Tom Hayden / San Francisco Chronicle – 2008-09-16 00:24:13
(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 officials?
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.
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
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