A 15-month investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic reveals how retired US colonel James Steele, a veteran of American proxy wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, played a key role in training and overseeing US-funded special police commandos who ran a network of torture centres in Iraq. Another special forces veteran, Colonel James Coffman, worked with Steele and reported directly to General David Petraeus, who had been sent into Iraq to organise the Iraqi security services
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Death squads, torture, secret prisons in Iraq, and General David Petraeus are among the featured atrocities in a recently-released new British documentary – James Steele: America’s Mystery Man in Iraq – the result of a 15-month investigation by Guardian Films and BBC Arabic, exploring war crimes long denied by the Pentagon but confirmed by thousands of military field reports made public by Wikileaks.
The hour-long film explores the arc of American counterinsurgency brutality from Viet-Nam to Iraq, with stops along the way in El Salvador and Nicaragua. James Steele is now a retired U.S. colonel who first served in Viet-Nam as a company commander in 1968-69. He later made his reputation as a military advisor in El Salvador, where he guided ruthless Salvadoran death squads in the 1980s.
When his country called again in 2003, he came out of retirement to train Iraqi police commandos in the bloodiest techniques of counterinsurgency that evolved into that country’s Shia-Sunni civil war that at its peak killed 3,000 people a month. Steele now lives in a gated golf community in Brian, Texas, and did not respond to requests for an interview for the documentary bearing his name.
James Steele: America’s Mystery Man in Iraq is online
News coverage of this documentary has been largely absent in mainstream media. The Guardian had a report, naturally, at the time of release and DemocracyNOW had a long segment on March 22 that includes an interview with veteran, award-winning reporter Maggie O’Kane, as well as several excerpts from the movie she directed.
The documentary is available online at the Guardian and several other websites.
James Steele opens with a montage of soldiers, some masked, taking prisoners, some hooded, as the woman narrator sets the stage:
“This is one of the great untold stories of the Iraq War, how just over a year after the invasion, the United States funded a sectarian police commando force that set up a network of torture centers to fight the [Sunni] insurgency….
“This is also the story of James Steele, the veteran of America’s dirty war in El Salvador. He was in charge of the U.S. advisers who trained notorious Salvadoran paramilitary units to fight left-wing guerrillas. In the course of that civil war, 75,000 people died, and over a million people became refugees.
“Steele was chosen by the Bush administration to work with General David Petraeus to organize these paramilitary police commandos.”
U.S. Counterinsurgency Requires Secret Prisons, Torture, Death Squads
The documentary concentrates on the creation and activities of the Iraqi police commandos who executed American policy in the face of Iraqi resistance the U.S. had never anticipated, having expected to be greeted as liberators. There are only glancing references to the policy failures that created the crisis, such as disbanding the army and most of the government of Iraq or assuming that six U.S. police professionals would be sufficient to train a civilian police force capable of keeping peace in a nation of 30 million people.
Steele was in Iraq early in 2003 as an “energy consultant” with easy access to authorities like Gen. Petraeus, even though what he actually did in Iraq remained a mystery to most people. As the Sunni insurgency developed, Steele was brought in to organize counterinsurgency. Though still, technically, a civilian, he worked closely with Gen. Petraeus and reported directly to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Steele set about working with Iraqi officers to organize “special police units” under military control, as the notion of a civilian police force faded. By April 2005 there were nine battalions of these police commandos operating in Iraq, with some 5,000 in Baghdad alone.
When The Body Count Rises, the New York Times Notices
With more and more bodies left on the streets during the night, with secret prisons spreading across the country, with reports of disappearances and torture proliferating, the New York Times took notice, at least to the extent of publishing a Sunday magazine cover story on May 1, 2005, by Peter Maass titled, “The Salvadorization of Iraq.” By then, anyone who wanted to know the level of American-sanctioned brutality in Iraq would have had little difficulty doing so.
Conditions worsened and reports kept coming throughout 2005 and 2006.
On October 2005, one of the Iraqi generals involved in the secret prisons fled Iraq and spoke out publicly from Jordan about what was happening in his country. Steele came to visit the general in Jordan, the general recalled, apparently to see if the general had any evidence – pictures, documents, tapes that could give Steele cause for concern. None have yet appeared.
Of course American media did not pursue the terror-fighting-terror story very hard, and the U.S. government denied most bad news. At a news conference on November 29, 2005, a reporter asked a timid question about the killings and Sec. Rumsfield said he had not seen any reports. Following a week follow-up question, he said he had no data from the field – even though the truth was that Steele had reported six weeks earlier that the Shia death squads were operating effectively from his perspective.
U.S. Was Cold, Heartless, Ruthless, and Finally Fruitless
In the documentary, Steele is described as a cold and ruthless man by an Iraqi who knew him. “He lacks human feeling,” the Iraqi general says, “his heart has died.”
The moral vacuity of the American leadership during the Iraq war is illustrated in an exchange at a press briefing on international human rights law, in particular the treatment of prisoners, that illustrates Sec. Rumsfeld’s polite but ignorant numbness:
GEN. PETER PACE: It is absolutely the responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DONALD RUMSFELD: But I don’t think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it’s to report it.
GEN. PETER PACE: If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it.
When a Cover-up Works, No One Is Held Accountable
Sec. Rumsfeld, presumably never present during inhumane treatment of a prisoner, apparently never made any effort to stop it, or to report it, or even to know about it. In that he was following the classic pattern of a cover-up as articulated by Nixon fund-raiser Maurice Stans during Watergate: “I don’t want to know, and you don’t want to know.”
The Guardian/BBC investigation into torture and death squads on Rumsfeld’s watch started after Wikileaks provided the Guardian with almost 400,000 previously secret U.S. Army field reports, whose release is attributed to Bradley Manning. The Pentagon has not disputed the truth of the documents. The government has arrested and tortured Manning, 25, a former intelligence officer, who is currently on trial in a military court where he has pled guilty to 10 of 22 charges for which he could be sentenced to 20 years in prison. The prosecution is demanding a life sentence.
After the Stele documentary was released March 6, the Guardian invited comment from the Pentagon. Having declined to take part in the documentary as it was being made, the Pentagon said it would study the film and perhaps comment at a later date.
Unhappy with the documentary in a completely different way is Kieran Kelly whose blog critiques the movie under the headline: "The Guardian's Death Squad Documentary May Shock and Disturb, But the Truth is Far Worse" – a claim he argues at length. For example, he criticizes the movie’s acceptance that “only” 120,000 Iraqis died in this American war, and he wonders how that “fact” squares with a million widows in Iraq?
Realistically, ten years after the American invasion, the Iraq war isn’t close to over. It’s just that, having prompted the Iraqis to kill each other the U.S. has left them to it.
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
the pending war crimes Indictment against bush jr, clinton rumsfeld and obama includes this documentary in the indictment as part of the evidence.
good spot _________________ If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it. - Edward Bernays
On Tuesday, the Constitution Project, a Washington, DC think tank, released a 600-page report by its “Task Force on Detainee Treatment” documenting decades of war crimes committed by US imperialism and its military and intelligence agencies.
The 11-member Task Force spent two years generating the report, interviewing over 100 individuals, including former detainees, military and intelligence operatives, interrogators and politicians in numerous countries. The report details abuse of detainees during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, and geographically covers such mistreatment in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and the so-called black sites where the US government hides detainees in secret locations in foreign countries.
The report relies on publicly available documents, since the Task Force had no access to records kept by the military on the treatment of detainees. Nor could it compel testimony from witnesses or participants, since it lacked the power to issue subpoenas.
Nonetheless, the Task Force amassed an enormous and overwhelming quantity of evidence on US crimes. The report’s introduction contains this indictment of the American government’s conduct in the so-called “war on terror”:
“The events examined in this report are unprecedented in US history. In the course of the nation’s many previous conflicts, there is little doubt that some US personnel committed brutal acts against captives, as have armies and governments throughout history. But there is no evidence there had ever before been the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after September 11, directly involving a president and his top advisors on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain on some detainees in our custody.”
The introductory remarks go on to note: “Despite this extraordinary aspect, the Obama administration declined, as a matter of policy, to undertake or commission an official study of what happened, saying it was ‘unproductive’ to ‘look backwards’ rather than forward.”
The report offers a glimpse into the manner in which the judiciary has adapted itself to and facilitated the ever-expanding powers of the executive branch of government. Characterizing the role of the federal courts during the post-9/11 Bush administration, the report makes the following point:
“Courts, ever anxious about the possibility of defiance undermining their authority, generally allowed the administration to delay action.” In other words, according to the Task Force, the courts have largely gone along with the anti-democratic measures enacted in the name of the “war on terror” out of fear that the executive branch might simply ignore their rulings, effectively establishing an open presidential dictatorship.
A comprehensive account of the details of the report goes beyond the scope of a single article, and the World Socialist Web Site intends to devote additional articles to the material laid out in this important study. But by way of introduction, the section headings provide a sense of the report’s scope. They include: “Detention at Guantánamo,” “The Legal Process of The Federal Government After September 11,” “Rendition and the ‘Black Sites,’” “The Role of Medical Professionals in Detention and Interrogation Operations,” “True and False Confessions: The Efficacy of Torture and Brutal Interrogations.”
The report declares that the US government “indisputably” engaged in torture, which was approved by “the nation’s highest officials.” Specifically, the Task Force rejects the notion that stress positions, sleep deprivation, exposure to continuous loud music, water boarding and other “enhanced interrogation tactics” do not amount of torture under US and international law.
As of late 2012, the Task Force writes, the US military was still capturing around 100 persons every month for detention at the notorious Baghram Air Base prison in Afghanistan, many of them grabbed in night raids.
The report notes that “extraordinary renditions” became a regular practice during the Clinton administration in the late 1990s. Richard Clarke, the chief counter-terrorism adviser to Clinton, is quoted as saying Clinton approved every single “snatch” operation he was asked to review.
The Task Force declares that US personnel committed acts of torture and other cruel, degrading or inhumane acts at the CIA’s “black sites” against the victims of extraordinary rendition.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the report points out, military psychologists were told they had no obligation to follow any medical ethical standards aside from those handed down by the military itself.
The report notes that one of the first detainees in the “war on terror,” the supposed “20th hijacker” in the 9/11 attacks, Mohammed Al Qahtani, was interrogated for 20 hours per day for seven weeks. He was interrogated in stress positions with military working dogs present and held in solitary confinement. He was also questioned naked in front of female interrogators, led around on a leash and made to bark like a dog, over-injected with IV fluids in order to make him urinate on himself, and forced to wear women’s underwear.
An Army pathologist’s report on the in-custody death of a detainee known only as Daliwar at Bagram Air Base found that the prisoner’s legs were beaten so savagely that they became “pulpified,” and that his injuries resembled those of someone who had been run over by a truck. Daliwar, a 22-year-old taxi driver, was innocent of any crime.
A picture emerges of the preparations for a police state, from the more embryonic stage under Bill Clinton to the more open and developed stage under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The Constitution Project’s report documents the regular use of torture at the Guantanamo Bay internment camp, which has become a symbol of the brutality of American imperialism. Some 166 men have been detained there for years, most without having been accused of a crime, and all without a trial or basic due process of law. Many have tried to commit suicide. Six have succeeded.
The release of the new study coincided with a crackdown by US military guards at Guantanamo against a month-long hunger strike by as many as 100 detainees.
On Monday, the New York Times published a letter from current inmate Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, which sheds light on the savage treatment that he and his peers endure.
“I will never forget,” the inmate states, “the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.”
The Task Force report points to the international legal condemnation of force-feeding detainees and recommends that the practice cease immediately.
The Constitution Project’s report on detainee treatment is as an encyclopedia of criminality, although the study’s liberal authors refrain from drawing substantive conclusions and offer only the most feeble recommendations.
But while they do not propose that anyone be prosecuted, their findings provide powerful evidence for war crimes proceedings against three US presidents and their subordinates, including cabinet members, Department of Justice lawyers, military commanders and intelligence officials. _________________ If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it. - Edward Bernays
not quite the same as being convicted in America (its a start) but if we all club together we could buy them a holiday to malaysia _________________ If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it. - Edward Bernays
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