Out of His Element

by Nathan Hamm on 1/16/2006 · 11 comments

It’s rare that I comment on US politics on this blog, but Al Gore brought up Uzbekistan and the Craig Murray affair in his speech today.

The President has also claimed that he has the authority to kidnap individuals in foreign countries and deliver them for imprisonment and interrogation on our behalf by autocratic regimes in nations that are infamous for the cruelty of their techniques for torture.

Some of our traditional allies have been shocked by these new practices on the part of our nation. The British Ambassador to Uzbekistan – one of those nations with the worst reputations for torture in its prisons – registered a complaint to his home office about the senselessness and cruelty of the new U.S. practice: “This material is useless – we are selling our souls for dross. It is in fact positively harmful.”

One is tempted to first wonder whether or not Gore, who once convinced Clinton to support a rendition operation calling it “a no-brainer”, ever felt the same way while the renditions policy was created when he was but a heartbeat away from the presidency. I will, however, leave that for the more partisan folks out there and move on to what really bothers me.

Gore is distorting the issue to make his point about renditions in a more dramatic way than he otherwise might be able to. He suggests that Craig Murray’s complaints to the home office was centered on US and not UK policy. In the very same document Gore quotes, Murray says,

We receive intelligence obtained under torture from the Uzbek intelligence services, via the US. We should stop.

While Murray’s argument has since involved to include explicit claims that the US and UK were complicit in torture through training and support (which, in part, includes accepting the information), I find the arguments unconvincing for many of the same reasons identified by another former British diplomat.

I am also again bothered that this has become an extraordinary rendition issue when it’s never been clear that it ever was. (The best evidence for it being an issue is here, though I don’t share Murray’s confidence in journalists. Nor, I am quite willing to admit again, am I particularly troubled by the reported hand-overs of Uzbek nationals to the Uzbek government.) In a comment on this site, Craig said something pretty sharp if rather unfortunate.

Now people have already a folder in their consciousness, marked ‘torture and extraordinary rendition,’ into which my thoughts neatly plug.

Of course it makes sense to me why what is true for the common would be common for politicians like Gore, but I do think it’s fair to expect more from politicians. But then again, that’s probably why I find US partisan politics to be so exasperating.

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– 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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Rustam January 17, 2006 at 8:37 pm

I read Your thoughts (post) yesterday on this Nathan and did not want to comment because was really busy as You are studying for the fast approaching exams and frankly was too angry to write anything sensible.
Personally when I saw Gore’s comments and his speech I was amazed, of how comprehensive, constructive and factual it was and furthermore because of his being so passionate about the issue of civil liberties and genuine representative democracy with the “must” have checks and balances mechanism, how he in his speech managed to touch upon all the issues that we are in Uzbekistan are facing, and more dangerously US and UK are facing as well.
I do agree with Your first point (Gore agreeing to the “extraordinary rendition”), but having said so, don’t You think that Gore perfectly knows that after this speech Bush administration will declare a war on him, that there will be articles about him being the first one who gave green light on this operations, and furthermore having perfectly understood this he does acknowledge the fact that he might have been wrong in doing so, in his speech when he quotes George Orwell – “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”
“Whenever power is unchecked and unaccountable it almost inevitably leads to mistakes and abuses. In the absence of rigorous accountability, incompetence flourishes. Dishonesty is encouraged and rewarded.”
But even when You objectively pinpoint his role in this, why do You suppose that he, personally, Clinton and the political situation at the time, would have let this go out of proportions if he were to be in the power, with the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, eavesdropping.
And I was extremely happy to hear his speech, more so, because of the direct mention of UZBEKISTAN, the fact that he chose to mention C. Murray as an authority, the British Diplomat not HRW or AI, “as I have mentioned”, to whose words American opinion would listen to and against whom it will be hard for opponents to find arguments.
Your second argument about Gore “distorting the issue to make his point about renditions in a more dramatic way” and that “US and UK complicity in torture in Uzbekistan becoming a rendition issue” – well we all know that these prisons did exist in Romania, Poland and Ukraine, we all were witness to how embarrassed the Dr. Rise was in Europe when all she had to say was that US does not condone torture and do so in a threatening manner (as if she wanted to say don’t fuck with me), but luckily as we have come to know Europe is doing so regardless as the committee of European Parliament is starting its investigation. Furthermore the evidence which supports this conclusion last week was leaked from Swiss Intelligence Service. In addition Murray does say that he knew that the detainees were being brought from Afghanistan to Tashkent and a company, Premier Executive, were operating flights of executive jets including Gulfstreams bringing back these detainees, and that this was happening fairly regularly, but he did not know for sure whether they were IMU combatants or foreigners.
But answer me this question – if the Bush Administration will go so far to establish this kind of prisons in Romania or in Poland, just under the nose of Schroeder (at the time) and other hostile stupid Europeans with their stupid beliefs in civil liberties and International Public and Humanitarian Law, risking the information being released as a result of investigatory journalists or opposition party members who happen to dislike the present cabinet members and etc…, what would hold him to open this prison in Uzbekistan, with the perfect circumstances in any way You look, the country being neighbour to Afghanistan, in close proximity to Iraq and Pakistan, with its bloodthirsty dictator and no media or opposition, why do You rule out this possibility. Why do You put the burden of proving these horrendous activities on us why not on the US government?
The difference between You and me, is the fact that I am ready to look at any hint that my government is doing something wrong, that it is deceiving me, that behind this smiles and genuine expression of care about the national security, care to protect me from this rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, it is seeking absolute power and that tomorrow I might fall as a victim to this system, labelled as the “Islamic fundamentalist”. Always think about how to establish such a perfect mechanism of checks and balances, institutions which would undertake continues inspection and verification of each branch of the government and in the first place law enforcement and security agencies. Ready to cheer anyone in the west who would let the world know of the situation in Uzbekistan, of my countrymen being disappeared in jails, their wives being raped in front of their eyes, arbitrary arrests, detention and killings, massacre in Andijon and desperate condition of Uzbeks. And ready to talk even with Gore, even knowing the fact that he was the one who initiated this, ready because if he will help I would be able to save more lives in my country.
Where as You, You it seems take a lot of things for granted, for You it is important and You are interested in underlining the fact that Gore once was an evil and no matter what he says to stop Bush, Cheney & Co. in their quest which inevitably will bring to the Uzbekistan like situation You don’t give a damn for this. Yes, I did think that the biggest difference between us, nomads, Uzbekistan, and long established US or UK democracy is the WIDE gap in the mentality of people, that here in the West so called “Public opinion” and “The culture of liberty” will not let it happen, but as it seems, make them fear from bearded old guy with an AK-47 and jihadi belt they all come running to Your arms, ready to surrender all their civil liberties. You hear Gore and Hillary Clinton talking about the current slide to monopoly of power, undermining of fundamental constitutional principles and instead of demanding truth from the government You say that You are exasperated with partisan politics.

Nathan January 17, 2006 at 9:30 pm

I want to keep this as narrow as possible, so I’m not going to answer every last thing.

1) Don’t get too excited about the mention of Uzbekistan. The more important thing for the audience of his speech is that he mention a traditional ally feels we acted shamefully. So much of the speech feeds into the “progressive” wing of the Democratic party’s fantasies that we are but a goose step away from dictatorship that it’s hard for me to take anything concrete in it seriously.

2) Let’s generalize abuse of executive privilege and not even make it about Clinton. Just about every president tries to pull some crafty stuff claiming executive privilege. Clinton claimed executive authority to all kinds of things that Congress (Republicans, granted) screamed bloody murder over. So, if you’re asking whether or not Clinton would have maybe ended up in the same position? It wouldn’t shock me. But one of the awesome things about our government that folks seem to forget isn’t that it necessarily is supposed to stop abuses or unconstitutional law from ever existing. What’s cool is that there are mechanisms to correct and clarify after the fact. And shit, has Bush stepped over the line? I’m not entirely convinced, but I wholeheartedly welcome challenges in court to determine whether or not he has and to clarify the law. And I also welcome Congress, and especially the party who has looked much more effective at striking poses than writing legislation, to belly up to the bar and write new legislation where appropriate.

3) FWIW, I personally don’t feel I’ve lost any civil liberties under the Bush administration. See point two for why I wouldn’t weep and gnash if I felt I had. Self-correcting systems kick ass when people actually have faith in them and try to make them work.

4) You’re charging the CIA with having established prisons in Uzbekistan. Bullshit. Even Craig Murray would tell you that’s not true. Renditions and CIA prisons are two different things. You may not qualitatively think there’s a difference, and you might be right. But, I’m a nitpicker about accuracy because when people fudge, we start getting all kinds of fantasies.

5) Please don’t tell me the differences between you and me as you did above a few times unless you can point to something where I clearly said that. There’s no quicker way to make me abso-fucking-lutely furious and get on my bad side than to try to make a bad faith estimation of my motivations and values.

Really, truly, honestly… I used to like Gore quite a bit. I’ve got nothing against Hillary except that she’s become quite obviously a boring Senator with nothing to offer but mediocrity. Were I interested in listing all the ways in which I think he’s a hypocrite, I most certainly would. But, if you didn’t get the point, I thought he was right back then.

Sean-Paul Kelley January 17, 2006 at 11:10 pm

Here’s the 20 million dollar question, Nathan, would be comfortable with President Hillary having the same powers as Bush? (I wouldn’t because she is too much an opportunist like her husband.) Seriously, would you be comfortable with that? And a Democratic House and Senate that towed Hillary’s line all the time.

Nathan January 18, 2006 at 12:00 am

You’re assuming either that I’m entirely fine with the situation now when I’m not or that my feelings have something to do with who occupies the White House. Were Hillary in office, I assure you I’d feel the same way. If there is an area of ambiguity in executive power–and I think people who debate these issues in good faith acknowledge there are–then I think that’s something the courts and/or Congress should clarify. All of this politics by getting the vapors before reporters and proclaiming the impending death of the republic just needs to go the fuck away.

I think we’ve got a system that works just fine. It’s not immediate but if we weren’t beset by folks on both side so hellbent on posturing, we might stand a chance of actually getting somewhere.

Sean-Paul Kelley January 18, 2006 at 12:13 am

Nathan, I know when I debate with you I do so in good faith, and I certainly don’t have the vapors. And I certainly don’t want to put words in your mouth. So, I’ll just stick to what is on my mind: after reading Risen’s book I think there is some very real, very scary overreaching being done by the executive in this country. ANd I do not think that Congress is doing it’s oversight job. I’m comfortable with all three branches being in the hands of one party IF the House stands up for its prerogatives under the constitution, and the Senate does as well. I believe there is strong evidence to suggest that Congress has been prevented from exercising its constitutional role of oversight. And both parties are to blame for that. The Democrats for being some freaking cowardly and the Republicans for being toadies of the president.

So, yes, I think there is a serious issue that needs to be addressed by honest people in both parties. Unfortunately, when people smear guys like Jack Murtha it makes it hard for the moderates in either party to work together.

And Alito: what about his ideas of a unitary executive. Do they not bother you in the least?

Mark Hamm January 18, 2006 at 5:18 pm

Good comments Rustam. I have to agree with you about secret prisons in Central Asia. In light of the exposure of the secret CIA prisons under the noses of the Europeans, what’s to stop the CIA from having them in some CA country? And did the UK ambassodors in eastern European countries know of the prisons? IF not then C. Murray knowing or not knowing about such facilities in UZ is immaterial.

The upside to getting on your bad side Nathan is that you never stay abso-%$#@*&@, ly fur… ah…. mad very long.

Nathan January 18, 2006 at 5:19 pm

You’ve never gotten on my bad side though, dad, so you’d hardly know.

Mark hamm January 19, 2006 at 2:34 pm

Well this would be a good time to tell you I bought you a Che Guevarra shirt. Now you can be styling on campus!

Kaltakesak January 20, 2006 at 12:38 am

Check this link out to get first-hand answers to many questions raised above:


Rustam January 20, 2006 at 5:09 am

Thanks for the link! It is really good.

Juniper January 20, 2006 at 11:31 pm

Hopefully I will get some time in the future to write about Mr. Murray’s exploits in Tashkent.

It amazes me that he had time to observe anything while he was there, most of his time was spent socializing with the young Uzbek women and getting treated at the International Clinic.

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