Despite the new controversy over whether a global CIA “hit team” ever went operational, there has been public evidence for years that the Bush administration approved “rules of engagement” that permitted executions and targeted killings of suspected insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In effect, President George W. Bush transformed elite units of the U.S. military – including Special Forces and highly trained sniper teams – into “death squads” with a license to kill unarmed targets on suspicion that they might be a threat to American occupying forces.
In the recent public debate over whether Bush also authorized the CIA to assemble teams of assassins to roam the world hunting al-Qaeda suspects, the U.S. news media has cited the distinction between such face-to-face executions and the CIA's use of remote-controlled Predator drones firing missiles to kill groups of suspected insurgents in or near the war zones.
However, the evidence is that the Bush administration also permitted U.S. military units to engage in close-quarter executions when encountering alleged insurgents, even if they were unarmed and presented no immediate threat to American or allied troops.
This reality surfaced in 2007 with the attempted prosecutions of several U.S. soldiers whose defense attorneys cited “rules of engagement” that permitted killing suspected insurgents.
One case involved Army sniper Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., who was acquitted by a U.S. military court in Baghdad on Sept. 28, 2007, in the murders of two unarmed Iraqi men – one on April 27, 2007, and the other on May 11, 2007 – because the jury accepted defense arguments that the killings were within the approved rules. (Sandoval was convicted of lesser charges relating to planting evidence on a victim to obscure the facts of the homicide.)
The Sandoval case also revealed a classified program in which the Pentagon’s Asymmetric Warfare Group encouraged U.S. military snipers in Iraq to drop “bait” – such as electrical cords and ammunition – and then shoot Iraqis who picked up the items, according to evidence in the Sandoval case. [Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2007]
Another case of authorized murder of an insurgent suspect surfaced at a military court hearing at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in mid-September 2007. Two U.S. Special Forces soldiers took part in the execution of an Afghani who was suspected of leading an insurgent group.
Though the Afghani, identified as Nawab Buntangyar, responded to questions and offered no resistance when encountered on Oct. 13, 2006, he was shot dead by Master Sgt. Troy Anderson on orders from his superior officer, Capt. Dave Staffel.
According to evidence at the Fort Bragg proceedings, an earlier Army investigation had cleared the two soldiers because they had been operating under “rules of engagement” that empowered them to kill individuals who had been designated “enemy combatants,” even if the targets were unarmed and presented no visible threat.
The troubling picture was that the U.S. chain of command, presumably up to President Bush, authorized loose “rules of engagement” that allowed targeted killings – as well as other objectionable tactics including arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions, “enhanced interrogations” otherwise known as torture, kidnappings in third countries with “extraordinary renditions” to countries that torture, secret CIA prisons, and “reeducation camps” for younger detainees.
Typical of Washington politics, however, the loudest arguments have been over whether the Bush administration adequately notified Congress of covert aspects of these operations, including the reported CIA-assassination plan which allegedly was ordered kept hidden from the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Some Republicans have said Democrats proved that they don’t have the toughness to defend U.S. national security by raising questions about the hit team, while pro-Democratic pundits note that the Bush administration apparently demonstrated its incompetence by failing to get the assassination program off the ground. In other words, the debate is centered on peripheral issues, not on the substance of extrajudicial murders.
Similarly, Attorney General Eric Holder is said to be leaning toward appointing a special prosecutor to investigate some CIA personnel for torturing detainees, but only if they went beyond the parameters of torture that had been spelled out by Bush administration lawyers. In other words, senior government officials who sanctioned limited waterboarding and other torture techniques would not be held to account, only overzealous interrogators who went even further.
A Sordid History
Like torture, assassinations and the use of other lethal force against unarmed suspects and civilians violates a variety of laws and has a notorious history in irregular warfare, both regarding cross-border murders and violent repression of an indigenous resistance in which guerrillas and their political supporters blend in with the local population.
And, at least inside and near the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush’s “global war on terror” appears to have recreated what was known during the Vietnam War as Operation Phoenix, a program that assassinated Vietcong cadre, including suspected communist backers.
Through a classified Pentagon training program known as “Project X,” the lessons of Operation Phoenix from the 1960s were passed on to Third World armies, especially in Latin America, giving a green light to some of the “dirty wars” that swept the region, causing tens of thousands of political murders, widespread use of torture, and secret detentions.
Bush’s alleged plan for global hit teams also has similarities to “Operation Condor” in which South American right-wing military regimes in the 1970s sent assassins on cross-border operations to eliminate “subversives.”
Despite quiet support and encouragement for Latin American “death squads” through much of the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. government presented itself as the standard-bearer for human rights and criticized American adversaries that engaged in extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary detentions.
That gap between American rhetoric and reality widened after 9/11 as Bush announced his “global war on terror,” while continuing to impress the American news media with pretty words about his commitment to human rights – as occurred in his address to the United Nations on Sept. 25, 2007.
Under Bush’s double standards, he took the position that he could override both international law and the U.S. Constitution in deciding who would get basic human rights and who wouldn’t. He saw himself as the final judge of whether people he deemed “bad guys” should live or die, or possibly face indefinite imprisonment and torture.
Yet, whatever Bush and other higher-ups approved as “rules of engagement,” the practice of murdering unarmed suspects – especially after they’ve been detained – violated the law of war and could have opened up the offending country’s chain of command to war-crimes charges.
However, while such actions by leaders of, say, Serbia or Sudan would provoke demands for war-crimes tribunals, other rules apply when the offending nation is the United States. Given its “superpower” status, the United States and its senior leadership appear to be effectively beyond the reach of international law – and in the case of Bush, beyond domestic accountability.
Downplaying a Slaughter
By and large, the U.S. military also has failed to impose serious punishments on American troops implicated in extrajudicial killings and massacres, even high-profile ones like the killing of two dozen Iraqis in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, after one Marine died from an improvised explosive device.
According to published accounts of U.S. military investigations, the dead Marine’s comrades retaliated by pulling five men from a cab and shooting them, and clearing two homes where civilians, including women and children, were slaughtered.
The Marines then tried to cover up the killings by claiming that the civilian deaths were caused by the original explosion or a subsequent firefight, according to investigations by the U.S. military and human rights groups.
One of the accused Marines, Sgt. Frank Wuterich, gave his account of the Haditha killings in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” including an admission that his squad tossed a grenade into one of the residences without knowing who was inside.
“Frank, help me understand,” asked interviewer Scott Pelley. “You’re in a residence, how do you crack a door open and roll a grenade into a room?”
“At that point, you can’t hesitate to make a decision,” Wuterich answered. “Hesitation equals being killed, either yourself or your men.”
“But when you roll a grenade in a room through the crack in the door, that’s not positive identification, that’s taking a chance on anything that could be behind that door,” Pelley said.
“Well, that’s what we do. That’s how our training goes,” Wuterich said.
Eight Marines were initially charged in the Haditha case, but six cases were dropped, one Marine was acquitted, and Wuterich’s case has been delayed by legal skirmishing. As in earlier cases, such as the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, courts martial have mostly focused on rank-and-file soldiers.
The lack of high-level accountability appears to stem from the fact that the key instigators of both the illegal invasion of Iraq and the harsh tactics employed in the “global war on terror” were former President Bush, ex-Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials. President Barack Obama has made clear he doesn’t want Bush and his top aides punished.
Yet, not only did Bush order an aggressive war – what World War II’s Nuremberg Tribunal called “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” – but Bush pumped U.S. troops full of false propaganda by linking Iraq with the 9/11 attacks.
Bush’s subliminal connections between the Iraq War and 9/11 continued years after U.S. intelligence dismissed any linkage. For instance, on June 18, 2005, more than two years into the Iraq War, Bush justified the invasion by telling the American people that “we went to war because we were attacked” on 9/11.
Little wonder that a poll of 944 U.S. military personnel in Iraq – taken in January and February 2006 – found that 85 percent believed the U.S. mission in Iraq was mainly “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9/11 attacks.” Seventy-seven percent said a chief war goal was “to stop Saddam from protecting al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
Bush’s rhetorical excesses had the predictable effect of turning loose a revenge-seeking and heavily armed U.S. military force on the Iraqi population.
By early 2005, with the Iraqi insurgency growing, an increasingly frustrated Bush administration also debated a “Salvador option” for Iraq, an apparent reference to the “death squad” operations that decimated the ranks of perceived leftists who were opposed to El Salvador’s right-wing military junta in the early 1980s.
According to Newsweek magazine, President Bush was contemplating the adoption of that brutal “still-secret strategy” of the Reagan administration as a way to get a handle on the spiraling violence in Iraq.
“Many U.S. conservatives consider the policy [in El Salvador] to have been a success – despite the deaths of innocent civilians,” Newsweek wrote.
The magazine also noted that many of Bush’s advisers were leading figures in the Central American operations of the 1980s, such as Elliott Abrams, who became an architect of Middle East policy on the National Security Council.
In the Iraqi-sniper case, Army sniper Sandoval admitted killing an Iraqi man near the town of Iskandariya on April 27, 2007, after a skirmish with insurgents. Sandoval testified that his team leader, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, ordered him to kill a man cutting grass with a rusty scythe because he was suspected of being an insurgent posing as a farmer.
The second killing occurred on May 11, 2007, when a man walked into a concealed location where Sandoval, Hensley and other snipers were hiding. After the Iraqi was detained, another sniper, Sgt. Evan Vela, was ordered to shoot the man in the head by Hensley and did so, according to Vela’s testimony at Sandoval’s court martial.
Sandoval and Hensley were acquitted of murder charges because a military jury concluded that their actions were within the rules of engagement. (Like Sandoval, Hensley was convicted of lesser charges relating to planting evidence.) But
Vela was convicted of killing an unarmed Iraqi civilian and planting evidence on the body, leading to a 10-year prison sentence.
Regarding the Afghanistan case, Special Forces Capt. Staffel and Sgt. Anderson were leading a team of Afghan soldiers when an informant told them where a suspected insurgent leader was hiding. The U.S.-led contingent found a man believed to be Nawab Buntangyar walking outside his compound near the village of Hasan Kheyl.
While the Americans kept their distance out of fear the suspect might be wearing a suicide vest, the Afghanis questioned the man about his name and the Americans checked his description against a list from the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan, known as “the kill-or-capture list.”
Concluding that the man was insurgent leader Nawab Buntangyar, Staffel gave the order to shoot, and Anderson – from a distance of about 100 yards away – fired a bullet through the man’s head, killing him instantly.
The soldiers viewed the killing as “a textbook example of a classified mission completed in accordance with the American rules of engagement,” the International Herald Tribune reported. “The men said such rules allowed them to kill Buntangyar, whom the American military had designated a terrorist cell leader, once they positively identified him.”
Staffel’s civilian lawyer Mark Waple said the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command concluded that the shooting was “justifiable homicide,” but a two-star general in Afghanistan instigated a murder charge against the two men. That case, however, floundered over accusations that the charge was improperly filed. [IHT, Sept. 17, 2007]
The U.S. news media has given the Fort Bragg case only minor coverage concentrating mostly on the legal sparring. The New York Times’ inside-the-paper, below-the-fold headline on Sept. 19, 2007, was “Green Beret Hearing Focuses on How Charges Came About.”
The Washington Post did publish a front-page story on the “bait” aspect of the Sandoval case – when family members of U.S. soldiers implicated in the killings came forward with evidence of high-level encouragement of the snipers – but the U.S. news media treated the story mostly as a minor event and drew no larger implications.
The greater significance of the cases is that they confirm the long-whispered allegations that the U.S. chain of command had approved standing orders giving the U.S. military broad discretion to kill suspected militants on sight.
Whatever the full story about President Bush’s CIA hit team, the facts are already clear that his “global war on terror” had morphed into an international “dirty war” with Bush now having passed off command to President Obama.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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