The Guardian’s Death Squad Documentary May Shock and Disturb, But the Truth is Far Worse

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In what to many must seem a shocking exposé, the Guardian and BBC, after a 15 month investigation have produced a dramatic full-length documentary about US involvement in the formation and running of death squads in Iraq. One journalist describes the result as a “staggering… blockbuster”. But, by creating a false context, by omission, by deceptive emphasis and by specious analysis the Guardian and BBC have create a false and toothless critique. Indeed, though the authors would probably deny it vehemently, the impression given in this documentary is not inconsistent with the villain of the piece, James Steele, being a rogue Kurtz-like figure, with Col. James Coffman cast in the role of faithful sidekick. Other links to the established death squad practices are conspicuously absent – links such as John Negroponte’s appointment as Ambassador to Iraq and Steven Casteel’s role in forming the Police Commando units which functioned as death squads (not to mention ordering the Oregon National Guard to return rescued prisoners to their torturers). Even at the most basic level, the fundamental context was obscured, including one fact that the widespread use of death squads confirmed – the US-led “counterinsurgency” was not war, it was genocide.

Perhaps the most striking thing of all is that, after 15 months of investigation and nearly ten years after US officials set in motion the “Salvador option” in Iraq, this documentary reveals much less of substance than was being reported in 2005. In fact, it is a triumph of style over substance which packs an emotive punch, but disarms watchers by its lack of informational revelation. In January of 2005 it became public knowledge that the US was pursuing a death squad programme. In May 2005 the New York Times published the story showing Steele’s involvement in torture. In the intervening years people like Dahr Jamail continued to report on the US orchestration of death squad activity. And Max Fuller spent years and numerous articles (not to mention a website and the book Crying Wolf: Selling Counterinsurgency as Sectarian Civil War) documenting the death squad programme as well as revealing a deliberate ploy to misrepresent US-run death squads as sectarian murder.

Here is what I found wrong with James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq:

1) Mortality Data

One of the key distortions here is something very basic, the use of “more than 120,000” as a mortality figure. Some may argue that given the controversy over the mortality, it is only sensible to be conservative. But these figures are more than simply abstract numbers. When some people, most notoriously David Irving, put the case that only one million European Jews died during World War II, the media didn’t suddenly adopt the more conservative figure. In fact, Irving was thrown in prison. Irving’s casualty figure was crucial to his genocide denial, and the same is true of the lower figure used in “James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq”. A mortality of 120,000 immediately colours the way in which we perceive US actions in Iraq.

While many simply accept such figures on the basis of faith, the origins of the lowee estimates lie entirely in the work of scoundrels and fools. The figures produced by the two Lancet (“L1 and “L2)surveys indicate a far higher level of mortality and have been reinforced by sources such as the ORB poll. The nail in the coffin of these lower estimates (based on adding the Iraq Body Count figure to those in the Iraq War Logs) came when Les Roberts and students at Columbia subjected the two data sets to analysis, by pains-taking cross-referencing, showed that the two sets of data should be extrapolated to indicate a figure of a similar order, though slightly lower, than the ORB survey suggested. IBC claim that they have a different analysis of the correspondence between IWL and IBC wherein the vast majority of the IWL fatalities are in the IBC count (81%). They also claim, completely speciously, that they can distinguish combatant and non-combatant casualties. However, IWL is thought to cover only about 50% of US military reports (omitting special forces actions, for example, not to mention the incident shown in the footage released as Collateral Murder). Also remember that, as with the “mere gook rule” in Vietnam,1 US forces regularly report civilian deaths at their own hands, such as those in Collateral Murder, as being combatant deaths as a matter of policy.2 You can either conclude that IBC made an honest mistake, trust them on their analysis, and simply add another 15,000 deaths whilst also conveniently ignoring the undisputed fact that the US systematically mischaracterised non-combatant deaths as combatant deaths, or you might think that maybe IBC are not to be trusted. After all, they swore blind in defence of their figure before IWL came out, and barely skipped a beat when the figure jumped over 10% overnight.

We can also use our own brains on this topic. In 2006, the Baghdad morgue received 16,000 bodies of whom 80-85% were victims of violence. In 2005 Robert Fisk wrote: “…in July 2003 – three months after the invasion – 700 corpses were brought to the mortuary in Baghdad. In July of 2004, this rose to around 800. The mortuary records the violent death toll for June of this year as 879 – 764 of them male, 115 female. Of the men, 480 had been killed by firearms, along with 25 of the women. By comparison, equivalent figures for July 1997, 1998 and 1999 were all below 200.” We are really talking about an average of (if you will excuse some arguable rounding up) 1000 per month violent deaths until at least the end of 2007 (with the “surge” being the most violent time of the entire occupation). That gives a figure of 59,000 violent deaths. Let’s be conservative and say that right through to the withdrawal of US troops 50,000 people killed by violence ended up in the Baghdad morgue. What percentage of Iraq’s fatalities does it seem likely to you will have passed through the morgue of Baghdad? Just over 20% of Iraq’s population live in Baghdad, and many who died in Baghdad would not have been taken to the morgue. I think that estimating the Baghdad morgue data as representing any more than 10-15% of Iraqi mortality would be an offence against basic rationality and numeracy, so that too indicates that the figure of 120,000 is a massive underestimate, possibly of entirely the wrong order of magnitude. Another simple and universal yardstick is the number of orphans. The Iraqi Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs estimates that there are 4.5 million orphans (presumably those who have lost at least on parent) of whom 70% have lost parents since 2003. Is it possible that the 120,000 (which includes children) could have an average of 26.25 offspring? What about the number of widows in Iraq. One estimate is that 2.5 million Iraqi women have been widowed by the war. That seems inexplicably high, and in fact estimates range from 1 million to 3 million total Iraqi widows, but it is another indication that 120,000 is simply untenable and far below an actual conservative figure.

2) US War Aims

One of the central lies of the Iraq occupation, one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated perhaps, is not just that the US sought some sort of peaceful independent democratic Iraq, but that it sought to impose any sort of stable unified regime at all. No doubt many US personnel were genuinely engaged in attempting to create stability, but from the beginning decisions made at cabinet level and later those emanating from the CPA, very effectively and systematically continued the work that began in 1990, and continued through years of bombing and sanctions and military action. That work was to inflict maximum damage on the fabric of Iraq’s society through attacks on social, political, intellectual, religious and economic health, and through the direct killing and immiseration of the Iraqi people. That process is called genocide.

The only evidence that the US ever sought stability is their own say so, and this is hardly surprising if you consider how unlikely it would be for them to admit instead to a desire to destabilise, weaken and fracture Iraq even further than they already had. The reader may recall that famously Gen. Eric Shinseki was over-ruled on the required number of troops for an effective occupation, and only one third of that number was committed. Some readers may be aware that State Department planning for a successful post-invasion occupation (the “Future of Iraq” project) was systematically sabotaged and subverted. Then the original occupying authority, ORHA (Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance) was fatally undermined by understaffing, lack of resources, and lack of standing within a chain of command. It was a joke, the only real resources and agency in the country were US military, which ORHA could not exert authority over, or the extant Iraqi institutions, which the US repudiated. After 61 days ORHA was replaced with the next seemingly Joseph Heller inspired spoof of governance – Bremer’s “Coalition Provisional Authority” (CPA).

With the CPA nominally in charge, actual power devolved to a confusing patchwork of military authorities whose only focus was security. Those who have read Imperial Life in the Emerald City know that there was systematic waste, fraud and mismanagement which ensured that reconstruction money belonging to the peoples of Iraq and the US was never successfully used for reconstruction. Everything was undermined. Even James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq showed that a mere 6 senior civilian police were supposed to train 30,000 police in 18 months. This sort of thing happened in every imaginable area of governance. So strong is the pattern that explanations of coincidence or incompetence cannot be borne, nor can explanations of systemic failure due to virulent partisan ideology (such as Rajiv Chandrasekaran puts forward).

In the meantime, abetted by the CPA, the US military was actually generating the very insurgency that this documentary would have us believe that the US sought desperately to avoid. As David Keen, author of Endless War, discusses here a function of the “war on terror” is to generate the very enemies which the US can use to justify its “war”. I myself have written about a prior instance of this pattern of US behaviour, the Second Indochina War, wherein the US acted to create recruit, arm and finance its insurgent opposition in order to effectuate genocide against the peoples of Indochina.

In Iraq too, the US actually became the midwives and nurturers of the very insurgency they claimed to be combating. The most obvious example is that by attacking or mistreating civilians, the US acted to recruit survivors and the bereaved as their enemies. In addition, though, accounts from early on in the occupation, in amongst the chaos, US forces left massive amounts of ordnance unguarded in the middle of the desert.3 A wild goose chase for WMD that the administration knew did not exist kept US personnel from securing actual conventional ordnance.4 And in one instance the US Marines more or less simply handed 800 assault rifles, 27 pick-up trucks and 50 radios over to a newly formed Fallujan brigade which promptly and predictably continued in its established role of armed resistance to Coalition occupation in spite of this generosity.5

The US regime also subverted its own personnel’s attempts to secure Iraq’s borders from the arrival of money, arms and fighters. Luis Montalvan gives an extraordinary testimony of obfuscation over the installation of a system for tracking migration, concluding: “From 2007—from 2003 to 2007, no computer systems for tracking immigration or emigration installed—were installed along the Syrian-Iraqi border. This surely contributed to the instability of Iraq. Foreign fighters and criminals were free to move transnationally with little fear of apprehension. It is probable that significant numbers of Americans and Iraqis were wounded and killed as a result of this.”

And then there was the infamous CPA Executive Order Number 2. At a stroke it made 500,000 often armed Iraqi military personnel unemployed. Where there had been none, there was now an insurgency. It should also be noted that the first executive order droves tens of thousands of government employees out of work and inevitably the two together were a massive jump start to insurgency where no serious organised armed resistance had existed to that point.

Also, as will be discussed below, the documentary distinctly gives the impression that US backed death squad activities inadvertently helped fuel sectarian civil war. This relies on the fallacy that death squads are a “dirty war” technique of genuine counterinsurgency (which I will counter below) and ignores the evidence that the US deliberately acted to sow ethnic and sectarian division in Iraq.

3) The “Dirty War” Fallacy

The phrase “dirty war” is used in this documentary to connote that the death squads are a form of counterinsurgency, if perhaps a morally questionable one. But the phrase “dirty war” was first applied to the killings and disappearances in Argentina, not by the Junta’s critics, but by the Junta itself. It is an excuse and a rationalisation of political terror. The Argentine politicide was part of a plan of drastic, if not revolutionary, societal transformation, referred to as el Proceso. The Junta who seized power in 1976 sought a “sanitized, purified culture”.6 Under cover of fighting “terrorism” and insurgency, the Junta implemented a totalitarian anticommunist “free-market” regime by destroying any possible ideological opposition or potentially rival power structures. Feierstein writes: “All those targeted had in common not their political identity, but rather the fact that they participated in the social movements of that time.”7 Those targeted were unionists, leaders of agrarian leagues, and community workers working with the urban poor. This was done over a period of years under the guise of fighting the “dirty war” against “terrorist” guerrillas, despite the fact that Argentina’s Montonero guerrillas were a spent force within 6 months of the coup.8 Some social structures (principally the Church) were cleansed rather than disintegrated, becoming instruments of furthering authoritarian obedience.9 To further ensure unquestioning obedience, books were burned and banned, then a blanket law criminalised writing, publishing, printing, distributing or selling anything found to be “subversive” after the fact. This created a sense of uncertainty and fear. As Galeano puts it: “In this program for a society of deaf mutes, each citizen has to become his own Torquemada.”10

What stands out most in el Proceso is the disappearances. Argentina has the sad distinction of being the first place to nominalise “disappear” into “the disappeared”, just as Guatemala had earlier made its unhappy linguistic contribution with the transitive verb “to disappear [someone]”.11 To disappear someone, rather than to simply gun them down in the streets, is to bring about awful uncertainties about their fate – for the loved ones of the disappeared uncertainty prevents the grieving process and even hope becomes a torment, for everyone the imaginings of protracted torture, usually all too real, become a source of great terror. According to Antonius Robben: “Argentine society became terror-stricken. The terror was intended to debilitate people politically and emotionally without them ever fathoming the magnitude of the force that hit them.”12

I would argue that what distinguishes Argentina from “dirty wars” in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Afghanistan and Iraq is that the Argentine Junta, perhaps unwisely in the circumstances, defeated the actual guerillas rather than ensuring their continuance to provide better cover for their ongoing autogenocide. But the pretence of war is often rather thin, surviving only because it is never challenged. Moreover, certain tactics and certain weapons systems are not even suited for military conflict at all. Look, for example, at the armed unmanned aerial vehicles which are currently used by the US government for a “targeted killing” programme. A Predator drone may carry a very lethal payload and the Reaper (formerly “Predator-B”) may carry 4 Hellfire missiles and 2 500-lb bombs. They are not suited for “fighting” opponents with an opportunity to fight back. In fact, while Obama is set on expanding drone usage even further, the US military is set to cut back on drone production because drones are not suited to “contested airspace” and require “permissive” conditions. Reading between those lines you can see that “combat” drones are in fact nothing of the sort because they do not engage in actual combat. The “hunter-killer” appellation is more honest. Reapers and Predators are for use against those who cannot fight back – like aerial death squads.

Death squads, by nature, are not a military tactic whatever their “counterinsurgency” or “counterterror” pretensions. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, it is a universal trait for death squad programmes to seek to conflate combatant targets with non-combatant. This is not restricted to death squad activity itself, but it part of the belligerent political discourse of the putative counterinsurgent regime. During the Cold War, the enemies were the “communists” and deliberate efforts were made to create the impression that the ideological identification was equivalent to combatant status, at least in as much as legitimising killing. The same applies to the uses of the terms “Islamist” and “militant”. Part of this process is to divide the world up into two camps – as Bush Jr said “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”.

But Bush wasn’t stating anything new. Early in the Cold War, in Guatemala the motto was “’For liberation or against it.’ From this Manichean vision sprung the paranoid anti-communist taxonomy that added to the list of enemies not only communists, but ‘philocommunists,’ ‘crypto-communists,’ ‘castro-communists,’ ‘archi-communists,’ ‘pro-communists,’ and finally the ‘useful fools.’”13 In 1962, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff defined “insurgency” as any illegal form of opposition to regime rule, thus including passive resistance, joining banned unions or strikes, or anything else deemed illegal by a given regime. At this time they openly embraced terror tactics, such as those conducted by death squads, as “counterterror”.14 In South Vietnam, before there was any armed insurgency, the Diem regime conducted an horrific terror (seemingly forgotten to history) thought to have cost 75,000 lives.15 Mobile guillotines travelled the countryside to execute those denounced as communists and the campaign came to a head in 1959 with the notorious Decree 10/59 under which all forms of political opposition were made treason and any act of sabotage was punishable by death. Local officials could label anyone they wished “communist” and thus secure summary sentences of death or life imprisonment.16 Then, the US deliberately created the term Viet Cong, to conflate political dissent with combatant status, and then, when their own personnel began to reinterpret VC as referring solely to combatants, the US military then came up with another term – ‘Viet Cong infrastructure’. Prados defines them as “a shadowy network of Viet Cong village authorities, informers, tax collectors, propaganda teams, officials of community groups, and the like, who collectively came to be called the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI).” “Sympathizers” were also counted.17 It was the “VCI” that were the main supposed targets of the “Phoenix Programme” – the US run dedicated death squad programme. Those targeted were usually tortured and/or killed,18 so the programme was a war crime in any respect, but when it was expanded throughout South Viet Nam, it was run in such a way that the vast majority of victims were not in any manner involved with the NLF. Instead of using specific intelligence to target people with at least some known connection to the NLF, lists of names were coerced from detainees physically. Cash incentives were also offered for informers, while President Thieu used the programme to kill political rivals.19 “Neutralizations” resulting from the programme were about 20,000 each year. In 1969, out of a US figure of 19,534 “neutralizations” less than 150 were believed to be senior NLF cadres and only 1 (one) had been specifically targeted.20

In Argentina most victims were not guerillas but union leaders, young students, journalists, pacifists, nuns, priests and friends of such people. 21% of victims were students; 10.7% were professionals and 5.7% were teachers or professors. 10% were Jews who were tortured in specific anti-Semitic ways. CIA noted at the time the use of “torture, battlefield ‘justice,’ a fuzzing of the distinction between active guerilla and civilian supporter…arbitrary arrest… death ‘squads’….” Generals increasingly come to understand the threats as being Peronism and unionism. “One Argentine general is quoted as having said that ‘in order to save 20 million Argentines from socialism, it may be necessary to sacrifice 50,000 lives.’”21 General Jorge Rafael Videla defined his “enemy” in the following terms: “a terrorist is not only someone with a weapon or a bomb, but anyone who spreads ideas which are contrary to our western and Christian civilization.”22

As you can see there is a crossover between main force military “counterinsurgency” activities and death squad activities. In El Salvador, by 1992 there were 6800 guerilla’s and they were faced with over 60,000 regular military and over 50,000 ORDEN paramilitaries (many acting as death squads). The UN found the government side responsible for 95% of deaths, concluding that the violence was not guerilla war, but rather repression. This was also true of the 35 year “guerilla war” in Guatemala. UN estimates over 200,000 were killed. 93% of torture, disappearance and execution committed by government forces; 3% by guerillas and 4% described as “private”. The army was involved in 90.52% of massacres, alone in 55% of cases, in collaboration for the others. “In a majority of the massacres committed by the state, especially by the army, the counterinsurgency strategy led to multiple acts of savagery such as the killing of defenceless children, often by beating them against walls…; impaling the victims; amputating their limbs; burning them alive; extracting their viscera while still alive and in the presence of others… and opening the wombs of pregnant women.” A favoured way of torturing to death was to stab someone then throw them into a pit where they would be burnt to death. Specific deliberate raping torturing killing of women and children was a “counterinsurgency” tactic. “The murder of children was adopted by the army as terrorism – as a counterinsurgency tactic, part of a scorched earth operation.” It was a way of further attacking social cohesion – destroy the graves and the children and there are no ancestors or descendants. Rape was used as weapon to destroy social cohesion.23

The same blurring even applies to the current UAV “targeted killing” programme. The targets are “militants”, not combatants, and in the Israeli “targeted killing” programme (on which the US programme is apparently modelled), though Israeli courts use an “immanent threat” justification to legitimise the strikes,24in practice no victims pose an immanent threat and less than half are even wanted militants, while the rest are, once again, community leaders or political activists.25 If, like Israel and the US, “targeted killings” are carried out with missiles, then it is guaranteed that the majority of victims will not be those specifically targeted. Thus in 2002 when the US conducted a strike on an Afghan villager because he was tall (and therefore may have been Osama Bin Laden who was also tall and may have been in Afghanistan) they also killed two bystanders who were innocent of being tall.26 In the US case, they use “signature strikes”, where there is no known target, more often than “personality strikes”, which ensures that many innocents are killed. In addtion the US uses “double tap” strikes which are follow up attacks designed to kill those who come to help the wounded. It is estimated that about 50 civilians are killed for each known terrorist, but the US has a long standing habit of labelling anyone it murders a combatant by definition.27 William Westmoreland confidently proclaimed that no civilians had ever been killed in a free-fire zone, because people in free-fire zones, whether 9 weeks old or 90 years old, were not civilians by definition.28 Similarly the US government currently defines any “military age male” as a militant unless proven otherwise, and not only do they not investigate such matters, we have no evidence that the US even tries to ascertain whom it has killed other than “military age males”.

As counterinsurgency death squad or targeted killing programmes can only be counterproductive in practical terms, not least because actual combatants are considerably harder to kill than civilians. These are much more efficient at eliminating political dissidents, activists and organisers, but at the same time inflicting terror on the general populace. We have already seen how this occurred in Argentina, but a recent report Living Under Dronesdevotes 30 pages to the non-lethal effects of social disintegration, mental trauma, economic and educational damage, health impacts, and cultural destruction. The constant presence of Reaper and Predator UAV’s audibly buzzing overhead and the constant threat of sudden incineration that accompanies the noise, creates constant grinding stress: “Drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there”. This plays the same role that disappearances do, heightening terror and trauma through “a chronic state of intense uncertainty [while] the later reappearance of highly mutilated corpses instils fear of the unknown rather than the known.”29 Signs of torture and mutilation on the bodies of loved ones creates deep psychological scars, but also militates against compromise promotes armed resistance over unarmed resistance.

The result is what is referred to as the “culture of terror” (a phrase also used to describe the post-2001 interventionism of the US). It inflicts exactly that state earlier mentioned wherein “each citizen has to become his own Torquemada.” This “culture of terror” and, indeed, the very use of deaths squads as a tactic are symptomatic of genocide, in as much as genocide was coined to denote war against peoples rather than armies. The inventor of the term “genocide”, Raphäel Lemkin, put it this way: “Genocide is the antithesis of the Rousseau-Portalis Doctrine, which may be regarded as implicit in the Hague Regulations. This doctrine holds that war is directed against sovereigns and armies, not against subjects and civilians. In its modern application in civilized society, the doctrine means that war is conducted against states and armed forces and not against populations.” It is part of a “composite and manifold” set of behaviours that signify a “coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of life of a group”. The claim of those committing genocide that they are fighting “dirty wars” against insurgents has not merely been made in Argentina and Guatemala, but in every major act of genocide including the Herero genocide, the Armenian genocide, the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda (usually known as the Rwanda Genocide), the subsequent genocide against the Hutu in Rwanda and Eastern Congo, and the Bangladesh Genocide (in what was then “East Pakistan”).

If you really want to give proper context to the US backed death squads in Iraq, it is essential to recognise them as a functional part of an ongoing genocide. It is increasingly difficult to seriously maintain that two decades of systematic destruction unleashed on Iraq by the US and allies were somehow unintended. And it is more evidently fatuous than ever to make the false distinction between the genocidal sanctions period and the occupation period which only saw an increase in the tempo of death and destruction. Each period saw a multiplicity of tactics and policies which worked together in exactly the manner originally described by Lemkin when he sought to explain the new concept which he called “genocide”. As Max Fuller wrote in 2006:

Iraq’s ‘democratic opening’ was just as vital a fig leaf for all-out dirty war as Duarte’s civilian presidency was in El Salvador. At this moment all of the voices are telling us the same thing and that is that US-trained, armed and backed forces are committing yet another genocide. Islamofascism is just another cover for ruthless political, economic and social repression, with Shiite militiamen in Iraq no more needing to take their orders from Tehran than Guatemalan death squads needed to take theirs from the Vatican. The objective is not a mystery. It is total neo-colonial domination.”

4) Steele in the Heart of Darkness

One version of the Steele documentary opens with an ominous soundtrack and describes him: “…a shadowy figure, always in the background….” The impression given is that Steele was a radical and puissant figure, and there is a definite implication that he was a rogue (with the possibility left open to viewers that US officials turned a wilful blind eye). In terms of relationships with other US personnel, Steele is placed in a very short vertical chain. Top officials may have valued his knowledge and analysis, but the death squad activities are subject only to a lack of oversight by unnamed officials, with one very important exception. Steele’s sidekick, Colonel Coffman, reported to General David Petraeus, but as to how much Petraeus actually knew, we are left doubting. That is quite literally all of the interconnection shown in this documentary – it implicates two US personnel and leaves one with a question mark. The problem is that this is a completely specious, irrational and amnesiac image of the evolution of US founded death squad programmes in Iraq.

In October of 2003, Steven Casteel arrived in Iraq to become the senior US advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. Fuller describes his background thus:

Whilst Casteel’s background is said to be Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the operation against Escobar was a joint intelligence effort, involving the CIA, DEA, Delta Force and a top-secret military intelligence surveillance unit knows as Centra Spike (Marihemp, SpecWarNet). The operation had no impact on Colombia’s position as the world’s major source of cocaine… with the centre of gravity ultimately shifting to dozens of micro cartels (Houston Chronicle). However, the operation did lead to the formation of a death squad known as Los Pepes, which was to form the nucleus for Colombia’s present paramilitary death-squad umbrella organisation, the AUC, responsible for over 80 percent of the country’s most serious human-rights abuses (Colombia Journal). Whilst no official connection was ever admitted, Los Pepes relied on the intelligence data held in the fifth-floor steel vault at the US Embassy in Bogota that served as the operation’s nerve centre. Lists of the death squad’s victims rapidly came to mirror those of Escobar’s associates collated at the embassy headquarters (Cocaine.org, Cannabis News).

Casteel’s background is significant because this kind of intelligence-gathering support role and the production of death lists are characteristic of US involvement in counterinsurgency programs and constitute the underlying thread in what can appear to be random, disjointed killing sprees.”

In December of 2003 Robert Dreyfuss reported that money had been set aside to form a paramilitary militia which analysts immediately pegged as being a death squad programme akin to Phoenix. The programme would bring together both former exile group members and “senior Iraqi intelligence people” from the notorious Mukhabarat of the former regime. James Steele arrived early in 2004 to run the paramilitaries which Casteel was creating, Steele had been in and out of Iraq during 2003, but wasn’t actually assigned to the paramilitaries until after June 2004 when David Petraeus took charge of the newly created “Multi-National Security Transition Command” which trained and equipped Iraqi forces. Also in June 2004 John Negroponte began his tenure as US ambassador to Iraq. It is in no way possible for me to any justice here to the intimate association that Negroponte has to death squad activities, but his record in Latin America is highly enlightening reading. Here’s a taste of his records from Dahr Jamail:

In Honduras he earned the distinction of being accused of widespread human rights violations by the Honduras Commission on Human Rights while he worked as “a tough cold warrior who enthusiastically carried out President Ronald Reagan’s strategy,” according to cables sent between Negroponte and Washington during his tenure there. The human rights violations carried out by Negroponte were described as “systematic.”

The violations Negroponte oversaw in Honduras were carried out by operatives trained by the CIA. Records document his “special intelligence units,” better known as “death squads,” comprised of CIA-trained Honduran armed units which kidnapped, tortured and killed hundreds of people. Negroponte had full knowledge of these activities while making sure U.S. military aid to Honduras increased from $4 million to $77.4 million a year during his tenure. Under his watch civilian deaths sky-rocketed into the tens of thousands. Negroponte has been described as an “old fashioned imperialist” and got his start during the Vietnam War in the CIA’s Phoenix program….”

The first of the paramilitaries under Steele’s guidance was publicly acknowledged in September 2004. In charge of one of the first Brigades was General Rashid Flayih, a former Ba’athist General who played a key role in crushing the 1991 uprising in southern Iraq (itself often misleadingly described as sectarian in nature). Moreover, as Fuller writes: “Even more significantly than the continued tenure of General Rashid Flayih, is that of General Adnan Thabit. Adnan was instrumental in establishing the Police Commandos according to Maas and is currently [ in charge of all of the Interior Ministry's extensive security forces. Adnan is a Sunni and was a Baathist intelligence officer. Like Rashid, Adnan has a history of collaboration with the CIA.” The original prime targets were not the “Sunni insurgents” but the Mehdi Army. This Shia militia is, in US media discourse, an implacable enemy of the Sunni “insurgents” despite the fact that the Mehdi army's leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, gave such vocal and voluble support to Sunni resistance in Falluja – even sending aid and personnel to Fallujah. Just as today Sadr's support of the “Sunni uprising” and its demands is an unmentionable sour note spoiling the self-serving Western discourse of ethnic and sectarian fragmentation and calls for partition (Peter Galbraith, a major and influential partition advocate, has been allowed to make hundreds of millions of dollars out of his Iraq dealings).

So the death squads were US planned and run and though the sectarian aspect was deliberately inbuilt, it was both Sunni and Shia. The documentary leaves intact the impression that infiltration by Shia militias was the driving force behind the sectarian tensions, and a probable force driving the brutal excesses, rather than a calculated deliberate aspect of the death squad programme as designed by the US. Fuller shows that the implementation of the “Salvador option” created sectarian division by design to further the push for partition. Scott Ritter predicted that “the Salvador option will serve as the impetus for all-out civil war. In the same manner that the CPA-backed assassination of Baathists prompted the restructuring and strengthening of the Sunni-led resistance, any effort by US-backed Kurdish and Shia assassination teams to target Sunni resistance leaders will remove all impediments for a general outbreak of ethnic and religious warfare in Iraq.”

Rather than enlighten viewers to the comprehensive and intentional nature of the US death squad policy, the documentary makes it seem as if the callous and scary Steele had, in his ruthless pursuit of counterinsurgency, unleashed sectarian hatreds and opened up the paramilitaries to Shia militia infiltration because their vicious hatefulness and violence, though morally unacceptable to we civilised Westerners, could be harnessed to suppressing the anti-occupation resistance.

There is the deliberate implication that Steele was valued for his ability to utilise “human intelligence” and in the alternative version he is even touted as an expert as getting “actionable intelligence”. Indeed the entire documentary barely mentions the key death squad trait associated with these Special Police Commandos (disappearing live people and producing mutilated corpses). Instead it concentrates on detentions and torture under interrogation. However, I believe that the reason that the “actionable intelligence” quote is dropped from the official version is that it cannot be reconciled with the reality of the death squad activity in Iraq. The documentary, in either version, insinuates that officials did not enquire too closely into Steele's methods because he got results. But the implication that these results had something to do with counterinsurgency is patent nonsense. At the height of death squad activity hundreds of corpses were turning up each week with signs of torture, only someone seriously deluded would believe that this torture was all done as a way of gathering real intelligence about insurgent threats to the Occupation and the puppet regime. Torture is not a very effective way of getting reliable intelligence from detainee interrogations.

In a “culture of terror” obviously torture promotes terror as has been discussed, but in death squad terror systems torture may also serve other purposes. One already touched upon is the production of what might be called “actionable intelligence” if one acknowledges that “actionable” need not mean “truthful”. As mentioned, in the Phoenix programme, torture was used to generate lists of names simply to perpetuate a largely indiscriminate terror programme. Former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, found that pro-democracy Uzbek activists were being tortured to produce “intelligence” about “terrorists” in other countries for the use by the US and UK: “The information may be untrue, but it is valuable because it feeds into the US agenda.” (Incidentally, the same Craig Murray said of the Salvador option: “The evidence that the US directly contributed to the creation of the current civil war in Iraq by its own secretive security strategy is compelling. Historically of course this is nothing new - divide and rule is a strategy for colonial powers that has stood the test of time.”) Murray testified to the “Bush Commission” to the effect that “they needed false intelligence from torture chambers” in order to justify the war on terror. Indeed, even the justification for the invasion of Iraq had an integral element gained by torturing false intelligence from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. The intelligence produced allows some officials to claim innocence or honest error. Other functionaries are genuinely innocent, actually believing the falsehoods, while others maintain ignorance with varying degrees of wilfulness. This includes those in the media, who are as much a part of this system as CIA or Pentagon employees. So if Steele was actually valued for his “human intelligence” gathering (and I think that much less likely than that he was valued for his skill at repression, terror and genocide) then the “actionable intelligence” was known to be false.

On the subject of torture, it remains to be noted that in a process similar to that used to produce self-justifying “intelligence”, there is a psychology of confession and the reification of the victim as malefactor in the mind of the persecutor. Whether in Argentine torture camps, or in the Khmer Rouge's notorious Tuol Sleng, torturers force confessions not for external consumption, but to create a reality which justifies their cruelty even if that reality extends no further than the four walls of a single cell. In this instance, however, the US created a grotesque high-tech dystopian version, like Soviet show trials but with Hollywood pizazz. In a reality show called Terrorists in the Grip of Justice a “parade” of torture victims provided by the SPC Wolf Brigade, confessed to heinous crimes including the murders of people later revealed to be alive.

5) Reel Bad Arabs

One of the strongest distortions in this documentary is the way it isolates the Iraqi paramilitaries' actions from those of US occupation forces. We are left with the impression that no matter what degree of knowledge US officials possessed, their crime was one of inaction – not putting a stop to things getting out of hand as their ruthless Kurtz built his private army of thugs, and as that very army was infiltrated by vengeful sectarian militias. But as with Indochina or Argentina or Guatemala or El Salvador, the existence of dedicated death squads, or paramilitaries that function as death squads does not preclude death squad type activities from regular forces. The “counterinsurgency” tactics used in South Vietnam, in El Salvador, and in Iraq essentially involve all military personnel in a campaign of terror, in which many, even if quite unwillingly, will find themselves in the role of death squad executioner.

Let us examine the realities of detention at the hands of US occupation forces in Iraq. Many men were detained in “house raids” which seemed almost invariably based on false or faulty intelligence. If that seems unlikely, consider that the US was using torture on detainees to gain information when the vast majority (estimated at 70%-90%) were innocent. Just like the paramilitary death squads, the US forces right from the beginning were torturing innocent people to get “actionable intelligence” on other innocent people. After just 6 months of US occupation, Abu Ghraib alone was crowded with 10,000 detainees. The US also gained intelligence by buying it, and replicated all of the venality and private vengeance that they cannot but have known (having gone down this road before) is an inevitable result of a denunciation system of bribery and coercion.

So within months of the invasion, terror spread to every Iraqi, because none was safe. Each night going to sleep brought the possibility of awakening suddenly to the violent invasion of a US house raid. “Military age” males were subject to detention. They were then “Persons Under Control” or PUCs. They would then pass through a chain of custody. Even before they reached the destination where interrogators were authorised to torture information out of them that they did not possess, the guards along the way might take the opportunity to “fuck a PUC” or “smoke a PUC”. The radically dehumanised process (wherein human beings labelled as “PUC”s) would make detainees inot nothing but anonymous living meat with bags on their heads in a factory-like process. Those who arrested them might understand that they are innocent of wrongdoing, they will have seen the humanity in their eyes, but, like so much else in this dystopian nightmare, all humanity was systematically effaced. So to the next tiers of people in the PUC production line, they are nothing more than a “bad guy”. Ricks even documents that some US personnel maliciously wrote “IED” on the bags of innocent detainees, just in order to prompt abuse which might easily prove fatal.30

Torture of detainees not an aberration for the US. According to Darius Rejali, contemporary US torture combines two distinct styles which he labels “French Modern” and “Anglo-Saxon Modern”.31 Key features include electrotorture, water torture, sleep deprivation and positional torture. These are what he labels “clean torture” techniques, meaning that they are physical tortures which, no matter how much agony they produce, leave no lasting scars: “Used by authoritarian states abroad, it is torture; but used at home, it is probably good policing.”32 Although Rejali emphasises on innumerable occasions that clean tortures occur in response to monitoring, I think that it is reasonable in this instance to take a more nuanced approach. The US doesn't fear monitoring. Aside from the facts that a former President has happily admitted ordering torture and that Donald Rumsfeld is one of only very few high officials in modern times known to have ordered specific torture techniques to be used,33 systematic US torture is also well documented by NGOs, the UN, and many major news organisations outside of the US. In fact, the utility of “clean” torture is that it allows people, including torturers, to rationalise the effects as being primarily emotional or mental when they may, like water-boarding, cause excruciating physical pain. As Rejali points out even sleep deprivation causes physical pain.34 And yet these are widely understood to be psychological techniques, inducing fear and breaking down resistance.

Of course there is a great deal done by US personnel that is not among these “clean” tortures. Former interrogator Tony Lagouranis describes how “North Babel was probably the place where I saw the worst evidence of abuse. This was from August to October of 2004, so, it was well after the Abu Ghraib scandal. And we were no longer using any harsh tactics within the prison, but I was working with a marine unit, and they would go out and do a raid and stay in the detainee's homes, and torture them there. They were far worse than anything that I ever saw in a prison. They were breaking bones. They were smashing people's feet with the back of an axe head. They burned people. Yeah, they were doing some pretty harsh stuff.”

Somehow, however, these non-“clean”acts are erased when it comes to analysis. The entire world saw that attack dogs were made to bite naked restrained prisoners with photos such as these:

Yet whenever the use of dogs is mentioned something strange happens. For Rejali, the Nazis “set

dogs” on prisoners, but the US “threatens” with them.35 Alfred McCoy, another torture specialist

and strong critic of the US, takes the same approach, emphasising on multiple occasions the Arab

cultural sensitivities and fear of dogs. (Apparently Arabs are peculiarly sensitive to being bound

naked and blindfolded while military attack dogs savage them. Who would have thought?)

Our attitude seems to be that above all, though they might trick people into feeling fear or trick them into a “simulation” of drowning, US terror is somehow fake and unthreatening. But, for the loved ones of those taken by the US military, they were disappeared as effectively as if they had been taken by a Guatemalan death squad. Relatives would have no way of knowing where they were or even whether they were still alive for days, but often that might turn into weeks or even months. These were carceral disappearances with most victims entering a Kafkaesque realm of capricious abuse and arbitrary treatment within a characteristically massive and inhuman prison machinery. The prospect of dying in custody was also very real.

The terror inflicted through these indiscriminate detention policies as not the only way in which the US (and to a lesser degree Coalition partners) created a “culture of terror” which was part of their genocide in Iraq. US forces used ordnance guaranteed to kill civilians, such as white phosphorous, depleted uranium, cluster munitions, and large explosive munitions such as 1000lb and 2000lb JDAMs:

In addition, US forces were more intimately killing. As I have written previously:

…in excess of 100,000, civilians have been killed in a very atomised and geographically dispersed pattern with small arms by coalition forces. The closest parallel to this would be something like the Herero genocide, an early 20th Century colonial genocide.

In a work based on veteran testimony, Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian explain that US personnel have gone“from killing – the shooting of someone who [can] harm you – to murder. The war in Iraq is primarily about murder. There is very little killing.”36 They are talking about the systematic murder of civilians in small increments multiplied many times over. This is the result of a disproportionate fear and lack of security induced within US personnel as well as such policies and tactics as: force protection; reactive firing; suppressive fire; reconnaissance by fire. These are of relevance during convoy operations, house raids and at checkpoints and I am quite confident that each of these situations has been shaped by US policy in such a way as to maximise civilian deaths, often putting US personnel in the situation of being unwilling murderers. Joshua Key describes, from early in the occupation, having to build a “corpse shack” where Iraqis could go to collect the bodies of relatives killed by his company. It was “near our front gate, so relatives could retrieve their loved ones without entering our compound.”37

And then there are also those instances when, given legitimacy by rules of engagement, US personnel quite eagerly commit murder. International Humanitarian Law and even US Field Manuals forbid the killing of non-combatants, but if the ROE redefines a civilian as a combatant, because they stopped to help a wounded person, or carry a shovel, or do something suspicious, then considerable eagerness to kill people may take over. “Delightful bloodlust” as Bradley Manning terms it. This bloodlust is systematically induced in personnel subjected to intense military indoctrination using psychologically sophisticated techniques.

The same fundamental rules of representation and discourse apply to all mainstream Western media products, including both Hollywood blockbusters and “James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq”. Above all, the average US person, including their heavily armed military personnel, can never be shown as a threat to the innocent. For Arabs (as for Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Africans etc. etc.), one is allowed to say that violence is part of their culture, but only the bad apples of the US commit abuses. Above all, one can never suggest that civilians might fear US personnel.

Kieran Kelly blogs at On Genocide.

1 Jeffrey Record, “How America“s Own Military Performance in Vietnam Abetted the “North“s” Victory“ in Marc Jason Gilbert (ed), Why the North Won the Vietnam War, New York: Palgrave, 2002, p 125.

2 Stjepan Gabriel Meštrović, Rules of engagement?: a social anatomy of an American war crime – Operation Iron Triangle, Iraq, New York: Algora, 2008, p 171.

3 Joshua Key writes of loading 1000 rpg and mortar rounds on to a truck, driving it into the middle of the desert and just leaving it. (Joshua Key and Lawrence Hill, The Deserter’s Tale: Why I Walked Away from the War in Iraq, Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2007, pp 78-9.)

4 Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, London: Penguin, 2007, p 156.

5 Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2007, p 142.

6 Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, New York: Henry Holt, 2007, p 105.

7 Daniel Feierstein, “Political violence in Argentina and its genocidal characteristics,” Journal of Genocide Research (2006), 8(2),June, p 150.

8 Klein, The Shock Doctrine, pp 107-9.

9 Ibid, p 110.

10 Eduardo Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America (1973), New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997, p 282.

11 Frank M. Afflito, “The Homogenizing effects of State-Sponsored Terrorism: The Case of Guatemala”, in Jeffrey A. Sluka (ed.), Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, pp 116.

12 Antonius C. G. M. Robben, “Disappearance and Reburial in Argentina”, in Jeffrey A. Sluka (ed.), Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, p 96.

13 Carlos Figueroa Ibarra, “The culture of terror and Cold War in Guatemala,” Journal of Genocide Research (2006), 8(2), June, p 198.

14 Frederick H. Gareau, State Terrorism and the United States: From Counterinsurgency to the War on Terror, Atlanta and London: Clarity Press and Zed Books, 2004, pp 29-30.

15 William S. Turley, The Second Indochina War. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1986, p 32 n 6.

16 David W. P. Elliott, The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta 1930-1975, Volume 1. London and Armonk, NY: East Gate, 2003, p 195-6.

17 John Prados, The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995, pp 204-5, 210.

18 Tucker gives figures which suggest that just less than one third: “Between 1968 and 1972 it accounted for the deaths of 26,369 people; another 33,358 were captured and 22,013 surrendered,” (Spencer C. Tucker, Vietnam, Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1999, p 151). These overly precise figures, however, should in themselves arouse suspicion, and accounts of the functioning of the programme make it seem unlikely that any accurate count of those killed was kept, although sometimes, in the words of an officer who helped oversee the programme, “they’d come back to camp with ears to prove they’d killed people,” (Christian Appy, Vietnam: The Definitive Oral History Told from all Sides. London: Ebury Press/Random House, 2006 (2003), p 361).

19 Jonathan Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War. New York: The New Press, 2003, p 116.

20 John Prados, ‘Impatience, Illusion and Assymetry’ in Marc Jason Gilbert (ed), Why the North Won the Vietnam War. New York: Palgrave, 2002, p 142.

21 Gareau, State Terrorism and the United States, pp 96-8

22 Feierstein, “Political violence in Argentina…” p 153.

23 Gareau, State Terrorism and the United States, pp 41-9.

24 Michael L. Gross, “Killing civilians intentionally: double effect, reprisal, and necessity in the Middle East”, Political Science Quarterly, 120.4 (Winter 2005), p569.

25 Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, London: Verso, 2005, p 132.

26 Michael Mandel, How America Gets Away with Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage and Crimes Against Humanity, London, Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2004, p 29.

27 See above n 1 and n 2.

28 James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000 (1986), p 135.

29 Afflito, “The Homogenizing effects…”, p 118.

30 Ricks, Fiasco, p 271.

31 Darius Rejali, Torture and Democracy. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007, pp 20; 420.

32 Ibid, p 255.

33 Ibid, p 412.

34 Ibid, p 290.

35 Ibid, p 433.

36 Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, Collateral Damage: America’s War against Iraqi Civilians, New York: Nation Books, 2008, p xiii.

37 Key, Deserter’s Tale, p 84.

6 thoughts on “The Guardian’s Death Squad Documentary May Shock and Disturb, But the Truth is Far Worse

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