Monday, September 9, 2013

My Log 377: Remarkable documentary, brought to us by The Guardian’s film unit and Al Jazeera, detailing American complicity in Iraqi torture centres

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...
Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 10, 2011, after receiving the "Defender of the Constitution Award". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commande...
U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of Multi-National Force - Iraq, briefs reporters at the Pentagon April 26, 2007, on his view of the current military situation in Iraq. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week  Al Jazeera is broadcasting an extraordinary documentary called, “Searching for Steele,” made by two women filmmakers Teresa Smith and Mona Mahmood, under the aegis of Guardian Films, a new arm of the Guardian newspaper of London, which is under the leadership of the remarkable journalist, Maggie O’Kane, whose reports from the Yugoslav war are never to be forgotten.
The Steele named in the film’s title is Colonel James Steele, an American expert in counter-insurgency, who learned his lessons when he established, trained and directed para-military units in El Salvador, which, in the words of the filmmakers, became virtually death squads. Under Steele’s direction these squads were so deadly that some 75,000 civilians died in the troubles in El Salvador, and a million people were displaced.
Steele moved on to Honduras, where he was involved with the infamous Contras, Ronald Reagan’s favorite force. It was here that he came to the notice of the up-and-coming David Petraeus, who, when he became the supreme American commander in Iraq 18 years later called Steele out of retirement in Texas, brought him to Iraq posing as an energy consultant, and from then on, along with a colonel who said he was Donald Rumsfeld’s eyes and ears on the ground in Iraq, a man called James Coffman, handed over to him the job of creating the so-called special police units whose job was to hunt down and kill any Iraqis who might be considered as harming the American effort to subdue the country.
At the time American soldiers were dying at the hands of a well-organized Sunni militia force, and Steele is now credited with having established a Shia counter-revolutionary force that eventually numbered 17,000, and who, at their peak, were distributing 3,000 dead bodies around the streets of Iraq every month.
The film shows that this para-military force --- Rumsfeld is quoted as saying publicly that Steele was doing a tremendous job in Iraq --- although not formally part of the American military, nevertheless operated like an army under military rules of engagement, rather than under the rule of law.
They were, more specifically, under Iraqi command, and the film quotes their leader, Adnan Thabit, a giant of a man, who when confronted by the filmmakers with allegations that his force engaged in torture, denied any such thing before adding that, of course, many of the insurgents refused to give information so his men had to get “a little rough with them sometimes” to extract the information they knew these prisoners had. This man in his interview seemed to be fulfilling the stereotype from feature films of the third world apparatchik, totally without the values we like to think of as civilized.
Another retired Iraqi general Muntadher al-Samari, who was more forthcoming with the film-makers, said he was disturbed by the fact that the Special Police Units ran 14 or 15 secret prisons around Iraq. He said Steele and Coffman worked hand in hand, and added (in a recent article in The Guardian newspaper), "I never saw them apart in the 40 or 50 times I saw them inside the detention centres. They knew everything that was going on there ... the torture, the most horrible kinds of torture…. Every single detention centre would have its own interrogation …. Each one was made up of an intelligence officer and eight interrogators. This committee will use all means of torture to make the detainee confess like using electricity or hanging him upside down, pulling out their nails, and beating them on sensitive parts."
They did not allege that Steele actually committed the tortures himself, but one witness described being with him when he opened a door into a room to reveal a man under torture, hanging upside down from a hook, and simply closing the door, with showing any emotion of any kind.   General Samari said he could best be described as a man “who lacks human feeling.”
Two New York Times representatives, a photographer and a reporter, told the filmmakers how they visited one of these detention centres which was full of blood, and in which they heard the most blood-curdling screams of people who were obviously under torture.
When it was put to Rumsfeld at a press conference that Iraqis were being taken to these interrogation centres in their hundreds, and there tortured, he blandly said he had never heard reports of such a thing happening, and denied such centres existed. But the film produces evidence by people who underwent these tortures and survived them, and who described the reign of terror these special units imposed as they swept through the country and targetted Sunnis for interrogation and punishment.
The film suggests forcibly that it was these units that stimulated the bitter sectarian warfare that is still going on in Iraq between Sunnis and Shias.
This is an amazing revelation, complete with chapter and verse, of the depths to which United States operatives descended as they struggled to bring Iraq under control, in their effort to fulfil George W. Bush’s solemn promise to Iraqis that their country would soon be free (a clip included in the film no doubt for ironic purposes). Any hope of bringing the perpetrators of these horrors to justice disappeared with the election of Barack Obama and his bland assurance that all this was in the past, and he wanted to look to the future. So, Steele is retired and living in Texas among the medals bestowed on him by a grateful government. And of course neither Steele nor Coffman, nor Petraeus would consent to be interviewed for the film.
I had a strange thing happen to my TV as I was watching this film: suddenly, as it was describing Steele’s activities in El Salvador, the picture disappeared, struggled to reappear, and then collapsed entirely. In an effort to see what I was missing I tried to pick it up on the streaming of current programming that one can pick up on Al Jazeera’s web site, but there, far from helping, something tied up my computer so I could not bring up the stream that would have shown me what I was missing. I had to close my computer by emergency means and restart it, by which time the picture had come back on the TV.  I had never experienced anything like this before: only this one channel was affected. And I began to get a horrible feeling that those super-sleuths who are said to be watching everything we are watching and reading everything we are reading had become active to shut off this information from the public.
I now realize that hardly seems credible, since a few minutes later, after the show was finished, I was able to pick up a stream of it from beginning to end on the Al Jazeera web site, and in fact, the same thing seemed to be available from the Google search page.  But I mention it, and my suspicions concerning it, merely to illustrate how paranoid we are becoming with all these revelations about how Big Brother is watching us every minute of the day and night.
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