The George W. Bush presidency has been one long rehab session for the Iran-contra scoundrels of the Reagan-Bush administration. Many infamous veterans of the foreign policy connivance of the Reagan days have found a home in Bush II. Elliott Abrams–who pleaded guilty to misleading Congress regarding the Reagan administration’s secret support of the contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government of Nicaragua–was hired as a staff member of George W. Bush’s National Security Council and placed in charge of democracy promotion. Retired Admiral John Poindexter–who was Reagan’s national security adviser, who supervised Oliver North during the Iran-contra days, and who was convicted of several Iran-contra crimes before the convictions were overturned on a legal technicality–was retained by the Pentagon to search for terrorists using computerized Big Brother technology. John Negroponte–who as ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s was the on-the-ground overseer of pro-contra operations there–was recruited by Bush to be UN ambassador, then ambassador to Iraq, and, most recently, the first director of national intelligence. Otto Reich–who mounted an arguably illegal pro-contra propaganda effort when he was a Reagan official–was appointed by Bush to be in charge of Latin American policy at the State Department. Now comes the news that another Iran-contra alum–a fellow who failed a polygraph test during the Iran-contra investigation–is playing a critical role in Bush’s war in terrorism.
James Steele was recently 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.