“Colonel James Steele, then 58, was a retired special forces veteran nominated by Donald Rumsfeld to help organise the paramilitaries in an attempt to quell a Sunni insurgency, according to an investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic.
Gilles Peress, a photographer, came across Steele when he was on assignment for the New York Times, visiting one of the commando centres in the same library, in Samarra. “We were in a room in the library interviewing Steele and I’m looking around I see blood everywhere.”
The reporter Peter Maass was also there, working on the story with Peress. “And while this interview was going on with a Saudi jihadi with Jim Steele also in the room, there were these terrible screams… these were screams of pain and terror.”
“Before the show began that evening, Adnan’s office was a hive of conversation, phone calls and tea-drinking. Along with a dozen commandos, there were several American advisers in the room, including James Steele, one of the United States military’s top experts on counterinsurgency. Steele honed his tactics leading a Special Forces mission in El Salvador during that country’s brutal civil war in the 1980’s. Steele’s presence was a sign not only of the commandos’ crucial role in the American counterinsurgency strategy but also of his close relationship with Adnan. Steele admired the general. ”He’s obviously a natural type of commander,” Steele told me. ”He commands respect.”
As part of President Reagan’s policy of supporting anti-Communist forces, hundreds of millions of dollars in United States aid was funneled to the Salvadoran Army, and a team of 55 Special Forces advisers, led for several years by Jim Steele, trained front-line battalions that were accused of significant human rights abuses.
There are far more Americans in Iraq today — some 140,000 troops in all — than there were in El Salvador, but U.S. soldiers and officers are increasingly moving to a Salvador-style advisory role. In the process, they are backing up local forces that, like the military in El Salvador, do not shy away from violence. It is no coincidence that this new strategy is most visible in a paramilitary unit that has Steele as its main adviser; having been a key participant in the Salvador conflict, Steele knows how to organize a counterinsurgency campaign that is led by local forces. He is not the only American in Iraq with such experience: the senior U.S. adviser in the Ministry of Interior, which has operational control over the commandos, is Steve Casteel, a former top official in the Drug Enforcement Administration who spent much of his professional life immersed in the drug wars of Latin America. Casteel worked alongside local forces in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, where he was involved in the hunt for Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cocaine cartel.
Both Steele and Casteel were adamant in discussions with me that they oppose human rights abuses. They stressed that torture and death-squad activity are counterproductive. Yet excesses of that sort were endemic in Latin America and in virtually every modern counterinsurgency. American abuses at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan show that first-world armies are not immune to the seductions of torture.
Petraeus decided that the commandos would receive whatever arms, ammunition and supplies they required. He also assigned Steele to work with them. In addition to his experience in El Salvador, Steele had been in charge of retraining Panama’s security forces following the ousting of President Manuel Noriega. When I asked him to describe Adnan’s leadership qualities, Steele drew on the vocabulary he learned in Latin America. Adnan, he said approvingly, was a caudillo — a military strongman.
These days, the knowledge sought under its roof comes not from hardback books but from blindfolded detainees. In guerrilla wars of recent decades, detention centers have played a notorious role. From Latin America to the Balkans and the Middle East, the worst abuse has taken place away from the eyes of bystanders or journalists. During my first few days in the city, I was told I could not visit the center; I was able only to observe, discreetly, as detainees were led into it at all hours. But one day Jim Steele asked whether I wanted to interview a Saudi youth who had been captured the previous day. I agreed, and he took me to the detention center.
We walked through the entrance gates of the center and stood, briefly, outside the main hall. Looking through the doors, I saw about 100 detainees squatting on the floor, hands bound behind their backs; most were blindfolded. To my right, outside the doors, a leather-jacketed security official was slapping and kicking a detainee who was sitting on the ground. We went to a room adjacent to the main hall, and as we walked in, a detainee was led out with fresh blood around his nose. The room had enough space for a couple of desks and chairs; one desk had bloodstains running down its side. The 20-year-old Saudi was led into the room and sat a few feet from me. He said he had been treated well and that a bandage on his head was a result of an injury he suffered in a car accident as he was being chased by Iraqi soldiers.
A few minutes after the interview started, a man began screaming in the main hall, drowning out the Saudi’s voice. ”Allah!” he shouted. ”Allah! Allah!” It was not an ecstatic cry; it was chilling, like the screams of a madman, or of someone being driven mad. ”Allah!” he yelled again and again. The shouts were too loud to ignore. Steele left the room to find out what was happening. When returned, the shouts had ceased. But soon, through the window behind me, I could hear the sounds of someone vomiting, coming from an area where other detainees were being held, at the side of the building.
“James Steele was [in 2005] featured in a New York Times Magazine story as a top adviser to Iraq’s “most fearsome counterinsurgency force,” an outfit called the Special Police Commandos that numbers about 5000 troops. The article, by Peter Maass, noted that Steele “honed his tactics leading a Special Forces mission in El Salvador during that country’s brutal civil war in the 1980s.” And, as Maass reminded his readers, that civil war resulted in the deaths of 70,000 people, mostly civilians, and “[m]ost of the killing and torturing was done by the army and right-wing death squads affiliated with it.” The army that did all that killing in El Salvador was supported by the United States and US military officials such as Steele, who was head of the US military assistance group in El Salvador for two years in the mid-1980s. (A 1993 UN truth commission, which examined 22,000 atrocities that occurred during the twelve-year civil war in El Salvador, attributed 85 percent of the abuses to the US-backed El Salvador military and its death-squad allies.)
Maass reported that the Special Forces advisers in El Salvador led by Steele “trained front-line battalions that were accused of significant human rights abuses.” But he neglected to mention that Steele ran afoul of the Iran-contra investigators for not being honest about his role in the covert and illegal contra-support operation.
After the Iran-contra story broke in 1986, Steele was questioned by Iran-contra investigators, who had good reason to seek information from him. The secret contra-supply network managed by Oliver North had flown weapons and supplies to the contras out of Illopongo Air Base in El Salvador. Steele claimed that he had observed the North network in action but that he had never assisted it. The evidence didn’t support this assertion. For one, North had given Steele a special coding device that allowed encrypted communications to be sent securely over telephone lines. Why did Steele need this device if he had nothing to do with the operation? And for a time Steele passed this device to Felix Rodriguez, one of North’s key operatives in El Salvador. Furthermore, Congressional investigators discovered evidence indicating that aviation fuel given to El Salvador under a US military aid program that Steele supervised was illegally sold to the North network. (The Reagan administration refused to respond to congressional inquiries about this oil deal.) And according to the accounts of others, Steele had made sure that the North network’s planes, used to ferry weapons to the contras, could come and go from Illopongo.
When questioned by the Iran-contra independent counsel, Steele maintained that he had limited his actions to providing humanitarian assistance to the contras–an act that would not have violated the prohibition passed by Congress on supplying the contras with weapons. But, as independent counsel Lawrence Walsh later pointed out in his book, Firewall, a lie-detector examination indicated Steel “was not being truthful.” Steele’s name had also turned up in the private notebooks in which North kept track of his various Iran-contra operations. As Walsh wrote, “Confronted with the results of the lie-detector test and North’s notebook, Steele admitted not only his participation in the [clandestine] arms deliveries [to the contras] but also his early discussions of these activities with Donald Gregg [the national security adviser to Vice President George Bush] and the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Edwin G. Corr.”
Walsh’s description suggested that Steele tried to lie his way past investigators as part of a larger cover-up.
Steele escaped indictment and his flunking of the polygraph exam was not revealed until Walsh’s book came out in 1997.
The Army claimed that it had found that Steele had committed nothing wrong.
“During the Iran-Contra Affairs, Edwin Corr served as U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador. He was brought into contact with the Enterprise’s private aid network for the Contras because the network based some operations out of Ilopango, a few miles east of San Salvador.
When Salvadoran Air Force General Juan Bustillo and other Salvadoran officials grew concerned over the size of the Ilopango operation, Corr urged U.S. officials to reduce the size of the program there and to reduce their interference in humanitarian assistance. At the same time, the Enterprise’s Ilopango efforts were facing time and budgetary issues, so businessman Richard Secord sought a meeting as well. Corr told Congress in 1990 that at that meeting he neither met with North nor discussed Contra support specifically.
But questions were raised about Corr’s testimony when Army Colonel James Steele provided contradictory information. Moreover, Secord had told Congress in 1987 that he received “moral support” for his efforts to supply the Contras from Corr. In 1991, when Secord testified before a grand jury, he further claimed that he, North, and Steele had a meeting, which had been scheduled in advance, with Corr in his embassy office, the very meeting Corr had denied.
Corr continued to deny this meeting. Walsh spoke with Secord again, who maintained the truth of his testimony. Although North did not testify about the meeting with Corr on April 20, he wrote in his notebook the following day, “Mtg w/ Ed C.” Moreover, Corr deputy David Dlouhy testified before a grand jury that he had been in El Salvador that week and verified that a meeting among Corr, Secord, North, and Steele had taken place.
As Walsh was proposing an indictment, doubts were raised about the accuracy of the testimony against Corr. As the Independent Counsel wrote in his final report to Congress, “North’s equivocation and a recent interview with Steele, who did not remember Dlouhy’s presence, posed additional uncertainty.” Indeed, Dlouhy’s passport and travel vouchers made it unlikely that he had actually been in San Salvador on April 20.
Given the multiple other trials and investigations taking place at that time, Walsh decided he could not afford to spend time and resources on Corr’s investigation after these doubts were raised. Since Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams had already pleaded guilty, it was unlikely that Corr’s account would be relevant to any other investigations beyond his own, which gave Walsh further reason to drop the case.