Mr. Murray

by Nathan Hamm on 10/12/2004 · 4 comments

First off, give a hearty thanks to Laurence for all his stellar posting on Murray’s latest antics.

I seem to remember him being a problem in the past. I even seem to remember him having been called back under protest from Tashkent but then returned to his post after the British press came to his defense. Granted, I’m not British, but I have no idea why someone with his, for lack of a better word, “issues” is in such an important diplomatic role. I might be old-fashioned, but I’ve always been inclined to believe that the first rule of being a diplomat is to act diplomatic at all times and not shoot off one’s mouth like a self-absorbed rock star.

In the past, I remember people coming to his defense and playing down the charges against him. Unfortunately, his behavior is all to common in the aid and diplomacy community in Tashkent (Emergency Sex & Other Desparate Measures comes to mind). Of course, this can all be taken as only tangentially related to the charges he makes.

That being said, Murray strikes me as someone who is extremely skilled at telling a story that will both resonate with a certain audience (as best exemplified by the HRW crowd) and save his skin. I’m having a bit of trouble with the whole story. I think that one could fairly say that Uzbekistan’s government would use torture to obtain bogus confessions even if the US and the UK weren’t around to receive information. There’s an enormous gulf between extraordinary rendition and what Murray describes. Does that make passively receiving information recieved from torture victims guilt-free? Of course not. It does, though, reveal Murray’s “we’re just going to shut our eyes and plug our ears” stance for the moralistic posturing it is. In the words of the Foreign Office, “It would be irresponsible to ignore this information.”

And I fully accept that some will call me a heartless bastard, but there’s a huge gulf of responsibility between actively seeking out evidence through torture and passively receiving it (though that gulf narrows if the reception begins to encourage further torture).

All that being said, Murray’s story is a pretty standard riff on US-Uzbek relations (and throw in the UK here too, of course). On the one hand, there’s the story of the sinister US out to bolster a wicked regime that would be otherwise powerless all for base, imperialistic motives. On the other is Murray’s story in which a sly, corrupt regime dupes a foolish US & UK into supporting it by convincing them that it is the only thing holding back the flood.

Once we walk down Murray’s path, we start wondering whether or not there are such things as Islamic fundamentalism in Uzbekistan or whether or not the bombings were the work of the Uzbek government.

It’s much more useful to not view torture in Uzbekistan through the prism of our culpability. Just like under the Soviet Union, torture and coerced confessions are done primarily for domestic reasons–to gain a conviction through confession due, in part, to the lack of investigative bodies. To put it simply, Uzbekistan tortures suspects for its own reasons, not to attract our attention.

There’s also the issue of the value of the intelligence. Torture rarely gains valuable intelligence, and something tells me that there are at least a few people at the CIA and MI6 who are aware of that. Even were one to believe that torture does yield valuable intelligence, I have a hard time believing that US and UK intelligence agencies would “lap up” information that they know is too often coming from random people.

There are gaping holes in Murray’s story that can only be filled by some pretty tenuous assumptions. There are also a lot of questions. How much of this type of information has been passed on? Was it asked for? Is it accurate (because, after all, there actually some guilty people in Uzbek jails)?

And the big one…

Why’s Murray making a fuss again now? Was he about to get sacked and looking for another save from the British press?

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Laurence October 12, 2004 at 5:38 am

Nathan, thank you for that thoughtful and interesting post. The thing is, we don’t know what the intelligence is, we don’t know what the threat is, and we don’t know why Murray is doing what he is doing. We do know that bombs went off at the American and Israeli Embassies, that there were shootouts in Tashkent, that the Taliban and IMU did work with Bin Laden, that they did target Uzbekistan, that there are Uzbeks in Al Qaeda, and so on. We also know that the IRA alleged torture against the British during the height of their bombing campaigns, that the British did frame IRA people who were released from jail only years later, and that Pierre Trudeau imposed martial law in Canada in 1970 to fight the Quebec Liberation Front. Not to mention the American Abu Gahrib prison torture scandal in Iraq. So there are some difficult issues in fighting terrorism faced by all countries, not just Uzbekistan. Torture is wrong and bad, yes–and governments also have an obligation to protect their citizens from getting blown up or their heads chopped off…

upyernoz October 12, 2004 at 10:04 am

I have a hard time believing that US and UK intelligence agencies would “lap up” information that they know is too often coming from random people.

well, they’re more likely to lap it up if they have few better sources for information. that seems to be what murray was alleging (at least in reading the excerpts posted here)

i’m actually not sure who looks better here. murray perhaps is opportunistically raising human rights to divert attention from his personal problems. on the other hand, the british government seems to be trying to smear him in the british press. both narratives seem equally plausible to me, perhaps they’re both right.

as for the diplomats acting diplomatically, sometimes the most effective diplomats are the ones who speak out bluntly against the governments in the country they are stationed in. in the early 1990s, the u.s. diplomat to kenya was extremely critical of the moi government and ended up becoming a popular figure among the kenyan populace who had a major impact in getting the government to institute democratic reforms. in 1993 the ambassador changed with the new administration. although she was a better diplomat (at least in terms of being diplomatic) she was less effective at causing reform in kenya, basically slipped into obscurity with the kenyan government until the embassy bombing raised her profile again.

now obviously, the story in kenya will not necessarily work everywhere. but it, at least, illustrates that it is not automatically bad to have an outspokenly critical ambassador serving in a foreign embassy.

Nathan October 12, 2004 at 11:20 am

I think the important thing is where he’s doing this and how he’s doing it.

It might be more constructive if he were raising the issue in Uzbekistan and working with Uzbek groups…

Your point is well taken though.

Laurence October 13, 2004 at 5:04 pm

Nathan, I think you are a true diplomat! If you read the stories, they say Murray was giving out thousands of dollars in cash to various groups when he was in Uzbekistan, and he did raise the “issue” — bogus in my opinion — in a famous Freedom House speech in 2002.

The American Ambassador, John Herbst, got more people out of jail than Murray ever could have dreamed of doing, because he was respected by the Uzbeks. To simply insult and abuse your host nation, as Murray did (also insulting the Americans and British) is never good diplomacy.

I was at a speech by the head of the British Council in Tashkent where he said America was “the most corrosive” force in the world, and argued that people should turn to England as an alternative. Frankly, the talk was delusional. A car backfired outside, the British Council head, panic-stricken, trembled in fear, talked about having to live with bodyguards, etc. There was an armored car parked in front of the British embassy whenever I walked by.

Although the American embassy was practically a bunker, when I met the head of the American Public Affairs section–equivalent to the British Council chief–for a private meal, we sat in an outdoor restaurant, just the two of us, on a sidewalk. He wasn’t afraid, and he didn’t hate the Uzbeks.

There is a lesson there.

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