James Steele: America’s Point Man in Fomenting Sectarian Violence and Torture in Iraq

The Guardian has released a documentary on American operative in Iraq, James Steele, which appeared on BBC. From the related news story in the Guardian:

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.

After the Pentagon lifted a ban on Shia militias joining the security forces, the special police commando (SPC) membership was increasingly drawn from violent Shia groups such as the Badr brigades.

A second special adviser, retired Colonel James H Coffman, worked alongside Steele in detention centres that were set up with millions of dollars of US funding.

Coffman reported directly to General David Petraeus, sent to Iraq in June 2004 to organise and train the new Iraqi security forces. Steele, who was in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, and returned to the country in 2006, reported directly to Rumsfeld.

The allegations, made by US and Iraqi witnesses in the Guardian/BBC documentary, implicate US advisers for the first time in the human rights abuses committed by the commandos. It is also the first time that Petraeus – who last November was forced to resign as director of the CIA after a sex scandal – has been linked through an adviser to this abuse.

The Real News Network interviewed the executive producer of the documentary, Maggie O’Kane. From her conversation with Paul Jay:

JAY: One of the things that emerges for me is that in the United States especially, the narrative here is that the primary role of the American forces after overthrowing Saddam Hussein was to try to prevent civil war, not add fuel to it. And at the very least, it seems to me, your investigation makes the case that through the activities of Colonel Steele, fuel was added, if not more than that.

O’KANE: Well, I think what our investigation is saying–and I think it shows quite clearly that a decision was made, not by retired colonel Steele, but very much by the political hierarchy in the United States, by Donald Rumsfeld, by General Petraeus, that actually in order to combat the insurgency that was rising up unexpectedly against the Americans, in order to combat that insurgency, which was mainly Sunni, you would–they decided to arm what was essentially a Shia force called the special police commandos.

Now, when you make a decision that you’re going to take a sectarian force in a country that has been rife with sectarian conflict and you decide to pour arms and ammunition and support into a group that is clearly on one side, then you’re opening up a very, very dangerous tinderbox. Now, whether or not that was the intention or whether or not that was a byproduct that the United States didn’t think about, then their main aim, as we understand it, was to stop the attacks on American soldiers at whatever the price.

I hope you will watch the documentary in full

View on YouTube

If you have trouble viewing the embedded version, you can also see it on YouTube

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. DrDuh

    Why do we believe that while ‘they’ (we?) might be willing to systematically torture, terrorize and kill in Iraq, that it could never happen here? Is it because we believe that they would never do it to a fellow American? That the Constitution protects us? Or because we don’t think that social conflict will ever get that bad?

    1. from Mexico

      You might find this of interest. On a fascist (aka neoliberal) Richter scale of 1 to 10, one can speculate as to how far along the United States is. My assessment is that we’re about a 7 or 8. One must recall that the US started down this pathway a long time ago, in the mid-50s with the overthrow of the democratically elected governemnts of Iran and Guatemala.

      The first consequence of power export was that the state’s instruments of violence, the police and the army, which in the framework of the nation existed beside, and were controlled by, other national institutions, were separated from this body and promoted to the position of national representatives in uncivilized or weak countries. Here, in backward regions without industries and political organization, where violence was given more latitude than in any Western country, the so-called laws of capitalism were actually allowed to create realities… The secret of the new happy fulfillment was precisely that economic laws no longer stood in the way of the greed of the owning classes. Money could finally beget money because power, with complete disregard for all laws — economic as well as ethical — could appropriate wealth…

      The state-employed administrators of violence soon formed a new class within the nations and, although their field of activity was far away from the mother country, wielded an important influence on the body politic at home. Since they were actually nothing but functionaries of violence they could only think in terms of power politics. They were the first who, as a class and supported by their everyday experience, would claim that power is the essence of every political structure.

      The new feature of this imperialist political philosophy is not the predominant place it gave violence, nor the discovery that power is one of the basic political realities. Violence has always been the ultima ratio in political action and power has always been the visible expression of rule and government. But neither had ever before been the conscious aim of the body politic or the ultimate goal of any definite policy. For power left to itsef can achieve nothing but more power, and violence administered for power’s (and not for law’s) sake turns into a destructive principle that will not stop until there is nothing left to violate…

      In fact, its logical consequence is the destruction of all living communities, those of the conquered peoples as well as of the people at home…

      Power became the essence of political action and the center of political thought when it was separated from the political community which it should serve…

      Imperialism must be considered the first stage in political rule of the bourgeoisie.

      — HANNAH ARENDT, The Origins of Totalitarianism

        1. from Mexico

          Yep, if one connects the dots, it paints a very discouraging picture.

          Did you notice that the DEA special agent who served in El Salvador that knew Steele there is the same one interviewed in this documentary beginning at minute 00:46:15 to minute 00:48:00


          He says they were refueling planes loaded with cocaine headed for the United States in an operation being run by the CIA.

          The thing that boggles the mind is the failure of most Americans to connect the dots between five closely related phenomena:

          1) The impunity with which the transnational banks operate in their laundering of money for the drug cartels,
          2) The explosive growth of what Peter Dale Scott calls the United States “deep state,”
          3) The open secret in Latin America and the US ghetto that the United States deep state colludes with the drug cartels,
          4) The ease with which mountainous quanatities of drugs flow across the border into the United States, and
          5) The way in which the transnational banks and other members of the transnational capitalist class use the epidemic of drug usage in the United States, which is very much a child of their own creation, in their new class war on working people.

          1. Greg Marquez

            6. The way in which the drug war is used as an excuse for imposing military style travel controls over U.S. Citizen’s living close to the border.

          2. diptherio

            So once you’ve connected the dots, as a number of us probably did a while ago, what’s the appropriate response? What is the morally defensible way in which to interact with this Federal Government? Do we, as individuals and citizens have any responsibilities beyond just informing ourselves and others, beyond writing letters and signing petitions and attending protests, none of which have stopped this juggernaut yet? If so, what are those responsibilities?

            I’ve come to my own conclusions, but I’m just a young pup and would be interested to hear what some of the old(er) cats around here think.

            1. Lambert Strether

              This oldster says “Look in box labeled ‘Pre-figuration’.” But I haven’t seen anything in that box yet. Fortunately, it’s an adapting and evolving box. (Another way of putting this answer is that I view your comment as part of the “Question of the State” perma-thread recently on display in one or two contexts, one more contentious than the other.)

          3. digi_owl

            Best guess they do connect the dots but see those that indulge in the drugs in a noticeably debilitating manner as failed humans. As long as appearance is good, everything is good. This in much the same way as those that spend all their money on clothes and cars, but live in a dump.

            Possibly a legacy of the puritan foundations of the original states.

          4. wunsacon

            diptherio, my own conclusions are that these problems have been with humans forever and are intractable. So, I’ll buy the first affordable space ticket out of here.

            I’m looking forward to the Naked Capitalism colony ship. I think it’ll be an enjoyable journey to wherever.

      1. digi_owl

        I would say that USA started further back than the 50s, tho it seemed to have taken a temporary hiatus during WW2. But from the 50s onwards it really hit full speed ahead in terms of its foreign policy implications.

    2. Chris Engel

      Ever had the joy of being the target of a federal drug or homeland investigation?

      We already systematically torture, kill, and imprison our own citizens at home en masse in the drug war and class war. But they’ve got the wrong skintone or political views, and thus the Mid-Atlantic elites don’t feel the human impact of it enough, and the victims in those wars aren’t even viewed as human (and by extension, there’s no admission of human rights abuses).

      Human Rights Watch makes regular reports about the disgusting disgraceful torture chambers that are the solitary confinement and interrogation methods of police and CO’s within the law and order industry. You personally may be detached enough from these occurances that you don’t recognize them as actively occurring at home, but it’s happening.

      Then you’ve got cases like Bradley Manning and Aaron Schwartz. Right skin color, right family, but wrong political leanings. They end up being cases we hear about only because of a loud alternative presence in the media that insists on it. Otherwise it would be ignored in the corporate media.

      DrDuh says:

      “Is it because we believe that they would never do it to a fellow American?”

      We already know that not to be the case. The green light has been given to killing multiple American citizens, as long as they are brown and have political convictions that appear to conflict with the power elites. The taboo has been broken.

      So we know the following are not going to protect you from totalitarian reach of the modern regime:

      1) Being white
      2) Being of a well-to-do-family.
      3) Being educated
      4) Being American
      5) Being in America

      Who knows what the next step is? Maybe I’m overanalyzing a few events that would otherwise be “isolated” and don’t reflect on the net-justice that the system possibly offers? I’m still learning a lot about this topic, so I can’t say for sure. I’m a casual observer at this point.

      1. from Mexico

        This I believe is germane to what you are saying:

        Terror as we know it today strikes without any preliminary provocation, its victims are innocent even from the point of view of the prosecutor. This was the case in Nazi Germany when full terror was directed against Jews, i.e., against people with certain common characteristics which were independent of their specific behavior… Russian practice, on the other hand, is even more “advanced” than the German in one respect: arbitrariness of terror is not even limited by racial differentiation, while the old class categories have long since been discarded, so that anybody in Russia may suddenly become a victim of the police terror.

        — HANNAH ARENDT, The Origins of Totalitarianism

      2. diptherio

        “Then you’ve got cases like Bradley Manning and Aaron Schwartz. Right skin color, right family, but wrong political leanings. They end up being cases we hear about only because of a loud alternative presence in the media that insists on it.” ~CE

        There’s definitely something to this. If security personnel can be made to view dissenters as traitors, we’re seriously f-ed. As this guy points out, we often hate the most those who are just slightly different from us. As he rightly observes, if Middle Earth were more realistic, the elves wouldn’t be at war with the orcs, they would be at war with the other elves, the ones who paint their harps the wrong color (Cf. Lilliput and Blefuscu).

        1. LifelongLib

          I’m a computer guy who helps maintain a state government crime information system, which I suppose makes me a peripheral member of the “security” system. I can tell you that the attitudes among my co-workers tend towards the authoritarian. Even though the protesters are people more or less like us (I would say smarter and more politically aware) they’re viewed as troublemakers.

  2. David Mills

    But they hate you for your freedoms… And we should look forward not to the past. No Hope, No Change.

  3. peace

    Kudos to these journalists for being well informed and able to counter the untenable tactic of “I didn’t know.”

    Plausible deniability is a weak defense against malfeasance – military or financial. These journalists ably counter plausible deniability with 1) facts indicating these officials witnessed torture and 2) that these officials were obligated to be informed and therefore are answerable by law. The overuse of the tactic of plausible deniability is insulting and should outrage us and agitate us to demand professional accountability now, as well as closer, more transparent monitoring and enforcement of laws and regulations in the future. We should also reverse our strategy of gradually replacing regulated, professional military personnel with unregulated, extrajudicial, opportunistic, mercenary militias.

  4. please

    Only downside to the depiction in the movie is the attempt either intended or not of portraying Steele as an exemplar to be demonized. The complicit establishment in this atrocity is much larger than just this one character.

    1. from Mexico

      That’s what I was thinking too. At least Steele, Coffman and Petreus can invoke the same defense that Adolph Eichmann did, that of the good soldier, fulfilling the duties of a law-abiding citizen. This was the way things were, this was the new law of the land, based on the Fuhrer’s order; whatever he did he did, as far as he could see, as a law-abiding citizen. He did his duty, as he told the police and the court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law.

      The banality of evil argument, however, does not work for Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz. They were, after all, playing the role of the Furhrer in this genocide. They were the architects of the evil.

      But what about the American people? As Hannah Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem:

      Yet Eichmann’s case is different from that of the ordinary criminal, who can shield himself effectively against the reality of a non-criminal world only within the narrow limits of a gang. Eichmann needed only to recall the past in order to feel assured that he was not lying and that he was not deceiving himself, for he and the world he lived in had once been in perfect harmony. And that German society of eighty million people had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same means, the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s mentality. These lies changed from year to year, and they frequently contradicted each other; moreover, they were not necessarily the same for the various branches of the Party hierarchy or the people at large. But the practice of self-deception had become so common, almost a moral prerequisite for survival, that even now, eighteen years after the collapse of the Nazi regime, when most of the specific content of its lies has been forgotten, it is an integral part of the German national character.

      The young medic interviewd in the documentary, Neil Smith, sums it up perfectly: “At the time, I just felt like everybody knew, and nobody cared that there is torture going on.”

  5. Gil Gamesh

    In the USA, committing war crimes is good for one’s career. That’s a fact, and refute if you can, or care.

  6. Susan the other

    After WW2, war became strategic. Because it was cheaper and because generals like Eisenhower didn’t want to see any more young Americans killed in stupid and inefficient combat. Techniques were perfected in Central and South America after Vietnam. So instead of fire bombing Bagdad and killing every breathing thing, the goon squads were deployed. Maybe also because those Dresden tactics would have set fire to Iraq’s oil fields and the natural resource we were after would have been spoiled. This documentary does not surprise me in the slightest, except I’m questioning why it wasn’t done sooner. I loved, loved, the Oregon National Guard. And I was reminded once again how much I thoroughly hate and despise Rumsfeld and Cheney. I thought of Col. Lansdale, of Vietnam fame in this new story of Col. Steele. And I pondered the rumored story about Bob Kerrey and his counterinsurgency brigade who supposedly killed an entire village including babies. I’ve been sick about this shit my entire adult life. The question is now how do we settle our differences democratically? I think we probably don’t achieve it by crushing democracy. But what do I know.

  7. Jim S

    Another reason to like The Guardian. Keep shining the light and get the whole horrid mess into public view.

    More fool me for holding a high regard for Petraeus. Let’s stay out of Syria and Iran, and so spare them at least this sort of treatment.

  8. kevinearick

    Toys, Guns, & Bombs

    Toys in one time were working instruments in a previous time. It’s time to put the toys away and go back to work. Don’t expect the majority to follow suit. It never does. The majority of the past will become broken toys themselves. It always does. Where is Napoleon now? Old-timers like myself just prefer to work on old stuff, stuff built before the fifty-year-rule.

    The blame game is a waste of time. Just take all the discarded crap and make something of it. When the manufacturers start building toys for adults, it’s time to replace the manufacturers. Drones are toys and the sheriff gets paid in drug money, created and laundered by government agency, certified accordingly. The old economy has more food, clothing, housing and transportation than it knows what to do with, and it’s dying off rapidly.

    You can train your mind to do anything you want. Learning doesn’t occur in school. School is about social contracts on their way to the churn pool, who gets to be high school quarterback. Reactionary medicine and economics are the most irrational subjects accordingly. Don’t participate in certification and expect government not to grow, into a virus. Government is just the ground floor, gravity.

    It’s a big universe out there. Go, or don’t. I am a dinosaur, but I was not always a dinosaur. I learned to make a living out of a dumpster when I was nine. We are old and gone by, but we have left you more than you need to make the journey. We did not leave what you need where the majority can find it.

    How much time do you spend in the past, serving government, the present, serving yourself, and the future, serving your children? The future belongs to those living in the future. Buffet serves government and government serves Buffet. Why would you expect anything else?

    If you want to make lots of money, get to the churn pool as quickly as you can and sell tickets, for psychographic distribution into monopolies. That’s what Buffet does. Of course he likes newspapers; he needs something to wrap the fish in, and to wipe the windshield with.

    Government doesn’t want you to obtain a fishing pole, or fish, so it gives you FDA certified fish sticks. Whether you are talking about sex, drugs, technology, or anything else, it’s all the same. Don’t give a gun to someone raised on fish sticks, on either side of the law, and expect a happy outcome. That’s why guys like me build bombs, but don’t expect us to respond if government nukes San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, or DC. We have much better things to do than protect fish stick populations from themselves.

    Government says I have all the wrong skills, and, for its purpose, I do.

  9. Fíréan

    When,in 2002, the American Service Members Protection Act was signed into law by George W.Bush, authorizing the President to use “all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release of any US or allied personnel being detained or imprisoned by, on behalf of, or at the request of the International Criminal Court”, one could have concluded that the Administration at the time had knowledge that acts contravening International Law had been committed, were being committed, or there was probable intention to committed in the future such acts, which could render USA persons liable to arrest and be presented to the ICC.
    I do not know if the incumbent President has, or intends to repealed this Act.


  10. Fiver

    This is only the heel of the first shoe to drop re US deployment of death squads in Iraq, and the role of Patraeus in same.

    The matching shoe is the sham of so-called “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, which, like all Al Qaeda operations, featured US client Saudi Arabia’s marshalling of these highly trained killers as suicide bombers not against the US military, but against the US-created Shia Government security forces and Shia civilian community.

    Both Iraqi Sunnis and Shia were Iraqi nationalists first – the Shia’s beef was with Saddam post-Gulf War I, not Sunnis per se. Only a strategy to CREATE “sectarian conflict” could take the pressure off a flailing US occupation and “democratic freedom” farce that was rapidly becoming a political liability.

    Let’s not forget the US criminal sponsorship of Saddam’s attack on Iran, crippling both of Israel’s enemies for a decade at least, while driving up the price of oil to the great satisfaction of US oil, Wall Street and not least, the Saudis, who made far more than the $60 billion it paid for “protection” from Saddam. Nor can we forget Bush I’s smashing of Iraq, but not Saddam, then urging a Shia uprising Saddam quite predictably put down with maximum brutality.

    Of course the Number 1 political priority for the US security establishment is to prevent Shoe 2 from dropping into mainstream discourse, as once it does, the blood dots instantly connect the current murderous conflict in Syria (and Mali, and Niger, and..) back through Libya and Afghanistan/Iraq/Afghanistan/Pakistan to the unspeakable (but for countless millions not unwanted)truth re what really happened on 9/11, for which I direct readers to the aforementioned (in comments) Peter Dale Scott as to how the mechanics of US and foreign (especially Israeli, Saudi and UK) security services and interconnecting elites could pull off such a monstrously evil act.

    In addition, as a mere footnote given the scale of this US-centred evil, this story makes a mockery of the idea that pillar of virtue Petraeus resigned as a consequence of a “sex scandal” rather than the threatened exposure of the CIA’s Benghazi operation, i.e., running “liberated” Libyan military weapons to US-sponsored Al Qaeda terrorists’ efforts to topple Assad in Syria – once again using the cover of “sectarian conflict” to explain these “fanatics” appearance.

    The tool of choice for suppression of such truths is the indubitably effective charge of “conspiracy nut” – to which the correct response is “Here’s the centuries-long historical shoe, now present thy foot for comparison”.

    1. John

      That Sir, is a hell of a read. It totally makes the case of pure evil being in control of many goverments and certainly many militaries around the world. Its a sad but true compilation of facts. And yes, it does make the Guardian appear to be smoothing over future history revisions for the bastards in the US.

  11. Mohammad

    James Steele : YOu have blood on your hand . and one day you will be in jail for that…You know what you did and If you forgot let me remind you : Samouraa- Iraq . I was there and you where there .

Comments are closed.