A follow up to my piece on Guardian Death Squad doco – Maggie O’Kane on Democracy Now!



Further to my last post, producer/writer Maggie O’Kane has appeared on Democracy Now! to talk about “James Steele: America’s Mystery Man in Iraq”. Democracy Now! is not really a mainstream media product with a mainstream audience and it appears that some things are slightly altered for such an audience, but not all. One thing that is interesting is that DN! shows a preference for referring to “James Steele: America’s Mystery Man in Iraq” as “Searching for Steele”. Whose choice that was, I don’t know. It may have been felt that to original title was too unsubtle in emphasising Steele, or it may have been too reminiscent of Austin Powers, or both. It is a good reminder, however, that choosing to emphasise Steele in the title is an editorial decision taken at the expense of both credibility and sensation – something that should in theory be total anathema.

  1. Now O’Kane makes explicit the link that the film was so pointedly coy about – Steele was sent by Rumsfeld in order to create a torture programme (she still avoids that he was sent to create a death squad programme as such). Now we have three US officials inculpated – Steele, Rumsfeld and Coffman – while the carefully constructed question mark remains over Petraeus. Still no mention of Negroponte and Casteel, nor any mention of the innumerable officers and officials in the military, the DoD and the State Dept. who knew exactly what the “Salvador Option” meant and who were all actively or passively complicit. Instead we have a little potted narrative (O’Kane doesn’t have time to read the full script) about how all the grunts that witnessed the horrors in Samarra were too scared to talk to the Guardian because of Bradley Manning’s fate (why?) apart from one brave soul, Neil Smith, who was 21 at the time (20 according to the Guardian article), lives in Detroit and is a born again Christian. O’Kane was quite eager to provide the colour of the biographical detail – a standard journalistic practice, but nevertheless a propaganda technique.
  2. Thanks in part to the real journalism of Allan Nairn (discussing El Salvador) O’Kane is forced to follow Goodman’s lead in acknowledging that the main victims were civilians. However, despite the obvious contradiction, she clings throughout to the “counterinsurgency” and “human intelligence” claims. You can’t get “human intelligence” (“humint”) for use in “counterinsurgency” (“COIN”) by torturing civilians. I’ve already detailed this, but it is worth watching the way O’Kane goes to some effort to apply the “counterinsurgency” frame. She summarises the official punchline at the end of the interview. She takes the very well trodden path of pretending to be almost caught off-guard by being asked to give an editorialised summary. This too is pretty standard for journalists, but is a propaganda or rhetorical technique. A long segment on DN! such as this always ends with Goodman inviting a summary. Obviously O’Kane expects it, but she pretends to do the whole “well, if I was forced to summarise, I’d have to say…” technique which BBC always uses to allow its reporters in the field to tell the audience what to think. Using that platform she tells us torturing 14 year old boys is just what war is all about “…and that’s called counterinsurgency.”
  3. Once again, nothing new is revealed. We are told again that the Wikileaks revelations of FRAGO 242 in 2011 are inexplicably more important than the hundreds of eyewitness accounts, and thousands of mutilated corpses, and stunningly frank official admission that happened 7 or 8 years ago. (For me, this is particularly fascinating. I sometimes analyse propaganda as a necessary adjunct to doing other stuff, but this is the first time that I have become aware that there is a specific alternative dialect of Newspeak. In this case “Wikileaks” means “double-plus good” on DN! in exactly the same way that “patriot” means “double-plus good” on Fox. Whether employed by instinct or by calculation, there is a different idiom or register that is used in exactly the same way as mainstream Newspeak to exactly the same effect. This excites me quite a bit because I think this will give me a much better insight into the likes of the Guardian and also alternative media such as Democracy Now! I may start compiling mainstream and alternative Newspeak dictionaries – reader submissions welcome). O’Kane’s explanation for rehashing old material is that, apparently, no one ever put two and two together before. Once again, these universalising claims are a very standard part of British propaganda. Every time the media colludes with power to lie to people in Britain, they later use phrases like, “nobody could have predicted…”, “everybody felt…”, “we all believed…” “no-one doubted…”. It is a natural outgrowth of a very standard British rhetoric/propaganda technique. If someone on the BBC wants to tell you what to believe they don’t say that to believe otherwise is unpatriotic, or wimpy and effeminate, or evil and against motherhood – they tell you that everyone already believes it “without doubt”. This is much more effective if you have the gravitas to pull it off. So when O’Kane tells us that no-one really put it together before, what she means is that people like herself, and organs like the Guardian, studiously ignored the blindingly obvious and now she feels compelled to point out that “everybody” did.
  4. Far from providing anything new, O’Kane re-restates the orthodox line restated in the “James Steele: America’s Mystery Man in Iraq” (“JS:AMMI”) that was the normal journalistic “wisdom” from 2005 onwards, but she elaborates a little on what the documentary restates. The US started a brutal, torturing interrogation programme to get “humint” for “COIN”, but the nasty Shia militias took over and turned it into a death squad programme. Again, I’ve covered this already – the problems are that this ignores the evidence that the US deliberated sowed the sectarian strife and ignores the indications that the Western media wilfully pushed the sectarian aspect of the death squad programme while suppressing evidence of US co-ordination. This line also relies on a touch of cognitive dissonance on the part of viewers, made easier by the avoidance of facts in “JS:AMMI”. In over 50 minutes there is a lot of “colour” and emotive content in “JS:AMMI”, but some fairly basic facts are left out. Along with the aforementioned restriction of named conspirators, there are very important details left out. One of which is the tactical similarities in the way terror was systematically used by the death squads under Steele in El Salvador, and the way terror was systematically used by the death squads under Steele in Iraq. When one considers that they targeted the same sorts of civilians, disappeared them in the same way, and dumped their mutilated corpses in the same way, it seems a little odd to claim that there was a counterinsurgency programme committing torture, but the widespread death squad violence just arose when Shia militias took over. Is this insulting to the audience intelligence? Maybe, but they have actually managed to split the audience attention, as if they were dealing with two separate stories, and thus people don’t notice that they actually contradict their own apologism. That too, is a known rhetorical/propaganda trick, most famously exploited by O’Kane’s namesake Maggie Thatcher. Thatcher would never deceptively answer a potentially delicate question with first misdirecting the audience into simultaneously thinking about something else so that they would no notice whatever critical falsehood she slipped in in order to advance the false narrative.

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