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Obama’s Pick to Lead Afghan War Linked to Abuse of Prisoners & Secret Assassination Unit

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Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal formerly served as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command from 2003 to 2008. During that time, he oversaw a secretive program to hunt down and assassinate suspected terrorists around the globe. Last year, lawmakers delayed Stanley McChrystal’s nomination for a key position because of questions about prisoner abuse by forces under his command. Many of the reports of abuse center on Camp Nama, a US base near Baghdad’s airport where Special Operations troops ran an interrogation and detention center. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s pick to lead US and allied troops in Afghanistan testified a few days ago before the Senate Armed Services Committee in his first public remarks since being tapped in May.

Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal formerly served as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command from 2003 to 2008. During that time, he oversaw a secretive program to hunt down and assassinate suspected terrorists around the globe. Last year, lawmakers delayed Stanley McChrystal’s nomination for a key position because of questions about prisoner abuse by forces under his command. Many of the reports of abuse center on Camp Nama, a US base near Baghdad’s airport where Special Operations troops ran an interrogation and detention center. The abuses included beating prisoners with rifle butts, stripping them naked, subjecting them to extreme cold and sleep deprivation, and using them for target practice in paintball games.

Until the Senate hearing last Tuesday, Lieutenant General McChrystal had never spoken publicly about the treatment of prisoners by troops under his command. In his opening remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he addressed the issue.

    LT. GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: As this committee knows, since 9/11, our forces have learned valuable lessons regarding the treatment of detainees and made mistakes along the way. When I took command in 2003, I found our treatment of detainees followed existing guidelines but needed improvement. Our facilities were limited. Our expertise in specialties like interrogation was insignificant or insufficient, and we lacked organizational experience at every level. In the months and years that followed, we invested considerable energy, developed expertise and experience, and improved continuously. If confirmed, I will strictly enforce the high standards of detainee treatment consistent with international and US law.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, first to question Lieutenant General McChrystal, was the only committee member to ask about detainee abuse in Iraq.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: What was your understanding, your awareness, of the treatment of detainees when you were the overall commander? The inspector general of the Department of Defense indicated that a memorandum of the Secretary of Defense, which was approved on December 2nd, 2002, and that memorandum, relative to the interrogation of detainees, authorized the use of things like stress positions, sleep deprivation and the use of dogs. And the report of this committee showed how that memorandum of December 2nd, 2002, then went to first Afghanistan and then was transmitted verbatim to Iraq. And in terms of the treatment of detainees, when you got there, tell us what you were aware of, what you did, relative to that subject.

    LT. GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: Yes, Mr. Chairman. I took over in October of 2003. And I’d like to sort of start with three things, to begin with. First, I do not, and never have, condoned mistreatment of detainees, and never will. When we found cases where we thought there was an allegation of mistreatment, we investigated everyone, and we punished, if in fact it was substantiated. And that was from the beginning.

    That said, when I took command, I found the detainee facilities really insufficient for need. There were physically not prepared for that. We didn’t have the right number of interrogators. We didn’t have the right experience in the force, either. None of us had ever done this with the level of precision that we needed to. So we learned. We stayed within all of the established and authorized guidelines. They were in them when I took command. And then, with each change in guidelines, we did a legal review and stayed within those all the time.

    But it also — as I outlined last year when we discussed it, it also was something that I believe continuously improved. Each month we got better at it, for lots of reasons. One, our experience got better. Two, the procedures get just constantly looked at, and so that they were improved. So I think the constant improvement is the thing that took us from what I think was acceptable and legal to something that I became much more proud of over time in terms of the quality of the operation.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: And when you say “acceptable and legal,” you mean that they were within the guidelines established by the Secretary of Defense.

    LT. GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: So they were within legally prescribed guidelines, that’s right. The policy we were given.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: The policy that you were given —-


    SEN. CARL LEVIN: —- that you understood at that time was legal.


    SEN. CARL LEVIN: And that policy included at that time —- under that December 2, 2002 memorandum of the Secretary of Defense, that policy included the aggressive acts that I described: stress positions, the use of dogs and nudity. Is that correct?

    LT. GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: Sir, it did. We did not use all of the things that were outlined there. We -—

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Some of them were used?

    LT. GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: Some of them were used when I took over, sir. And then as we immediately began to reduce that.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: You immediately began what?

    LT. GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: To reduce those, sir.


AMY GOODMAN: Arizona Republican John McCain, the committee’s ranking member, briefly asked Lieutenant General McChrystal about his views toward interrogation techniques.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Given your experience in Afghanistan, do you believe that the interrogation techniques that are provided in the Army Field Manual are sufficient to get the information to fight the battle that you need?

    LT. GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: Yes, sir, I do.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Do you believe any additional techniques are necessary?


AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined on the phone by Marc Garlasco, a former intelligence and targeting analyst at the Pentagon, now senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. He co-wrote a report in July 2006 called “No Blood, No Foul” that documented abuses at Camp Nama. In that report, a US military interrogator is quoted as saying he had seen McChrystal visit the center “a couple of times.” The interrogator, given the pseudonym “Jeff” in the report, also said he was told by the colonel in charge that he knew “directly from General McChrystal and the Pentagon” that the Red Cross would not be allowed to inspect the center.

Marc Garlasco, welcome to Democracy Now!

MARC GARLASCO: Thanks very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel these issues were addressed in this hearing?

MARC GARLASCO: Oh, no, absolutely not. You know, it seemed to be a very orchestrated confirmation hearing. Really, softballs were the best that he got, and I think that Levin and McCain, while they raised the issue, didn’t raise it to the level of detail that we would like.

I mean, if you look at our report, “No Blood, No Foul” — first of all, it’s titled “No Blood, No Foul,” because Task Force 6-26, which was at Camp Nama, the one that was perpetrating the abuse, that was their motto, meaning “no blood, no foul” — if there is no blood, if we cause no blood to be spilled, then nothing wrong has been done. And in fact, they used a paintball logo, “no blood, no foul,” so that if you were shooting someone with paintballs, and there could be welts, but if you didn’t break the skin, that was fine. And it really became a moniker for the treatment at that camp. It became so pervasive there, the torture that went on, that later the military actually disciplined thirty-four members of that task force, and five were eventually convicted of prisoner abuse at Nama.

But even though we were able to place General McChrystal there at the time of abuse, he was never asked the hard questions, about what was his role at Nama, and what did he do, and what did he know.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece from Washington Independent. The interrogator you talked to, “Jeff” — this is talking about another one, if it’s not the same, goes by the name Matthew Alexander, who said that “General McChrystal, he was there in Iraq often, and he may have been separated from these things by couple layers [of subordinates] but it would’ve been his responsibility to know what was going on.”

And it says, “A few weeks ago, Alexander spoke with Mark Jacobson, a top Senate Armed Services Committee staffer, by phone for about half an hour, about McChrystal. While Alexander did not say that he worked with McChrystal while serving in Iraq as an interrogator — and he declined to specify in an interview that he was a member of the secretive Task Force 6-26 — he communicated that the Senate panel ought to clarify what knowledge McChrystal had of the abuse.”

Marc Garlasco, so they’re fully aware, the panel. Why do you think — I mean, we’re not talking about John McCain not asking the question; we’re talking about — well, Carl Levin touched on it but didn’t expand, not to mention the other members of the Senate committee.

MARC GARLASCO: No, you’re absolutely right. And in fact, the Pat Tillman questions were far, far harder on McChrystal than the detainee abuse questions. And it seems as if it has become a fait accompli that, you know, he has been anointed to be the one to take over the hard fight in Afghanistan. Everyone believes that he is the choice of Petraeus and others. They don’t want to make any waves. You also have the issue where Democrats are afraid of being branded as weak on defense issues, and so this is an easy one get through.

And look, perhaps he is the right guy for Afghanistan. Perhaps with his knowledge of Special Forces, his understanding of Special Forces, and all of the problems that we’ve seen with Special Forces in Afghanistan, particularly with civilian casualties, show that we need that type of person. But you don’t want to put someone in charge of the Bagram Air Base prison, which has really become the de facto replacement for Guantanamo Bay, if he has a history of detainee abuse. And these are important questions that need to be answered, and they have not even been asked. And it’s really quite stunning that the Democrats have just rolled over on this one so easily.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it’s because they’re concerned about what his answers would be?

MARC GARLASCO: I think that, in fact, you know, he could probably get through it without answering too much in depth, which is unfortunate. You know, we just — we don’t know.

My concern is, when speaking with Jeff and with others who had been in Nama, they certainly had the feeling that the push to get Zarqawi, back during the time of Nama, was really being — was really coming down from Rumsfeld and being hard rolled from McChrystal. And their feeling was that there was some direction there. And perhaps that is a concern that they have. I mean, you really, really need to look at the specifics.

And after the hearing was over, Levin stated that he had further questions for General McChrystal regarding detainee treatment that he was going to ask offline. You know, that’s great, but we really need to have a public accounting of what happened there. And if this is the person that we’re going to have in charge of our operations in Afghanistan, and particularly in charge of detainee treatment in Afghanistan, he needs to publicly acknowledge what he may or may not have done or authorized in a center where torture occurred and, in fact, soldiers were then convicted of prisoner abuse.

So, no, I’m certainly not happy at the outcome of this. I think they should have been much harder on him. And it seems as if the whole thing had been orchestrated from the beginning.

AMY GOODMAN: Marc Garlasco, I want to thank you for being with us, former intelligence and targeting analyst at the Pentagon, now senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch.

We are also joined here in the firehouse studio in New York by Tom Engelhardt, creator and editor of, a project of the Nation Institute, where he’s a fellow. He is author of The End of Victory Culture, consulting editor for Metropolitan Books and co-founder of its American Empire Project series. He recently published an article about what General McChrystal’s nomination means for the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, called “Going for Broke.”

Tom Engelhardt, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on this hearing last week? What questions weren’t asked?

TOM ENGELHARDT: Well, I think you have to actually go beyond the issue of mistreatment of detainees, because they were being mistreated for a reason. What General McChrystal was involved in was, if you remember the Vietnam era, a kind of a mini Phoenix Program. It was a massive targeted assassination program. Bob Woodward, with some exaggeration, referred to it as the equivalent of a Manhattan Project for Iraq. Seymour Hersh has said that it was an executive assassination wing being run out of the Vice President’s office. And we don’t know. It was very secret, so we don’t know how many people were killed. Possibly hundreds. And we’re talking here — Al McCoy, who’s an expert on torture, says this wasn’t boots on the ground; this was bullets in the head.

And I think, rather than counterinsurgency, this guy is being brought into Afghanistan to run an already dark war, and he really comes from the dark side.

And I think, you know, what we might expect is that they — we have news now that they’re bringing a thousand new Special Forces people — Special Operations people into Afghanistan. That’s about 5,000. He’s bringing two Special Operations people, generals, from Washington with him. I think we could well see another massive assassination campaign in Afghanistan. I think that’s what this could mean. And I think that’s one of the things that we really do have to think about and look out for.

AMY GOODMAN: You write that “The secret force of ‘manhunters’ he commanded had its own secret detention and interrogation center near Baghdad, Camp Nama, where bad things happened regularly, and the unit there, Task Force 6-26, had its own slogan: ‘If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.’”

TOM ENGELHARDT: Yes, and there was Camp Nama, which was the big interrogation center, but there were five — maybe five — littler interrogation centers around the country, in Fallujah, another one in Baghdad, one in Balad. This is according to the New York Times; they did a report on this in 2006 which was quite good. A lot of this stuff — we just don’t know very much. This is the problem.

But we do know that this guy really — he is a legacy figure from the worst of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era. He was evidently close, possibly a friend of Rumsfeld. He seems to have been close to Cheney. Cheney gave him a thumbs-up. It’s the only appointment of Obama’s, I believe, that he’s given a real thumbs-up to enthusiastically. But he’s also the firstborn child, I think, of the quick desperation, and even possibly hysteria, of the Obama administration over the devolving war in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And I think he means a much more aggressive — a greater application of force of various sorts and a much more aggressive stance in Afghanistan, I think, and possibly Pakistan, even though he said we were not going to cross the border.

AMY GOODMAN: You said that he was “a premature adherent to the idea of an Af-Pak.”

TOM ENGELHARDT: Yes, yes. He, very early on in Afghanistan, because he went from Iraq to Afghanistan — he was very eager to have cross-border operations into — starting in 2005, he started backing this. And at the end of the Bush era, they actually ran a couple of Special Operations operations into Pakistan, one of which, at least, was disastrous. And they were stopped.

But I think as — if things go not well in Afghanistan and Pakistan — and I think that’s really a likelihood — as we apply more force, bring in more troops, escalate the war, frustration will rise. And the thought that they can cross borders, but we can’t, will rise with them. And he’s someone who wants to see the Afghanistan-Pakistan battlefield as one battlefield. And so, I think there will be an urge. And he comes out of a tradition, a Bush, Cheney, a Rumsfeld tradition of borderlessness, anyway. That was the global war on terror: respect no borders, cross all borders.

AMY GOODMAN: You write about expanding the CIA drone war.

TOM ENGELHARDT: Yes. The war is expanding at several levels, and the — I mean, he may bring a powerful — this is McChrystal — a powerful targeted assassination campaign on the ground. We already have a targeted assassination campaign in the air, going on, you know, twenty-four hours a day, because we have these CIA-run drone aircraft that are flown from we don’t know where, probably somewhere in the United States, over the Pakistani tribal areas. Reports from those areas — and we can’t — you know, reporters basically don’t get into them — indicate very high casualty levels of non-targeted people. And this is — I’ve always said that strikes like this are not a war on terror but a war for terror, because they create — they create enemies, they create terror. But this area, the Af-Pak theater, as they call it now, is going to have a lot more targeted assassination on a lot more systematic level.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did Obama choose him?

TOM ENGELHARDT: That’s an interesting question. All I can say to you is that when you look at what Obama has done, because, you know, it’s always hard to know what people’s motivations are, the Obama administration has kind of doubled down in Afghanistan and Pakistan straight across the line. He said, during the presidential campaign, that Iraq was the wrong war, and this was the right one. And undoubtedly, he — or perhaps, he meant it. There could be other explanations, but from the bringing in of troops, bringing in of advisers, civilian surges, the surge of targeted assassinations from the air and various other surges, including the bringing in of more Special Operations troops, which, by the way, have been the troops in Afghanistan up to now who have caused the greatest — the most striking incidents of civilian casualties, they’ve really doubled down, including money, including money to — you know, large amounts of money to go into Pakistan, and so on and so forth. I can’t necessarily tell you why; I can only tell you that it’s evident that this war is escalating. And it will be Obama’s war.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM ENGELHARDT: My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Engelhardt, creator of the website, project of the Nation Institute, where he’s a fellow. His recent article, “Going for Broke,” which we will link to.

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