One of Britain's leading newspapers, the Guardian, has just published an exposé of interrogation teams run by two U.S. operatives acting under the authority of General David Petraeus in Iraq in 2003-05. While no smoking gun -- or blood-stained billy club -- has Petraeus' fingerprints, it's clear from this extensive reporting that Petraeus not only knew of the "enhanced interrogation" of suspected insurgents, but likely hired the two thugs who were involved in it for two years.
The Guardian article and video, and earlier reporting by Gareth Porter, reveal that two Americans, James Steele and Colonel James Coffman, created commando units and manned them with Shia militia members from the Badr Brigade. That particular militia -- which was "funded, trained, and equipped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps," according to a reliable source -- was the arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. These militia-supplied commandos comprised the torture squads, say reports, that "interrogated" thousands of Sunni insurgents and very likely many who were not insurgents, and did so with the implicit, if not explicit, approval of the U.S. military and the Bush administration.
Hundreds of victims were paraded in front of television cameras on a program dedicated to showing how tough the Shia were on the Sunni fighters. It was "an open secret," said one high-ranking U.S. official in Baghdad, that torture was going on in the detention centers and that the United States was complicit.
Steele earned his stripes in Ronald Reagan's jihad in Central America in the 1980s, creating exactly the same kind of torture and death squads in El Salvador. The Guardian says that defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent Steele to Iraq to create the commando squads. Coffman, a retired colonel, reported directly to Petraeus. They worked together and were deeply involved in operations of the detention centers where torture took place.
For those of us who followed the war closely, it was well known that the detention centers were Dickensian, violent places. I did an investigation for a lawsuit in the UK that involved the detention centers and other prisons in Iraq, and while I never saw one in person, the accounts of them were chilling. It was assumed that the U.S. military was aware of the sustained, brutal human rights violations in these places, but were not responsible for them.
Now we know differently, thanks to Gareth Porter and the Guardian team, headed by Mona Mahmood. The detentions in Iraq were notorious for many reasons. Men, usually, could be detained for no particular reason. It wasn't just "insurgents" being tortured -- beaten, humiliated and harmed sexually, hung upside down, etc. -- but Iraqis who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Abu Ghraib scandal early in the war shocked many Americans and perhaps set off the downward spiral in public support for the war. What happened at Abu Ghraib is what was happening much more broadly, at the express wishes of the U.S. command and that reached into the civilian leadership at the Pentagon.
More importantly for Iraq was the way these torture and death squads fueled the sectarian war that was just brewing in 2003-04. While the United States is responsible for the hundreds of thousands of deaths resulting from the war, the retort to that charge is that much or most of the killing was Iraqi-on-Iraqi. (That still does not absolve the U.S.: an occupying power is obligated by law to provide security.) But here we have one of the most incendiary causes of the oncoming civil war -- the hiring of sectarian militias, bent on revenge for Saddam's rule, brutalizing Sunnis and boastfully broadcasting it on television.
This is the deeper significance of this story. Bad enough that torture was used -- an organized, sustained program of torture that affected many thousands of Iraqis, and apparently organized at the behest of General Petraeus and Secretary Rumsfeld. But anyone familiar with Iraq would know that stoking the flames of revenge in the volatile environment of Iraq would indeed set the country aflame.
The Sunnis and Shia were in conflict, even as many communities got along fine and there was a high rate of intermarriage. But the tensions are just below the surface, and this can become violent in times of social and political stress. Given the longtime brutality of Saddam and the disruptions of the U.S. invasion and occupation, the competition for power, and the score-settling for how badly the Sunni Saddam treated the Shia, everyone knew Iraq was a sectarian tinderbox. Everyone knowledgeable, that is. The neocons were, as one would expect, downplaying any repercussions.
From about the time these detention centers were operating with torture techniques (to say nothing of unwarranted detentions themselves), the sectarian strife mounted. By 2006-07, the level of killing, displacement, and immiseration was out of control. By then, it was a civil war. And Iraq continues to suffer this legacy. Political violence continues, albeit at a low level compared with six or seven years ago. Millions of displaced Iraqis have no means or interest to return to their homes, some because their neighborhoods were subject to sectarian "cleansing."
Of course, no American official -- not Steele (now a motivational speaker in Texas), not Petraeus (now licking his wounds from his extramarital affair), not Rumsfeld (continuing to defend the indefensible) -- is going to be arrested and tried for their criminal behavior in organizing, condoning, or covering up a torture operation that lasted at least two years. And, anyway, federal prosecutors are busy these days with the likes of Bradley Manning for his release of documents to Wikileaks. That act, as it happens, is how we've come to learn of Petraeus' torture teams.