Guardian Lays Out Details of How Petraeus Organized Death Squads in Iraq

Petraeus salutes the death squads that advanced his career

Petraeus salutes the death squads that advanced his career

Yesterday, the Guardian published an article detailing how the US turned to the use of death squads in Iraq to quell the rise of Sunni militias. The article provides convincing evidence that this was an intentional policy and was in fact a central tenet of David Petraeus’ often-praised counterinsurgency, or COIN, strategy. The key person in the Guardian’s reporting is James Steele, who was a veteran in organizing Central American death squads on behalf of the US during the Reagan years.

In reading the material from the Guardian, however, it should be kept in mind that Petraeus did not institute his COIN strategy only in Iraq. He put it into place in Afghanistan as well, and the fact that it lead to widespread allegations of torture and murder there demonstrates that the atrocities committed by these militias is a feature of the funding and training provided to them and not an unfortunate outgrowth, because this practice has now produced death squads in Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan. Recall that less than two weeks ago, Hamid Karzai called for the expulsion of US Special Operations forces from Maidan Wardak province due to allegations of abuse by the Afghan Local Police there. The Afghan Local Police are in reality groups of local militias trained and funded by US Special Operations forces and operating separately from the Karzai government. The ALP became one of the primary features of Petraeus’ COIN strategy when he moved it to Afghanistan.

Here’s the opening of the Guardian article:

The Pentagon sent a US veteran of the “dirty wars” in Central America to oversee sectarian police commando units in Iraq that set up secret detention and torture centres to get information from insurgents. These units conducted some of the worst acts of torture during the US occupation and accelerated the country’s descent into full-scale civil war.

Colonel James Steele was a 58-year-old retired special forces veteran when he was nominated by Donald Rumsfeld to help organise the paramilitaries in an attempt to quell a Sunni insurgency, an investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic shows.

Via email, my friend Kirk pointed out this report from Newsweek back in early 2005 where the concept of the Salvador option was floated openly by the Bush administration:

What to do about the deepening quagmire of Iraq? The Pentagon’s latest approach is being called “the Salvador option”–and the fact that it is being discussed at all is a measure of just how worried Donald Rumsfeld really is. “What everyone agrees is that we can’t just go on as we are,” one senior military officer told NEWSWEEK. “We have to find a way to take the offensive against the insurgents. Right now, we are playing defense. And we are losing.” Last November’s operation in Fallujah, most analysts agree, succeeded less in breaking “the back” of the insurgency–as Marine Gen. John Sattler optimistically declared at the time–than in spreading it out.

Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported “nationalist” forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success–despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. (Among the current administration officials who dealt with Central America back then is John Negroponte, who is today the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Under Reagan, he was ambassador to Honduras. There is no evidence, however, that Negroponte knew anything about the Salvadoran death squads or the Iran-Contra scandal at the time. The Iraq ambassador, in a phone call to NEWSWEEK on Jan. 10, said he was not involved in military strategy in Iraq. He called the insertion of his name into this report “utterly gratuitous.”)

The most disgusting aspect of this apparent “trial balloon” floated by the Bush administration is that the program quite possibly was already underway when the Newsweek article came out. The Guardian article reminds us that Petraeus, the architect of this program,  was sent to Iraq in June of 2004 (this was his second deployment to Iraq) to begin training Iraqis, and the Newsweek article wasn’t published until January of 2005. Steele, who was reporting directly to Rumsfeld, first went to Iraq in 2003 (Rumsfeld delighted in running his own people separately from the chain of command; he did this at times with McChrystal as well).

More evidence that the program was entirely intentional comes from the role of torture in the program and the moves the US made to ignore torture just as the program was put into place. A little over two years ago, the Guardian analyzed a number of documents from Wikileaks and assembled a huge number of reports of torture carried out by the militias the US trained and supported under this program. Most devastating within this cache of information, however, is that the US issued an order to ignore reports of torture carried out by these Iraqi groups. From a 2010 report by the Guardian:

This is the impact of Frago 242. A frago is a “fragmentary order” which summarises a complex requirement. This one, issued in June 2004, about a year after the invasion of Iraq, orders coalition troops not to investigate any breach of the laws of armed conflict, such as the abuse of detainees, unless it directly involves members of the coalition. Where the alleged abuse is committed by Iraqi on Iraqi, “only an initial report will be made … No further investigation will be required unless directed by HQ”.

Did you notice that date? Yes, Frago 242, ordering US forces to ignore torture by Iraqi militias, was issued the same month as when Petraeus was sent to Iraq to institute his training program. Hardly a coincidence, if you ask me.

Here’s a video the Guardian put together in 2010 based on what they found in the Wikileaks documents and other investigations:

[youtuber youtube=’’]


In conjunction with yesterday’s article, the Guardian also released a video documentary that is nearly an hour long. It can be viewed here.

Oh, and just in case you try to say that Petraeus’ COIN strategy exited the US government with Petraeus’ resignation after it was learned he was boinking his biographer, think again. Yes, his primary aide in instituting the policy (and overseeing US torture), Stanley McChrystal, also has resigned in disgrace, but key aides William McRaven and Michael Flynn have advanced their careers an the basis of these war crimes. McRaven now heads Special Operations Command, and so he would be in charge of training the death squads in the next country where the US decides to institute them. Where will it be? Libya? Syria? Mali? And Michael Flynn heads the Defense Intelligence Agency. Flynn was responsible for turning the “intelligence” gained by torture, whether it was carried out by the US or Iraq, into actions such as night raids, thereby producing more insurgents and fueling the cycle of violence.

22 replies
  1. phred says:

    Thanks Jim. I read the Guardian article yesterday with interest, but not with surprise. Since the torture regime was instituted at the behest of the President, one has to assume that those who remained in the chain of command were on board with that policy and worked to implement it.

  2. emptywheel says:

    One other detail on this timing: May 2004 is when the CIA IG report and Taguba reports came out.

    So I imagine there was a great deal of attention paid to staying in the torture business while gaining some kind of plausible deniability.

  3. Jim White says:

    @emptywheel: Thanks. That does fit well with deciding to outsource the torture to the militias once the heat was on regarding the US role in torture. The attempts deniability are key and continue to this day.

  4. Jim White says:

    @klynn: Off the top of my head, I don’t think so. He doesn’t seem to have been involved in the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Petraeus-McChrystal-McRaven-Flynn cabal. I don’t think he interacted with any of them until he served at MacDill for CENTCOM while Petraeus was also there as head of CENTCOM in 2008.

  5. Jeff Kaye says:

    Jim, in a Aug. 2011 article I linked Petraeus coming to Iraq to train police milita with the original Frago-242 order. I emphasized same under the subheading “Training the Torturers and the Implementation of FRAGO-242”.

    I’m very pleased that the Guardian has stuck with this story, and happy to see you make the necessary points re the extension of the same policy to Afghanistan.

    But really, as I’ve pointed out before, this has generally been the way the US and its allies have conducted COIN for over 100 years now (going back to the US in the Philippines War).

    The leopard does not change its spots.

  6. Jim White says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Thanks for that link to your story. And yes, this has been the US strategy for a very long time. It’s sad how new “heroes” can just come along and dust it off again and again for use, even though it produces enemies far faster than it can “neutralize” them.

  7. marc says:

    America’s world view of itself as a benign superpower depends entirely on not knowing these things. The rest of the world recoils in horror at our actions but we look forward not backward.

  8. marc says:

    It’s interesting that Colonel Steele and Iran were strange bedfellows in Iraq though their Badr Brigade connection but don’t they have a history of covert cooperation that goes back to Iran/Contra ?

  9. Jim White says:

    @marc: Very good point. Yes, the Iran connection does come out in the Central American death squads, so that does give Steele and earlier Iran connection.

  10. marc says:

    @Jim White: I was just wondering if the Iran connection was pure coincidence, a death squad is a death death squad is a death squad, or might the connection actually have been a consideration when Cheney and Rumsfeld selected him for the assignment in Iraq.

  11. Nell says:

    Great post, Jim, thanks.

    At the U.S. embassy in May 1986, Jim Steele spoke to a visiting delegation of activists of which I was a part. He was making a big effort to intimidate, standing up close and leaning over us in a wide stance with his hands behind his back, but it succeeded only in making him outlandish. When some of us laughed out loud at what he was saying, a vein in his neck began to throb; he was a Terry Southern character come to life. No one there was in the slightest doubt that the U.S. military “advisors” were directing torture squads; in fact, we’d met just a day before with women in Mariona prison who were tortured by Salvadorans while men speaking U.S. English were in the room.

    It was also an open secret that Ilopango airport was being used for flights to supply the contras, though we didn’t know at the time how personally involved Steele was with that little project. He was one of the most memorable figures from that trip, but he’d left El Salvador by the next time I visited, and I didn’t think much about him as the years wore on.

    Then one day, shortly after the Abu Ghraib pictures hit the front pages, I was in a cafe reading a Jon Lee Anderson story in the New Yorker about the April 2004 uprising in Iraq — and who should pop up in the story, sitting beside Anderson in a bar, but our old friend Jim Steele. The hair rose on the back of my neck, literally. He could only be there for one reason, and sure enough, he showed up in Peter Maass’ NYT Magazine story the next year in a way that made his role unmistakeable.

    I told this anecdote in a comment thread at Billmon’s old blog. Guardian staffers came across it while researching for the documentary, talked to me about it on the phone, and raised the possibility of my discussing it on camera, which blessedly never happened. It’s deeply satisfying to see Steele being dragged from the shadows (to some extent), and Petraeus pinned with his role in torture. But I have low, low expectations for the U.S. media doing much with this story — and of course, even lower expectations for anything like justice for their crimes.

  12. joanneleon says:

    @Nell: Nell, that is a fascinating account.

    I’m way behind all of you, but I’ve lately been spending a lot of time going back and reading and watching interviews and documentary pieces about Iran-Contra and also Vietnam. The picture that emerges, when blended with our wars today… I don’t really have a word for it.

    Nell, if you write more about this on a blog or publication somewhere, I hope that you’ll post a link to it here so that we can read it. I would be so interested in hearing more.

  13. joanneleon says:

    I really do wonder if McChrystal was on the same page as the rest of the cabal, particularly Petraeus. I have a couple of reasons for wondering about that, one of which includes the opinion of a member of a group of people with decades of service who have kept in touch for years — people not inclined to endorse things like torture.

    But I do remember how the myth of the vaunted Petraeus, the brilliance, ugh, dominated Washington, the media, etc. If you were a peer of his and had different ideas of how things should be done, I don’t think you would have stood much of a chance. It’s such a shame that someone didn’t pop that myth a long time ago.

    I do remember before the invasion of Iraq and in the early years, talk of a group of influential retired military brass who went to great lengths to try to stop it. I never knew who was involved. It seems like there are two (at least) camps among those in power in the military, and the relative good guys have finished last in recent years.

  14. seedeevee says:

    How come nobody mentions Amb. Negroponte in all of this? His fingers were in all of these messes.

  15. Jim White says:

    @joanneleon: Can’t say that I buy that. McChrystal is very clearly identified as the primary person keeping ICRC away from Camp NAMA and was front and center in the Pat Tillman coverup. He also is who Flynn reported to for much of the worst of the “intelligence collection”. As far as I’m concerned, he’s as dirty as the rest of them.

  16. Jim White says:

    @seedeevee: But, but, right up there in the Newsweek blockquote he denies any involvement entirely and says such accusations are “utterly gratuitous”.

    Like you, I’d like to see a bit more on just what he’s been up to lately.

  17. Nell says:

    joanneleon: :: reading and watching interviews and documentary pieces about Iran-Contra and also Vietnam. The picture that emerges, when blended with our wars today… I don’t really have a word for it. ::

    I’m right there with you in not having a word for it. The closest I can come is David Swanson’s “war is a crime”.

    At the time I was in the same room as Jim Steele, I was a committed supporter of armed struggle as a route to change; I’m not now.

    But I’m still willing to call bullshit on the passage in the Newsweek excerpt in Jim’s post that says Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success. From 1986 to the end of 1989, the FMLN grew steadily stronger, launching an offensive in November ’89 that took over large sections of the capital city and the countryside. They were forced to withdraw from San Salvador only when the Salvadoran Air Force bombed the densely populated neighborhoods in which they were dug in. This savage aerial bombing, that killed and injured thousands of civilians, was ordered by the U.S. military “advisers”; by that time, the U.S. was funding 90% of the Salvadoran national budget. The scale of the offensive exposed the complete failure of U.S. policy in El Salvador, and forced negotiations that eventually ended the war. Jim Steele and the whole rotten “low intensity conflict” doctrine contributed absolutely nothing to that. Which is why the U.S. military likes to pretend they’ve just discovered counterinsurgency every decade or so, as if no one would remember the events of the previous dirty war. In fact, as the Newsweek article demonstrates, most journalists helpfully play along and fail to remember accurately.

    Jim, I get no credit for courage; laughter’s the only alternative to screams of rage, sometimes. Also, I did nothing to expose Steele that I know of; it’s almost certain that his role in El Salvador was clear to the Guardian team by the time they encountered my comment. After reading that Jon Lee Anderson article I did have the impulse to alert a few of my companions on that long-ago delegation; they remembered Steele as vividly as I did. We all assumed Iraq was an even dirtier war than the ones we’d tried to end in the ’80s.

  18. please says:

    @joanneleon @nell – reading and exploring this topic and how it stretches back to Vietnam interests me as well. could i kindly get in touch with either of you? i would appreciate pointers on where to start and some sources to check out. whereisthehalo [at] tormail [dot] org

  19. Nell says:


    I’m not much help at pointing to good reading sources, because most of my understanding of the topic has come from participants and journalists as the events were unfolding. Some Viet Nam vets did pre-Winter Soldier testimonies that got a hearing in the Quaker-heavy area where I went to school. In the ’70s I lived in DC, where Chilean and Latin American exiles put on events that detailed the U.S. role in their ongoing horrors — which came home even to those who didn’t attend such events when one of those exiles and a colleague were murdered with a car bomb right in leafy northwest Washington. In the mid-’80s, the Salvadoran human rights groups that sent solidarity committees alerts when men and women were taken by the military also documented the different tortures used against them.

    There was one book that was very important, though, in tying these experiences together: Noam Chomsky’s The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism. 1978? 1979? It detailed the many ways in which the U.S. government transmitted torture and other repressive techniques to other countries’ “security forces” — the School of the Americas, police assistance funds, special forces deployments, joint exercises, and on and on. Haven’t looked at it in thirty years, so can’t say how useful it would be today, but no reason it shouldn’t be; it’s full of reliable, referenced information.

    In the 1990s, families of U.S. military members demanded and got recognition for their combat service in El Salvador. In the decade before, when the U.S. was funding and directing the war, the government denied strenuously that U.S. service members did anything but advise. I didn’t believe that for a minute, but the revelations about the extent of U.S. combat surprised even me.

    The best history of U.S. torture is probably Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture, which covers the Phoenix program in Viet Nam as part of a long continuum of CIA and military research into and implementation of torture. Jeff Kaye, who posts at FireDogLake, would be an excellent person to ask about other overviews and histories.

    What I’ve been reflecting on recently are the number of lethal ‘services’, the increasingly thin distinctions among them, plus the growth of private militaries. From the very beginning of special forces in the U.S. military (e.g., Green Berets), members were assigned to the CIA for short- and long-term duty. Over the last forty years, increasingly so over the last ten, special forces have multiplied. There’s been more and more melding of CIA-contractor (“civilian”) and military operations.

    Over the same period local and state police have become militarized; the ‘war on drugs’ beefed up the federal agencies and began the fusion process that’s greatly speeded up since late 2001. Torture devices (tasers) are now almost standard police equipment, making every cop shop a potential replica of John Burge’s racist torture regime in South Side Chicago (crimes that are still being covered up by Daley, Rahm Emanuel, & co.; see Liliana Segura’s July 2012 report).

    The other book I’d recommended on the general subject is Torture and Democracy by Darius Rejali.

Comments are closed.