Col. James Steele video screenshot

On March 6, the UK Guardian posted a very important story, with accompanying videos, examining in details and with witnesses the extraordinary efforts by US military and civilian personnel to assemble, train, and direct Shi’a commando brigades in Iraq. These police brigades and paramilitary units unleashed a hellish reign of terror, with massive round-ups, torture, and death squad killings.

The Guardian reveals from photos, interviews, and documentary evidence the chief role of former US Special Operations Colonel James Steele, as well as General Petraeus and other US officials in organizing this counterinsurgency-cum-terror campaign.

Steele had been in charge of training Salvadoran army personnel linked to a campaign of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and torture during the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s. Back in those days, Petraeus was an ambitious up-and-comer, reportedly all too willing to learn what Steele, who’d learned counter-terror techniques in Vietnam, had to teach him, even staying in Steele’s house.

Steele came to Iraq as a supposed civilian adviser. He carried a lot of authority, however, according to the Guardian investigation. From whence did that authority derive? Was he on special assignment for Rumsfeld (Rummy apparently is the one who sent him to Iraq)? For the National Security Council and/or the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Was he working with the CIA or JSOC’s shadowy Intelligence Support Activity (ISA)? Steele, who is described in the Guardian video as someone who is extremely cold, without feeling, is unlikely ever to reveal that himself.

The Guardian also describes how military authorities commanded US soldiers on the scene, witness to such atrocities, not to intervene when present at such crimes. The order was first issued as FRAGO (Fragmentary Order) 242. The film interviews one of these brave soldiers, a military medic, who describes what he saw when the torture commandos were unleashed in Samarra.

Others interviewed for the film include Adnan Thabit, the chief of the Iraqi Special Police Commandos from 2004-06. The Guardian has excerpted his interview for a short video highlighing Thabit explaining, “The Americans knew about everything I did.”

The main article, “From El Salvador to Iraq: Washington’s man behind brutal police squads,” notes that the Guardian tried to contact Steele for a year to get his side of the matter. He did not respond, and that is not surprising. Spooks never talk about what they are doing, and he may wish to note that anything said could be produced in court someday, because he appears to be a major war criminal, the hatchet man for the murderous policies of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.

US Connivance in Torture and the Case of Bradley Manning

The Guardian piece fleshes out the case I presented in my own story from August 2011 at FDL’s The Dissenter, The Forgotten History of David Petraeus, including using evidence I had linked to the Petraeus-Iraq torture scandal, such as the protests of the Oregon National Guard over the stand-down on torture.

The article relies on the release of Wikileaks Iraq War Logs, which documented US knowledge of torture and the orders to soldiers to ignore it. It also interviews Peter Maass, whose 2005 investigatory report in the New York Times first concentrated on the role of Steele. The Guardian appears to be the first to have highlighted the role of Colonel James Coffman, a Petraeus adviser to Thabit’s torture thugs.

The role of Wikileaks here is of piquant significance, as Wikileaks’ leader, Julian Assange remains huddled up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, having claimed political asylum in the wake of persistent demands for his extradition to Sweden on what appear to be shaky sexual offense charges. The Swedish prosecutors have reportedly refused to come and interview Assange in London. The impact of this and other repressive and financial pressures on Wikileaks may have affected their operations in strange ways.

But in even more dire straits is Private Bradley Manning, who has admitted in military court to turning over documents to Wikileaks. Manning revealed his motivation: he was moved to act after he was forced to help cover-up corruption by the Iraq National Police, and participate in round-ups of men who he strongly suspected would be tortured. Indeed, as Kevin Gosztola pointed out in a March 5 article at The Dissenter, Manning had been powerfully affected by this incident in comments he purportedly made to Adrian Lamo in computer chat logs.

Manning was even more direct in his statement to the military court: he decided to leak information because the US military had turned a blind eye to corruption and torture.

As the Guardian article and documentary on Steele show, Manning was certainly correct to fear the consequences of helping turn prisoners over to Iraq authorities. Yet Manning is on trial with life imprisonment hanging over his head, while David Petraeus, James Steele, Donald Rumsfeld and others walk free, able to enjoy the good life of the freedom this country allows those who play by the rules and ignore crimes against humanity, if not engage in them.

Gosztola also reports that Wikileaks has decided to withhold (for now) the documents that would illuminate just what Manning was referring to in the incident with the INP. Apparently they think they are protecting Manning. Under such dire circumstances as Manning faces, I suppose such release should really be up to Manning and/or his attorneys.

US Denial Over Government Use of Torture

The US counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, including the organization of police commando torture squads and secret prisons, cost over millions, perhaps billions of dollars. The Guardian explains:

In June 2004 Petraeus arrived in Baghdad with the brief to train a new Iraqi police force with an emphasis on counterinsurgency. Steele and serving US colonel James Coffman introduced Petraeus to a small hardened group of police commandos…. [Gen. Thabit] developed a close relationship with the new advisers. “They became my friends. My advisers, James Steele and Colonel Coffman, were all from special forces, so I benefited from their experience… but the main person I used to contact was David Petraeus.”

With Steele and Coffman as his point men, Petraeus began pouring money from a multimillion dollar fund into what would become the Special Police Commandos. According to the US Government Accounts Office, they received a share of an $8.2bn (£5.4bn) fund paid for by the US taxpayer. The exact amount they received is classified.

With Petraeus’s almost unlimited access to money and weapons, and Steele’s field expertise in counterinsurgency the stage was set for the commandos to emerge as a terrifying force. One more element would complete the picture. The US had barred members of the violent Shia militias like the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army from joining the security forces, but by the summer of 2004 they had lifted the ban.

The Guardian report should shake up US denial over torture and the role of top US officials, such as former CIA director Petraeus, Obama’s choice for the position after Panetta left to be Secretary of Defense. But US news media have largely ignored the story (though the New York Times noted it, relegating the story to a brief blog commentary), even though a report by Philip Bump at The Atlantic Wire called the Guardian story and video “staggering… blockbuster.” Yet Bump’s March 6 article only has (to date) about 3,600 views.

In a healthy democracy, there would immediate calls for Congressional investigations and hearings. But instead we have silence, as the US state rushes to maintain its right to project organized violence and terror wherever it wishes. A similar cover-up over the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture is now unfolding, as Marcy Wheeler reports.

The full 51-minute documentary can only for now be viewed at the Guardian site, and I have no way to embed it here. It is essential viewing for anyone who wishes to know the full history of the US invasion and policy in Iraq. Click on the video title here to watch the documentary: James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq.