The Newsweek story that the Pentagon is considering the "Salvador option" for Iraq has gotten much play in progressive circles, but it left two unanswered questions: First, how credible was the story given that it was based on anonymous sources and denied by the Secretary of Defense? And second, what does it mean to say that a policy is being considered? Is it likely to be put into place or was it simply the wild idea of some subordinate, that will never actually become policy? There is in fact, however, sufficient evidence to answer both of these questions. On January 8, Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh and John Barry reported that Defense Department planners were discussing the adoption of the "Salvador option." In the early 1980s, wrote Hirsh and Barry, "…faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported ‘nationalist’ forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success –despite the deaths of innocent civilians…"
There was, of course, nothing "so-called" about the death squads. And the counter-posing of "rebel leaders and sympathizers" and "innocent civilians" conveys the impression that a civilian was innocent only if he or she did not sympathize with the rebels. Be that as it may, Hirsh and Barry reported that now the Pentagon is debating whether to pursue a similar strategy in Iraq.
"…one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called ‘snatch’ operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation."
A few days later Defense Secretary Rumsfeld termed the story "nonsense" (though admitting that he hadn’t been able to find the actual Newsweek article — it was online — perhaps confirming why it makes sense to put the Pentagon in charge of intelligence gathering):
"First of all, the Pentagon doesn’t do things like are described in the reporting on the story — since I’ve not seen the story. Second, the task of training the Iraqis is to train them to do the things they need to do to provide security for their country, and it does not involve the kinds of things that are characterized in that story at all. It just doesn’t." (DoD Briefing, Jan. 11, 2005)
More forthcoming, however, was retired General Wayne Downing. The former head of all U.S. special operations forces, Downing served for nine months after 9-11 as the deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, and is now a military analyst for NBC. On the "Today" show on January 10, Katie Couric asked him his reaction to the "Salvador option" story.
"Gen. DOWNING: Well, Katie, I — I think this term is very unfortunate because this El Salvador thing brings up the connotation of death squads, of illegal activity that took place in — in — by some of the El Salvadorian military 20 years ago. But I think what they’re considering is to use a special — or more special Iraqi units trained and equipped and perhaps even led by US Special Forces to conduct strike operations against this — this insurgency, against the leaders of it, which of course is a very valid strategy, a very valid tactic. And it’s actually something we’ve been doing since we started the war back in March of 2003. "COURIC: But is this going to be used more, or in greater numbers? According to Newsweek, they’re going to — the — the US Special Forces will train specially chosen Kurdish forces and Shiite militiamen. "Gen. DOWNING: Right. "COURIC: So does this signal a — a — I guess an escalation of this technique at least? "Gen. DOWNING: I wouldn’t say an escalation, Katie. I — I think what we’re looking at is — there are already some special units formed. We have special police commandos now of the Iraqi forces which conduct these kind of strike operations. I think what we’re looking at is another type of unit. In other words, they — they’ve got 10 tools right now in their tool box, this is probably adding a — an 11th or perhaps even a 12th tool.
But — but, Katie, I — I really want to emphasize what they are going after here. These — these insurgents leaders, these are terrorists. These are people who have been decapitating hostages. These are the people who have been planning and — and perpetrating these suicide bombers…that has killed thousands of — of friendly Iraqis. These are very, very legitimate targets, and actually part of the overall strategy for countering this insurgency… "COURIC: But in El Salvador many innocent civilians were killed when these kind of tactics were employed. Are you concerned about that, or the possibility this will increase anti-American sentiment in the general Iraqi population? "Gen. DOWNING: Katie, this has nothing to do with El Salvador. Those operations that were conducted down there were conducted by — by renegade military leaders. This is under the control of the US forces, of the current interim Iraqi government. There — there’s no need to think that we’re going to have any kind of a — a killing campaign that’s going to maim innocent civilians. "COURIC: All right. "Gen. DOWNING: Katie, it’s a nasty situation in Iraq right now, and this may help it get better."
Downing’s history is a little shaky. According to the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador, the bulk of the civilian victims in that country were killed — not by renegade elements — but by state-sponsored groups, protected by Salvador’s civilian and military leaders.
And these leader were in turn working closely with the U.S. Government. Moreover, U.S. backing for murderous regimes and policies actually long pre-dated El Salvador. For example, in 1963, when the Ba’ath party launched a bloody coup in Iraq, it was backed by the United States and given names of communists to liquidate.
In 1965, when General Suharto took power in Indonesia, slaughtering at least half a million people, Washington supported him too and provided names of communists to eliminate. Nor is Downing’s claim very compelling that current-day operations in Iraq under the control of U.S. forces will take care to avoid harm to non-combatants — after all, we’ve recently witnessed the leveling of Falluja in November 2004, with massive death and destruction. Newsweek’s Hirsh and Barry quote one Pentagon source telling them that "The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists…. From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation." Given credible estimates of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians having died during the occupation, we can only imagine what sort of price the Pentagon has in mind. But despite Downing’s sanitizing, his acknowledgment that these targeted killings have been going on since March 2003 is significant, given the positions he’s held. And we now also have some confirming testimony from a current office-holder, the deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence, Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin.
(Boykin, it will be recalled, was the General who while in uniform gave dozens of talks at churches around the country declaring that in his battle with a Muslim warlord in Somalia, "I knew that my God was bigger than his God. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol" and that George Bush is "in the White House because God put him there.")
When Seymour Hersh wrote a story a year ago (New Yorker, Dec. 15, 2003) about plans for targeted assassinations in Iraq, his sources were all anonymous and Boykin in particular refused to comment. But at the very end of a New York Times story this week the following appears:
"General Boykin was asked whether the government should re-establish a program of identifying and assassinating specific adversaries, like Operation Phoenix, conducted in Vietnam by the C.I.A.
"Emphasizing that he was giving his personal opinion, General Boykin said that America’s conventional military forces and its Special Operations teams in Iraq and Afghanistan were ‘doing a pretty good job of that right now.’
"’We’re going after these people,’ he said. ‘Killing or capturing these people is a legitimate mission for the department and for the interagency’ process that coordinates national security policy.
"’I think we’re doing what the Phoenix program was designed to do, without all of the secrecy.’"
Most U.S. officials when asked about the Phoenix program deny that assassination was any part of it — according to the official in charge, William Colby, despite some excesses most of the 20,000+ who were killed (40,000 according to the South Vietnamese government) were killed in military encounters (just like the proverbial prisoners "shot while attempting to escape").
But there is plenty of testimony from participants in the program of straight-forward assassination: "Vietnamese veterans of the Phoenix campaign tell of creeping into a man’s house in the night and shooting him with silenced pistols as he lay asleep in his bed." And the U.S.-imposed monthly quotas, plus incredible corruption and personal vendettas, guaranteed that many of those killed were not Viet Cong cadre at all.
(One U.S. intelligence officer assigned to the Phoenix program stated that when he arrived in his district he was given a list of 200 people who were to be killed; six months later, 260 people had been killed — but none of those on the list.)
But Boykin (who seems to feel that the problem with the Phoenix program was its secrecy) isn’t concerned about such details. He acknowledges an on-going assassination program in Iraq. And we can assume that the recruiting of Iraqi assassins is proceeding apace, given that back in October U.S. Special Operations forces were given new authority (in a single paragraph in an 800-page defense authorization bill) to spend money recruiting foreign paramilitary fighters.
And we can assume as well that there will be few human rights objections raised within the Bush administration given that the newly-appointed deputy national security adviser responsible for overseeing policy relating to "Democracy, Human Rights, and International Organization Affairs" is Elliott Abrams, who not only was convicted of lying to Congress about aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, but who systematically covered up massacres in El Salvador.
Massacres and assassinations, of course, are not favored by U.S. policymakers out of simple sadism. Whether in Indonesia, Vietnam, El Savador, or now Iraq, such tactics are often the only way that Washington can hope to impose its will on recalcitrant Third World peoples. We must demand that U.S. troops be withdrawn from Iraq without delay. Notes 1. From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, S/25500, 1993, posted at http://www.usip.org/library/tc/doc/reports/el_salvador/tc_es_03151993_toc.html . 2. Roger Morris, "A Tyrant 40 Years in the Making," New York Times (NYT), March 14, 2003, p. A29; Edith and E.F. Penrose, Iraq: International Relations and National Development, Westview, 1978, p. 288; Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, Princeton UP, 1978, pp. 985 86. 3. See the research and response to critics by Kathy Kadane, posted at http://www.namebase.org/kadane.html, and the supporting materials posted at http://www.antenna.nl/wvi/eng/ic/pki/kadane/kadane.html. See also Ambassador Marshall Green’s August 10, 1966 airgram to Washington reporting that an Embassy-prepared list of top Communist leaders with Embassy attribution removed "is apparently being used by Indonesian security authorities who seem to lack even the simplest overt information on PKI leadership at the time…" (U.S. Dept. of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-68, Volume XXVI, Indonesia; Malaysia-Singapore; Philippines [released but then recalled in 2001, but available at the National Security Archive website, http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB52/exhibit2.pdf].) 4. L. Roberts, R. Lafta, R. Garfield, J. Khudhairi, and G. Burnham, "Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey," Lancet, Oct. 30, 2004, http://image.thelancet.com/extras/04art10342web.pdf. 5. Richard T. Cooper, "General Casts War in Religious Terms," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 16, 2003, p. A1. 6. Douglas Jehl and Thom Shanker, "Congress Is Reviewing Pentagon on Intelligence Activities," NYT, Feb. 4, 2005, p. A4. 7. Thomas Powers, The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA, Knopf, 1979, p. 181. 8. Richard West, New Statesman, Feb. 25, 1972, cited in Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State, Vintage, 1973, p. 93. 9. Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt, "Law Gives Spending Power to Special Operations Forces," NYT, Feb. 1, 2005, p. A11. 10. White House Press Release, "Personnel Announcement," Feb. 2, 2005, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/02/20050202-10.html; David Corn, "Elliott Abrams: It’s Back!," The Nation, July 2, 2001, available on-line at http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20010702&s=corn.
Stephen R. ShalomDept. of Political ScienceWilliam Paterson UniversityWayne, NJ 07470973-720-3433 fax firstname.lastname@example.org