Former ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray has harnessed the Internet in his long-running feud with the UK Government. A forthcoming book covering his time as ambassador is currently being blocked by the Foreign Office, which has demanded he remove references to two documents from the book and his web site. Murray has responded by publishing the documents in full there, and by encouraging bloggers to disseminate the documents as widely as possible.
The documents consist of a Foreign & Commonwealth Office legal opinion concerning evidence that may have been obtained by torture, and several letters sent by Murray to the FCO during his time as ambassador. These letters state that the use of torture is routine in Uzbekistan, that US policy there (which the UK supports) is focussed on oil, gas and hegemony rather than democracy or freedom, and that by knowingly receiving evidence obtained through torture the UK is in breach of the UN Convention on Torture. "With Tony Blair and Jack Straw cornered on extraordinary rendition," says Murray, "the UK Government is particularly anxious to suppress all evidence of our complicity in obtaining intelligence extracted by foreign torturers."
And indeed, in a July 2004 letter headed "Receipt of intelligence obtained under torture", he writes:
"It seems to me that there are degrees of complicity and guilt, but being at one or two removes does not make us blameless. There are other factors. Plainly it was a breach of Article 3 of the Convention for the coalition to deport detainees back here from Baghram, but it has been done. That seems plainly complicit."
There is little obvious in the documents that one would not be able to read at Human Rights Watch, or at the blog Murray started up after he ceased to be an FCO employee; the point, and the difficulty for the FCO, is that they establish who said what, to whom, when. Claims by the FCO and the Government in general that it does not procure evidence via torture and that it is unaware that torture is taking place can most kindly be viewed as superlatively disingenuous when seen against the background of Murray's letters. In order to sustain the 'see no evil' policy in the face of these, Jack Straw must presumably also now claim to have been entirely unaware of what one of his own ambassadors was telling him, repeatedly and at some considerable length.
Lack of knowledge on such monumental levels must prove seriously challenging to Straw - but he is not alone. Blairwatch (also one of the blogs publishing Murray's documents) does a neat piece of filleting of Tony Blair's claims of complete ignorance on extraordinary rendition here.
The profession of ignorance, frequently in wildly improbable circumstances, has stood the UK Government in good stead for some years now, and to a considerable degree this has been the case because the rules have meant that the insiders who know better have been unable to contradict the official line. But the likes of Murray present major problems to this system, because they decline to play by the rules.
And the likes of Murray plus Internet plus "dissident blogs" (Murray's expression) add up to a nightmare for the system. We should however see what's happening as a development, rather than an entirely new phenomenon. Pre-Internet the Spycatcher affair illustrated the impossibility of suppressing inconvenient information when the opposition declined to play ball, and the existence of the Internet has simply made it faster and simpler for leakers and whistleblowers to make attempts to suppress troublesome documents utterly futile.
Murray's breakthrough, essentially, is to have harnessed blogging networks to make the dissemination of the documents faster still, and far more horribly public. Conventional news media (among which, for the purposes of this article, we choose to count ourselves) are conscious that they present a clear target that Government lawyers can shoot at; they therefore circle the documents warily, but do not usually publish them. Bloggers, au contraire, have strength in numbers, jurisdictional opacity and lack of visible assets. The Government now therefore has to figure out how it can extricate itself from this without looking too ridiculous, while being all too aware that trying to make an example of Murray or half a dozen sample bloggers would simply make it look more ridiculous still.
As Spycatcher and numerous other ham-fisted attempts at suppression have shown, attempts to muzzle people who don't want to be muzzled simply make their allegations far more widely-known, and their book sales considerable greater. This isn't a lesson Governments seem to be terribly good at learning, but one could perhaps hope that Murray's automation of the process will go some way towards driving the message home. ®