Craig Murray may be Britain’s most controversial former Ambassador. He was dismissed from his post in Uzbekistan in 2004 amid lurid allegations about his personal life, and medically evacuated from there after becoming dangerously ill. He concludes he was poisoned and suspects CIA involvement.
A senior diplomat for twenty years, Craig Murray is now a political activist and a blogger.
He maintains his claim that the war in Iraq was based on false allegations about the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
He came into our London studios where I asked him how he would describe Britain’s current relationship with Russia.
"I think in relations with Russia on the diplomatic level, there have been very few bilateral initiatives on the diplomatic side that you can point to. There is a continuing failure to engage over Syria, where neither side appears able to come close to understanding the position of the other. So, I think on the diplomatic side things are very poor at the moment. But of course, you know, the diplomatic and official world is just a small part of life and in terms of personal and cultural things between Britain and Russia and probably economic links as well – it’s quite reasonable to argue they’ve never been stronger."
Do you think British diplomats understand Russia?
"We have a number of diplomats who speak the language very well, and have spent a good deal of time in the country. As with all British diplomats everywhere, I worry that they don’t travel enough, they spend far too much time locked in their Embassy, or attending the cocktail party circuit where they interact more with other diplomats than they interact with anybody else, and that is not the way to get to know a country. So, I wouldn’t like to exaggerate their ignorance of the country, they have a very good academic knowledge."
But, do you think they understand Russian ambitions in terms of Russia wishing to be seen as more central in its role in European affairs perhaps?
"I think they have a reasonably clear understanding of Russian policy objectives but the problem is that under condition they see them as antithetical to British policy objectives and they see Russia as a rival and potentially hostile power.
"And the fascinating thing is that it’s something which goes back for hundreds of years. If you look at for example the First Afghan War, which is a subject on which I am currently writing a book in fact, there the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 was entirely predicated on the notion that the Russians might Afghanistan and then invade British India, which in fact was a totally unrealistic prospect, but which for British establishment allowed to get themselves so het up about that they launched one of the most disastrous wars in British history, an occupation of Afghanistan, which was a complete disaster and ended in annihilation of one of the British armies. And you had these scares about Russian attacks on British territory going on - nearly continually - for the last 200 years."
That was the period that we like to call the ‘Great Game’, wasn’t it? It was the age of great espionage and thinking about what Russia might or might not do, which would be contrary to British interests.
"That is right. And fears about Russian expansion in Central Asia, also at the expense of Turkey, which of course is what led to the Crimean war, but also these periodic scares about the actual Russian invasion of the United Kingdom. And throughout the 19th century you can trace scary stories in the British media about Russian troops actually being spotted in Aberdeen - with snow on their boots.
"This fear of Russia really continued unchanged from the tsarist period through into the Soviet Union, the underlying fear of Russia and view of Russia as a hostile force which we might come into the armed conflict really has continued down to present day, through the tsarist period, through the Communist period and then through the current period."
So, it seems like the image of Russia as you are describing it from a British perspective is irrespective of what or who is in power. It is the very notion of Russia as some kind of a threat, which seems to occupy the British imagination.
"That’s true. And I think other than the time when we actually invaded the Crimea, the extraordinary thing is that Russia has at no time actually been a real threat in that sense.
"There has never been a genuine Russian intention to attack the United Kingdom - and there still isn’t now. And it is quite extraordinary how such a false perception kind of enjoyed for centuries."
It sounds like you are postulating that we haven’t moved very far. But what do you think British diplomats would discover if they moved away from the cocktail circuit as you described it in Moscow?
"I think they would find a country which is extremely varied and rich, and which is going through an awful lot of difficult transitional processes in moving from communism to capitalism, and moving towards something closer to democracy.
"I am not among those who is uncritical of Russia in its internal affairs and the state of its democratic development. I think it still has quite far to go, still seen in a historical perspective, things are in general capable of being portrayed as moving the right way. And also, you shouldn’t under-estimate the tremendous transitional effects of moving out from the communist system, the Soviet Union, of the destruction of so much industry, of the declining population, of the social effects, those are things which are going to take decades to work through.
"The idea that all that could be solved and then you could evolve into a stable democracy along western lines with the fully capitalist system within a 5-10 year period is obvious nonsense. That was never actually probable and I think as well part of the problem with the way British diplomats perceive Russia is based on expectations which are unrealistic."
The idea of countries or countries’ leaders being bogeymen, is something you’ve been writing about on your website recently, and you’ve also focused on the issue of Iran and whether Iran is a particular threat to the west and to the USA, - if I am right, you theorize that Iran is potentially not the big danger to world peace that some people like to portray it as?
"Yes, I think that is true and again I should be quite plain. I am very critical of Iran’s internal policies and of its theological style of government. For me, theological government is an anathema. I hate to see religion controlling state and the people - on the other hand, there is no evidence at all that Iran has any intention of attacking any other state. You know, Iran is not a state which is in a position of aggressor. It has no intention that I can see of attacking anywhere.
"And the formal position of the United States intelligence agencies and their annual threat assessment has been ever since 2007 that they affirmed that there is no evidence that Iran is actively developing a nuclear weapon. Now there is no doubt that some of the civilian nuclear capacity building that is going on, would increase their ability to build a nuclear weapon should be determined to do so but that is rather different question. There is no proof that they have determined to do so and are seeking to weaponize their nuclear program.
"So, again a lot of the scare-mongering about Iran - as though it were a country which actually possessed nuclear weapons which it doesn’t, and as if it were a country which is imminently likely to attack somewhere - which it isn’t. I find it entirely puzzling."
Why would it be in the US interests to portray a country in that way - if it weren’t a potential real threat?
"Well, of course we saw precisely the same thing with Iraq: which was not in any sense a threat to the United States or the United Kingdom but which we invaded under the entirely false notion that it was a threat.
"And I should say that one of the jobs I formerly held in the British foreign office was that, for a time I was the head of the foreign office unit which was in charge of monitoring Iraqi weapons procurement. And I can tell you for certain that we knew very well that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, and that the legal pretext for the invasion of Iraq was a knowingly false pretext."
You are saying that diplomats were well aware that that was a false pretext?
"Precisely. And of course, remember it was diplomats who put together the justification and presented it to the world in the United Nations. What I am saying directly - and these are individuals who I know personally and have worked with, the individuals who put together the evidence knew that the evidence was not true at the time they did it."
At whose behest? Why did they do that, in your view?
"The reasons for that are complex. Partly they have to do with the fact, and this is where again we come back to this continual treating of Russia as an enemy for centuries when Russia is not an enemy of the UK: there are economic and political interests, very powerful economic and political interests in every state, which need an enemy to justify their own existence and their own funding, by which I mean of course the military and security services and the whole security establishment. There are individuals who made hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, as individuals, from the invasion of Iraq."
But were they powerful enough to engineer diplomats to tell lies, to push the government of Tony Blair into a fallacious direction?
"Absolutely, they are powerful enough. I mean one thing which I think needs to be fundamentally understood, is that in so-called western democracies, senior politicians almost without exception are beholden to powerful economic interests."
But, that’s the very definition of corruption.
"Yes, and I think western societies are extraordinarily corrupt - unfortunately. And you can look just at a couple of examples just in the United Kingdom. After David Cameron’s election the very first visitor to Number 10 was Rupert Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch entered not by the front door, but by the back door so that nobody would see him."
And it was your exposure to sort of relationship which led to you to leaving the diplomatic service?
"I discovered that the world of diplomacy and international relations is an extremely dirty one, in which issues of war and peace and the political alliance, the issues, which, as in the Iraq war, result in the deaths of hundreds or thousands of people, are decided on the basis of the narrow commercial interests of individuals who stand to gain huge amounts of money from the policy entered into, and that seemed to me fundamental to how western foreign policy worked, and it was not something which I could in conscience continue to do."
Part of the official explanation though for your departure of the foreign office of course concerned allegations about your personal life. Do you accept that Foreign Office might have been unhappy with your behaviour on other levels?
"I don’t know. This has always interested me. I should say the specific allegations, which they came up with, were quite simply untrue. I mean they alleged in the fact that I was blackmailing visa applicants into sex - and that most certainly was not true, it was something I would never ever do.
"They also alleged that I was stealing money from the Embassy accounts and again that was something, which I would never ever do. And after a formal investigative progress I was cleared and found not guilty on all those charges.
"What they did was of course put around stories that I used to go to nightclubs and that I liked to have drink and maybe had girlfriends, all of which is absolutely true. I do go to nightclubs, I did go to nightclubs, I do like to have a drink sometimes and I did have a number of girlfriends."
A number? That is unusual for a diplomat, isn’t it?
"No, absolutely normal for diplomat. I’ve always refrain from doing so, and I won’t do so now. But there are many British diplomats who are quite well known in the country who have knighthoods and turn up as media pundits and things, but I have personally spent time in bars and nightclubs, in a variety of countries, and my behaviour was certainly no different to theirs, or of a great many members of the establishment.
"The truth is that people in that kind of high profile glamorous international job and position with a lot of stress do tend to relax and you find that senior diplomats and senior politicians tend to have girlfriends or boyfriends or whatever, tend to live that kind of lifestyle. And we have a saying in the UK that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, but people are throwing stones at me."
But a picture was painted - rightly or wrongly in the public eye - of you living a rather tawdry existence. You complain about corruption, we think of diplomats as rather dry dusty characters who are pursuing higher ideals on behalf of their own governments but you are saying that they are aware of institutional and national levels of corruption, of backing up dodgy business deals and hanging out in nightclubs with what was described at the time in your case as dolly-birds. It’s a different picture than officials would like us to have for the diplomatic service.
"That is true but I think in general the lives of the rich and powerful, the picture they would like the general public to have is different to the real picture."
But your personal reputation was damaged and any claims you make about corruption in the system are inevitably seen through a lens, which people have these vague memories about you running off with dancing girls or whatever and your personal life being, shall we say, colourful.
"I think there’s an element of truth in that - but I quite genuinely have never understood it. I was saying: I have evidence, I have documentary evidence, physical evidence that you are involved in the torture of people in the CIA rendition program, that you have tortured people to death. The British intelligence services and American intelligence services have obtained intelligence from the torture (including fatal torture of individuals), and also that you are starting an illegal war of aggression which is a war crime - for motives, which are not those you claim they are. And they are saying, “yes, but you go to nightclubs”.
"And the idea that there is a moral equivalence between torturing people to death and starting legal wars that kill hundreds of thousands of people and going to nightclubs and liking a good time, and someone who goes to nightclub can’t see torture or illegal war.
"It is a tawdry media trick: this idea that because I happen not to be a saint, I’ve never pretended to be a saint, and I wouldn’t want to be a saint, it wouldn’t suit me, that I am not able intellectually to discern difficulties in foreign policy is a nonsense.
"I would also say, I became a British Ambassador in the age of 41. I was a member of a senior management structure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the age of 36, and I just say the picture they are now trying to paint; they talk as though I was just some passing drunk who walked past the office and somehow walked into the position of Ambassador. I’d been a diplomat for 20 years, I’d held a number of very senior positions and they had never been any criticism of the quality of my work ever anywhere, or of my ability, or of my analytical ability."
I mean do you feel that your character and your position were deliberately smeared or at least overblown in the media representation of why you left Tashkent and what you got up to in your personal life? You are saying that there was some truth to what was written about you but it doesn’t affect your judgment on a political level.
"Absolutely, and I think in Russia I know they call it 'kompromat”'where you make sexual allegations against a person in order to reduce their reputation, and I think in the UK they have this system in effect. I have no doubt whatsoever that there was absolutely deliberate smear campaign against me by the government as soon as I blew the whistle - particularly on extraordinary rendition and torture and complicity in torture of UK intelligence services.
"There was an orchestrated campaign.
"I was giving an interview when I was first making my revelations particularly on the torture issue. I gave an interview on the Today program, which is perhaps the UK’s most important radio program. And the presenter, I shan’t name him because he probably shouldn’t have told me, said to me, “Do you know, before you came on today, we suddenly got a phone-call from the Foreign Office who said, “we see you’ve invited Craig Murray, you do know he is alcoholic, don’t you?”
"And that kind of thing was being routinely done by the government to try and smear and undermine anything I said before I said it. And in fact I should say I’ve never been an alcoholic."
That again paints a rather unsavoury picture of what may go on in quite high levels in the British diplomatic service.
"I am afraid to say that I think that’s true. I think the whole thing is much more tawdry, and much less acceptable than people realize.
"But also I must say I’ve been very deeply disappointed by public and media reactions on things which I revealed. I thought back in 2005 when I came out and said we are getting intelligence from torture, that there would be massive public revulsion at the idea that we get intelligence from torture, and that politicians and media would combine to stop the practice. In fact it hasn’t stopped. And in fact politicians gave justifications for getting intelligence from torture saying, “you have to safeguard British lives, we have to counter terrorism, blah-blah-blah”.
"They tried to avoid the question but if you look at where politicians have given actual answers to the questions, they always say: “we do not condone torture, we do not initiate torture”. But when asked if somebody else does the torture, if the tortures are done by the Mubarak regime as used to be, or Syrian regime, they used to torture people for us, “yes, we would accept the intelligence that resulted from the torture”, and it was justified in terms of safeguard of British citizens.
"Something is wrong with that, it came to me as a shock that I didn’t actually get more support. I really did believe that by going public on the issue I would be able to change policy but I was not able to and all I actually achieved was having, as you say, the government attack my own reputation."
You are probably aware that only this week Italy has actually sentenced some people for participating in the process that led to so-called extraordinary rendition on behalf of the USA. Do you believe there might be people in this country who would be liable to face similar sorts of investigations if the government was willing?
"Oh, undoubtedly there would be. And when the new government came in power, when the coalition came into power, they announced very early, they were setting up a judicial enquiry led by judge Gibson into this very question of complicity and torture. But after 2 years of not really doing anything, the enquiry was cancelled and they just cancelled it. And I had been in touch with judge Gibson, I was prepared to give my evidence on my eyewitness account of the use of intelligence from torture and I was devastated when I found out that the enquiry just wasn’t going to happen."
Do you accept though that in terms of protecting the national security there are some things that simply can’t be made known to the public?
"I think the principle of whether we torture people or not is something that the public should be aware of.
"I accept that there are occasionally individual secrets that have to be kept, I think far too much is kept secret. It doesn’t mean there should never be anything secret, of course occasionally some small things have to be secret.
"But going back to your last question, I have no doubt at all (and, remember, I was a diplomat for 20 years and I was right on side of British establishment and I still have many friends there), but the reason the Gibson enquiry was cancelled was that it would have implicated too many people who are still senior civil servants as being complicit in torture. They would have been in the position where they would have been facing legal charges. And the establishment just couldn’t face all that dirty washing coming out. So, the whole thing has been covered up.
"And again there has been no public outcry whatsoever, absolutely nil, of the cancelling of that enquiry.
"But I want to make one very important point: which is that torture doesn’t give you good evidence. Torture is not conducted by professors of philosophy or by very nice pleasant policemen trying to solve an individual crime. The actual torture is conducted by thugs employed by the Mubarak regime or similar regimes. And what they want to get the person to say is what the regime wants to hear, what propaganda of that regime wants to put out.
"So, this notion is that there is a moral balance between…you know…. this Hollywood idea that there is a ticking bomb here and you have the guy who planted the bomb there and you torture him to find out where the ticking bomb is and save innocent lives. That is not actually what happens.
"The vast majority of people who have suffered torture in the west so-called war on terror have been completely innocent."
You say that sort of work is done by thugs, not seekers of truth. Do you see yourself as a seeker of truth?
"I like to think so. I believe my whole life has been actuated by belief in truth and the importance of truth."
Do you feel safe making these kinds of claims? You don’t feel that somebody will try to get rid of you?
"I think they did try to get rid of me back in 2004 just before I went public in fact when I came down with what the doctors call bilateral pulmonary emboli - blood clots on both lungs. I was in the coma for 5 days, I was in the hospital for a month or so. I very, very nearly died. And the doctors never were able to discover what had caused this problem. I was unconscious so I had no input to the doctors at all, when I was flown back to St. Thomas’s Hospital here but they themselves suspected poisoning. And they did all the possibly toxicology tests."
Who do you think poisoned you?
"I don’t know. If you ask me who would I suspect most, I would say, the CIA. But I actually don’t know the answer to that question. And they could never actually dissolve. They didn’t actually discover poison, they couldn’t discover what it was but they still couldn’t actually discover the cause… because I had numerous blood clots in both lungs for no apparent reason, and it was shortly after that I decided to go public about, when I decided to go completely public and put everything I knew and every document I had on the web, I said everything I know and there is no longer any point killing me in fact."
"I hoped." Laughs…"But that openness has been my defense since and I don’t believe there has been an attempt to kill me since. But these things are difficult because of course it is very easy to portray you as a lunatic when you claim that people have tried to kill you or whatever and given that the government’s done so much to try to portray me as an alcoholic, or someone who hallucinated and invented these ideas of intelligence from torture, they can also say: ‘you know he is a mad conspiracy theorist, he thinks people are trying to kill him’'."
Would you call yourself a conspiracy theorist?
"It has become a pejorative term but the extraordinary thing is people use that as though conspiracies don’t exist and as though governments never conspire to do bad things. But we know in fact governments have conspired to do bad things very often and I would call it a conspiracy to attack Iraq on the basis of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. What was that if it wasn’t a conspiracy? It was a conspiracy. There have been plenty of conspiracies through history: conspiracies do exist."