a socialist, but the book at times bluntly describes a surprising laddishness. Actually, the first chapter of the book - the one describing the terrifying show trial for a dissident - has Murray trying to make out a woman's legs beneath her skirt before realising that she was the sister of one of the defendants who was sure to be executed. "I was filled with self-loathing", he says. This theme of lasciviousness recurs in the book (we are treated to his thoughts on table dancers, employees, passers-by and so on), and sometimes it's quite off-putting. He insists, however, that he is not a hero, and tends to agree "in the small hours of the night" with those who would say he has behaved pretty badly at times. However, what he thinks he did right was to "refuse to go along with some of the absolutely dreadful things the West was at best overlooking, probably condoning and arguably encouraging in the name of the War on Terror".
Such is the story he tells: of an anti-hero who manages to stand up against the British state. The book is compared by film-maker Michael Winterbottom to a Graham Greene novel, and indeed it is redolent of something he might have written. It is funny, abounds with irony and is filled with imperishable dialogue. For instance, here is Murray in conversation with Ahmet Erozan of the OSCE:
"I hear you told [Rustam] Azimov to his face that his statistics were lies?"
"Pretty well," I said.
"You probably don't realise just what you have done. All their lives, nobody ever dared to talk to these people like that. Uzbeks would be be beaten and imprisoned, Western businessmen are grovelling for favours, and diplomats simply don't. Take Azimov. You know as leader of the Uzbek Communist Student League he denounced his fellow executive members. Some of them disappeared completely. No one has stood up to him since he was 18. He's been spouting his rubbish for years. No one ever challenged him. Then you. This society is based on raw power. Suddenly they find you've got the big balls, and you're pushing them around."
I had been wondering about this: "But what's my leverage? Is it just bluff and psychology? Or do they want something I am threatening? They don't seem too bothered about an IMF loan, for example."
"Mostly it's just psychology. They respect the bigger balls. But Karimov cares about international reputation, and they are keen to host the EBRD AGM in May - that's a big prestige thing for them."
There, the supererogatory nature of the dictatorship as well as its pettiness are neatly summed up (although the 'big balls' mafiosi talk sounds more like Philip Roth than Graham Greene).
I mentioned, however, that Murray is not a radical, and he is not. He was effective in large part because of the work he did for businesses in Uzbekistan. Responding to the government-inspired smears on Murray, the testimonials from British Airways, ABN Amro, Eurocommerce, the University of Westminster and so on are glowing. So is that of former Tory MP Hartley Booth. British American Tobacco co-signed a letter in his defense. His bruising encounters with the Uzbek authorities were often in part about economic liberalisation - the state's almost total claim to control over the economy as well as other aspect's of people's lives is often the cause of the brutality he challenges, as in the case of a man locked up for stealing apples from land that his family had leased from the state-owned kolkhoz, the produce of which the judge decided should belong to the kolkhoz. His 84 year old grandmother had been beaten with clubs by the kolkhoz authorities and her skin was livid with purple bruises and some wounds that would not cease bleeding. Few other diplomats, liberal or otherwise, would have found the time or interest to go out at considerable personal danger and investigate these matters. I suspect this is because Murray, unlike certain vocal advocates of allegedly liberal values in the media, takes his politics seriously.
This is why Murray is so shocked by his treatment at the hands of the government, and by the behaviour of right-wing Atlanticist Labour MPs who aggressively cheered on Bush's extremely reactionary policies. Murray remarks on the irony of the Bush administration, perhaps the most right-wing US government in history, encouraging and collaborating with a government holding on, with some success, to aspects of the old 'communist' system. There is a sinister humour in the government's attempts to justify what they are doing. Linda Duffield, his boss at the FCO, shakes with anger when recalling his famous speech denouncing the human rights abuses of the Uzbek state - it was not his job to undermine UK-Uzbek relations, she asserts. That is, she says, the job of politicians - those who were doing everything they could to butter up the dictatorship. "You seem to lack any sense of proportion", she tells him. Similarly, there is much material on the build-up to the Iraq war - for instance, the attempt to get votes for the second resolution from key Francophone African states in the UN by appointing Baroness Amos to suddenly offer some aid when Britain had totally ignored those countries for decades, is roundly scoffed at. Having seen "the real motives and methods and US foreign policy", he can't begin to buy the "sanctimonious crap" coming from Bush.
Murray's book - written with considerable verve and wit, bustling with drama - marks how far we have come. He writes that liberal Western states are being moved down the same road taken by the Nazis, by authoritarian elements within. He wonders, as any reader might, how we have come to a situation where "integrity in public life is now so rare that some consider me a hero just for exhibiting the most basic human decency?" In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. In a time of increasing reaction, even the most moderate liberalism can seem revolutionary.