Monday, September 15, 2008
The silence so far toward Bob Woodward's reporting of secret
extra-judicial killings by American forces in Iraq shows a worrisome
collapse of public debate about the war.
During the Vietnam War, by contrast, revelations about torture, tiger
cages and the Phoenix program were headline news that sent protesters
into the streets and produced congressional hearings. William Colby,
then leading pacification efforts in Vietnam, testified that the
Phoenix program killed 20,587 Vietcong "suspects," while Sen. William
Fulbright suggested it meant indiscriminate killings of anyone
resisting the U.S. and Saigon governments.
Phoenix was formally disbanded after the war. In 2004, however, the
top counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, David
Kilcullen, advocated a "global Phoenix program" in a military
journal. Kilcullen subsequently scrubbed the Phoenix label but
defended the program as "unfairly maligned" and "highly effective."
Now the Woodward book reports a series of top secret special
operations, launched in May 2006, to "locate, target, and kill key
individuals in extremist groups," a campaign that may have been the
greatest factor in reducing the violence in Iraq. President Bush told
Woodward that the secret program was "awesome." Derek Harvey, the top
intelligence adviser to Petraeus on the secret operations, told
Woodward that the "lightning quick" assaults gave him "orgasms.".
Orgasms? Is this what we've come to?
Woodward's account in his new book, "The War Within: A Secret White
House History, 2006-2008," is extremely guarded, holding back much
more information on what he calls a "groundbreaking" program. But the
book cries out for investigative journalists and members of Congress
to ask questions where Woodward leaves off. Secret military tactics
may be justified on specific occasions when lives are at stake, but
secret warfare leads to the abuse of power and is inconsistent with democracy.
There has been insufficient attention to the killing side of
counterinsurgency in Iraq as opposed to its portrayal as winning
"hearts and minds." There are documented human rights abuses in the
holding of 50,000 Iraqis in U.S. and Iraqi detention camps. The
Baker-Hamilton Study Group reported the "unnecessary" torture and
targeted executions of Sunni Arab civilians. In July 2007, the White
House acknowledged the existence of official sectarian "target lists"
that bypassed operational commanders.
Plausible deniability is always a possibility in a culture of
secrecy, but Woodward has disclosed information that now requires an
accounting. Who in the American government authorized these "TOP
SECRET" operations? Did congressional leaders know, and when did they know?
How long has Woodward held the story? Did other editors and
journalists know the facts before his book was published?
How many Iraqis were killed?
How accurate and verifiable was the evidence against them? Did it
come from informants with their own sectarian agendas?
If the targeted enemy was defined as key individuals in "extremist
groups" - ranging from al Qaeda to "renegade Shiite militias" to the
whole "Sunni insurgency" - then how was that different from trying to
destroy the entire "Vietcong infrastructure" in 1968, including
teachers, doctors, nurses, peasants' cooperatives leaders and elected
The moral and practical problems with extra-judicial killings are
monumental, starting with the fact that the U.S. military alone
becomes judge, jury and executioner. Aside from loaded rhetoric, what
is the real difference between these "TOP SECRET" operations and death squads?
In the counterinsurgency classic film, "The Battle of Algiers"
(1966), the French general systematically executes every suspected
key individual in the Algerian resistance. The French declare
"victory." Within two years, the Algerians storm out of a secret
world of their own, declare independence, and kick the French out.
History never repeats exactly. But the lesson here is that the
tribes, families and children of all those Iraqis who suffered
summary execution will surely remember and plan their eventual
revenge, as well as countless others in the Muslim world who know the
facts that are being kept from us. Meanwhile, innocent Americans will
wonder "why they hate us", while living on borrowed time.
Tom Hayden is the author of "Ending the War in Iraq" (Akashic Books,
2007) and a 40-year leader of peace and human rights movements.