September 16, 2008
Terror the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy the Human Dress
– William Blake
Another way station on our plunge into darkness was passed last week with the publication of Bob Woodward’s new book, The War Within. Along with the usual backstairs gossip dished out by self-serving insiders eager to plant their spin on events, Woodward revealed — or, rather, confirmed — the existence of what he called the key element to the “success” of Bush’s escalation of the war crime in Iraq: a “secret killing program” aimed at assassinating anyone arbitrarily deemed a “terrorist” by the leaders of the foreign forces occupying the conquered land.
In a TV appearance to puff the book, Woodward celebrated the arbitrary murder, by methods unknown, of people designated “terrorists,” by criteria unknown, as “a wonderful example of American ingenuity solving a problem in war, as we often have.” The White House acknowledged the existence of the assassination program, but insisted that it was the “surge” of troops that was mainly responsible for the drop in violence from the howling hell of 2006 to today’s level, which, as Juan Cole has pointed out, is still greater than some of the most horrific civic conflicts of the last century. (It is a strange country indeed that can celebrate the creation of a blood-gushing sinkhole of violence and destruction as a “success beyond our wildest dreams,” to use Barack Obama’s new take on the surge.)
Of course, Woodward, the consummate Beltway courtier, embraces this bipartisan conventional wisdom about the success of the surge. And he is certainly right, at least from one point of view, as we noted here recently:
The “surge” — which in addition to an influx of troops included the ruthless ethnic cleansing of Baghdad, the walled ghettoization of vast swathes of the city, and the arming and funding of violent sectarian militias across the land — certainly succeeded in extending the duration of the murder, suffering and chaos engendered by America’s armed and belligerent presence in Iraq. So it is indeed a great “success” … in the same way that, say, Albert Speer’s miraculous efforts to keep the Nazi war machine going from 1943 to 1945 — resulting in the deaths of millions of people, including the worst ravages of the Holocaust — was a “success.”
But beyond this little insider quibble over the most effective element in the prolongation of the war — Woodward, a former military intelligence officer, naturally plumps for the covert op, while the White House ballyhoos the high-profile presidential directive to increase troop levels — what is most noteworthy about the “revelations” is that they have provoked no controversy at all. The United States admits that it is operating secret death squads in Iraq, and this barely rates a passing mention in the press, and certainly no comment whatsoever on the campaign trail, no debate among the national leadership. And this despite the fact that, as Woodward makes clear, the targets of the American death squads are not merely “terrorists,” as the general public broadly understands the term — i.e., religious extremists in the al Qaeda mold — but anyone arbitrarily designated an “insurgent” or a leader in “the resistance.”
That is, anyone who resists the invasion and occupation of his native land is deemed a legitimate target for a secret death squad. For execution without charges, without trial, without evidence. And this, to Woodward, is “wonderful” and “amazing.” By this logic, of course, the Nazis were fully justified in murdering leaders of the French resistance in World War II. The British would certainly have been justified in sneaking into George Washington’s house and killing the insurgent leader in his bed. (And his wife too, no doubt, as an acceptable level of “collateral damage.”) In fact, Woodward sternly warns members — members, mind you, not just leaders – of “the resistance” to “get your rear end out of town;” i.e., leave your native land or else be murdered in your bed by secret assassins of the occupying power.
This is the heroic, honorable stance of the American elite in the 21st century. What the Nazis did, we do, and for the same reason: to secure the forcible occupation of a land we conquered through an unprovoked war of aggression. It is indeed wonderful and amazing that such a state of affairs — such an abyss of depravity — is accepted so calmly by the great and good among us….and by tens of millions of our fellow citizens.
But as noted above, there is really nothing new about Woodward’s “revelations.” I’ve been writing here, and elsewhere, for several years about the “global death squad” of the Terror War. These reports were based not on any insider knowledge but on universally accessible stories from the most staid and respectable media sources: mainstream papers, news agencies, leading magazines, etc.
And of course, it began long before the war crime in Iraq. As I noted in 2005:
On September 17, 2001, George W. Bush signed an executive order authorizing the use of “lethal measures” against anyone in the world whom he or his minions designated an “enemy combatant.” This order remains in force today. No judicial evidence, no hearing, no charges are required for these killings; no law, no border, no oversight restrains them. Bush has also given agents in the field carte blanche to designate “enemies” on their own initiative and kill them as they see fit.
The existence of this universal death squad – and the total obliteration of human liberty it represents – has not provoked so much as a crumb, an atom, a quantum particle of controversy in the American Establishment, although it’s no secret. The executive order was first bruited in the Washington Post in October 2001. I first wrote of it in my Moscow Times column in November 2001. The New York Times added further details in December 2002. That same month, Bush officials made clear that the dread edict also applied to American citizens, as the Associated Press reported.
The first officially confirmed use of this power was the killing of an American citizen in Yemen by a CIA drone missile on November 3, 2002. A similar strike occurred in Pakistan this month, when a CIA missile destroyed a house and purportedly killed Abu Hamza Rabia, a suspected al Qaeda figure. But the only bodies found at the site were those of two children, the houseowner’s son and nephew, Reuters reports. The grieving father denied any connection to terrorism. An earlier CIA strike on another house missed Rabia but killed his wife and children, Pakistani officials reported.
But most of the assassinations are carried out in secret, quietly, professionally, like a contract killing for the mob. As a Pentagon document unearthed by the New Yorker in December 2002 put it, the death squads must be “small and agile,” and “able to operate clandestinely, using a full range of official and non-official cover arrangements to…enter countries surreptitiously.”
The dangers of this policy are obvious, as a UN report on “extrajudicial killings” noted in December 2004: ” Empowering governments to identify and kill ‘known terrorists’ places no verifiable obligation upon them to demonstrate in any way that those against whom lethal force is used are indeed terrorists… While it is portrayed as a limited ‘exception’ to international norms, it actually creates the potential for an endless expansion of the relevant category to include any enemies of the State, social misfits, political opponents, or others.”
It’s hard to believe that any genuine democracy would accept a claim by its leader that he could have anyone killed simply by labeling them an “enemy.” It’s hard to believe that any adult with even the slightest knowledge of history or human nature could countenance such unlimited, arbitrary power, knowing the evil it is bound to produce. Yet this is what the great and good in America have done.
And this is what they continue to do, to this very day, this very hour, as the non-response to Woodward’s macabre and freakish celebration of covert murder demonstrates so clearly.
(Continued after the jump.)
In Iraq, the death squads were in operation almost from the start. For example, one of the earliest reports about the American formation of “paramilitaries” and “commando squads” to “track down” insurgents came from the Washington Post in December 2003:
Two weeks ago, the U.S. occupation authority decided to form a paramilitary unit to track down insurgents. The unit, composed of Iraqi militiamen from the country’s five largest political parties, will work with U.S. Special Forces soldiers, and their operations will be overseen by U.S. military commanders. Since the summer, the CIA has recruited and trained some former Iraqi intelligence agents to help identify the insurgents…
An even earlier Post report, in August 2003, also noted the hiring of Baathist operatives to hunt “insurgents.” As I put it in the Moscow Times that month:
Here’s a headline you don’t see every day: “War Criminals Hire War Criminals to Hunt Down War Criminals.”
Perhaps that’s not the precise wording used by the Washington Post this week, but it is the absolute essence of its story about the Bush Regime’s new campaign to put Saddam’s murderous security forces on America’s payroll.
Yes, the sahibs in Bush’s Iraqi Raj are now doling out American tax dollars to hire the murderers of the infamous Mukhabarat and other agents of the Baathist Gestapo – perhaps hundreds of them. The logic, if that’s the word, seems to be that these bloodstained “insiders” will lead their new imperial masters to other bloodstained “insiders” responsible for bombing the UN headquarters in Baghdad – and killing another dozen American soldiers while Little George was playing with his putts during his month-long Texas siesta.
Naturally, the Iraqi people – even the Bush-appointed leaders of the Potemkin “Governing Council” – aren’t exactly overjoyed at seeing Saddam’s goons return, flush with American money and firepower. And they’re certainly not reassured by the fact that the Bushists have also re-opened Saddam’s most notorious prison, the dread Abu Ghraib, and are now, Mukhabarat-like, filling it with Iraqis – men, women and children as young as 11 – seized from their homes or plucked off the street to be held incommunicado, indefinitely, without due process, just like the old days. As The Times reports, weeping relatives who dare approach the gleaming American razor-wire in search of their “disappeared” loved ones are referred to a crude, hand-written sign pinned to a spike: “No visits are allowed, no information will be given and you must leave.” Perhaps an Iraqi Akhmatova will do justice to these scenes one day.
So here — in August 2003 — the leading newspaper in the nation’s capital is openly reporting that goon squads are being sent to take care of insurgents and “terrorists,” while the leading newspaper in the capital of America’s war ally, Britain, is openly reporting that the notorious Abu Ghraib prison is being glutted with new captives — including children — sealed off behind American razor wire. The seedbed of the whole panalopy of the horrors to come was already there, in the open, from the very beginning.
And so it went on. As I noted early last year:
As Sy Hersh has reported (“The Coming Wars,” New Yorker, Jan. 24, 2005), after his re-election in 2004, George W. Bush signed a series of secret presidential directives that authorized the Pentagon to run virtually unrestricted covert operations, including a reprise of the American-backed, American-trained death squads employed by authoritarian regimes in Central and South America during the Reagan Administration, where so many of the Bush faction cut their teeth – and made their bones.
“Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?” a former high-level intelligence official said to Hersh. “We founded them and we financed them. The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren’t going to tell Congress about it.” A Pentagon insider added: “We’re going to be riding with the bad boys.” Another role model for the expanded dirty war cited by Pentagon sources, said Hersh, was Britain’s brutal repression of the Mau Mau in Kenya during the 1950s, when British forces set up concentration camps, created their own terrorist groups to confuse and discredit the insurgency, and killed thousands of innocent civilians in quashing the uprising.
Bush’s formal greenlighting of the death-squad option built upon an already securely-established base, part of a larger effort to turn the world into a “global free-fire zone” for covert operatives, as one top Pentagon official told Hersh. For example, in November 2002 a Pentagon plan to infiltrate terrorist groups and “stimulate” them into action was uncovered by William Arkin, then writing for the Los Angeles Times. The new unit, the “Proactive, Pre-emptive Operations Group,” was described in the Pentagon documents as “a super-Intelligence Support Activity” that brings “together CIA and military covert action, information warfare, intelligence and cover and deception.”
Later, in August 2004, then deputy Pentagon chief Paul Wolfowitz appeared before Congress to ask for $500 million to arm and train non-governmental “local militias” to serve as U.S. proxies for “counter-insurgency and “counterterrorist” operations in “ungoverned areas” and hot spots around the world, Agence France Presse (and virtually no one else) reported at the time. These hired paramilitaries were to be employed in what Wolfowitz called an “arc of crisis” that just happened to stretch across the oil-bearing lands and strategic pipeline routes of Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America…
Brazen daylight raids by “men dressed in uniforms” of Iraqi police or Iraqi commandos or other Iraqi security agencies swept up dozens of victims at a time. For months, U.S. “advisers” to Iraqi security agencies – including veterans of the original “Salvador Option” – insisted that these were Sunni insurgents in stolen threads, although many of the victims were Sunni civilians. Later, the line was changed: the chief culprits were now “rogue elements” of the various sectarian militias that had “infiltrated” Iraq’s institutions.
But as investigative reporter Max Fuller has pointed out in his detailed examination of information buried in reams of mainstream news stories and public Pentagon documents, the vast majority of atrocities then attributed to “rogue” Shiite and Sunni militias were in fact the work of government-controlled commandos and “special forces,” trained by Americans, “advised” by Americans and run largely by former CIA assets. As Fuller puts it: “If there are militias in the Ministry of Interior, you can be sure that they are militias that stand to attention whenever a U.S. colonel enters the room.”
…With the Anglo-American coalition so deeply embedded in dirty war – infiltrating terrorist groups, “stimulating” them into action,” protecting “crown jewel” double-agents no matter what the cost, “riding with the bad boys,” greenlighting the “Salvador Option” – it is simply impossible to determine the genuine origin of almost any particular terrorist outrage or death squad atrocity in Iraq. All of these operations take place in the shadow world, where terrorists are sometimes government operatives and vice versa, and where security agencies and terrorist groups interpenetrate in murky thickets of collusion and duplicity. This moral chaos leaves “a kind of blot/To mark the full-fraught man and best indued/With some suspicion,” as Shakespeare’s Henry V says.