WikiWoes in US Corporate Media

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

US Corporate Media Downplays Pentagon’s Special Commando Assassination Unit

By Peter Phillips and Mickey Huff

The New York Times, Washington Post, and most other newspapers in the US are censoring or under-reporting the WikiLeaks documents that show US Task Force 373 (TF 373) is an out-of-control assassination unit responsible for the deaths of many hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan.

Nick Davies’ lengthy article in the London Guardian July 26, describes how the WikiLeaks war logs show TF 373 as a shadowy kill-or-capture squad hunting the Taliban’s most-wanted.

Key excerpts from Davies’ piece are quoted below with a link to the original article:

[Begin Davies Quotes]

“The NATO coalition in Afghanistan has been using an undisclosed ‘black’ unit of special forces, Task Force 373, to hunt down targets for death or detention without trial. Details of more than 2,000 senior figures from the Taliban and al-Qaida are held on a ‘kill or capture’ list, known as Jpel, the joint prioritized effects list.

In many cases, the unit has set out to seize a target for internment, but in others it has simply killed them without attempting to capture. The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path….

Now, for the first time, the leaked war logs reveal details of deadly missions by TF 373 and other units hunting down Jpel targets that were previously hidden behind a screen of misinformation. They raise fundamental questions about the legality of the killings and of the long-term imprisonment without trial, and also pragmatically about the impact of a tactic, which is inherently likely to kill, injure and alienate the innocent bystanders whose support the coalition craves.

On the night of Monday 11 June 2007, the leaked logs reveal, the taskforce set out with Afghan special forces to capture or kill a Taliban commander named Qarl Ur-Rahman in a valley near Jalalabad. As they approached the target in the darkness, somebody shone a torch on them. A firefight developed, and the taskforce called in an AC-130 gunship, which strafed the area with cannon fire: ‘The original mission was aborted and TF 373 broke contact and returned to base. Follow-up Report: 7 x ANP KIA, 4 x WIA.’ In plain language: they discovered that the people they had been shooting in the dark were Afghan police officers, seven of whom were now dead and four wounded….

In spite of this tension between political and military operations, TF 373 continued to engage in highly destructive attacks.  Four months later, on 4 October, they confronted Taliban fighters in a village called Laswanday. The Taliban appear to have retreated by the time TF 373 called in air support to drop 500lb bombs on the house from which the fighters had been firing.

The final outcome, listed tersely at the end of the leaked log: 12 US wounded, two teenage girls and a 10-year-old boy wounded, one girl killed, one woman killed, four civilian men killed, one donkey killed, one dog killed, several chickens killed, no enemy killed, no enemy wounded, no enemy detained.

The coalition put out a statement claiming falsely to have killed several militants and making no mention of any dead civilians; and later added that ‘several non-combatants were found dead and several others wounded’ without giving any numbers or details….

The concealment of TF 373’s role is a constant theme. There was global publicity in October 2009 when US helicopters were involved in two separate crashes in one day, but even then it was concealed that the four soldiers who died in one of the incidents were from TF 373.

The pursuit of these ‘high value targets’ is evidently embedded deep in coalition tactics. The Jpel list assigns an individual serial number to each of those targeted for kill or capture and by October 2009 this had reached 2,058.

The process of choosing targets reaches high into the military command. According to their published US Field Manual on Counter Insurgency, No FM3-24, it is policy to choose targets ‘to engage as potential counter-insurgency supporters, targets to isolate from the population and targets to eliminate.’

A joint targeting working group meets each week to consider Target Nomination Packets and has direct input from the Combined Forces Command and its divisional HQ, as well as from lawyers, operational command and intelligence units including the CIA.

Among those who are listed as being located and killed by TF 373 are Shah Agha, described as an intelligence officer for an IED cell, who was killed with four other men on 1 June 2009; Amir Jan Mutaki, described as a Taliban sub-commander who had organized ambushes on coalition forces, who was shot dead from the air in a TF 373 mission on 24 June 2009; and a target codenamed Ballentine, who was killed on 16 November 2009 during an attack in the village of Lewani, in which a local woman also died.

The logs include references to the tracing and killing of other targets on the Jpel list, which do not identify TF 373 as the unit responsible. It is possible that some of the other taskforce names and numbers which show up in this context are cover names for 373, or for British special forces, 500 of whom are based in southern Afghanistan and are reported to have been involved in kill/capture missions, including the shooting in July 2008 of Mullah Bismullah.

Some of these ‘non 373’ operations involve the use of unmanned drones to fire missiles to kill the target: one codenamed Beethoven, on 20 October 2008; one named Janan on 6 November 2008; and an unnamed Jpel target who was hit with a hellfire missile near Khan Neshin on 21 August 2009 while traveling in a car with other passengers (the log records ‘no squirters [bodies moving about] recorded’).

Other Jpel targets were traced and then bombed from the air. One, codenamed Newcastle, was located with four other men on 26 November 2007. The house they were in was then hit with 500lb bombs. ‘No identifiable features recovered,’ the log records.

Two other Jpel targets, identified only by serial numbers, were killed on 16 February 2009 when two F-15 bombers dropped four 500lb bombs on a Jpel target: ‘There are various and conflicting reports from multiple sources alleging civilian casualties . . . A large number of local nationals were on site during the investigation displaying a hostile attitude so the investigation team did not continue sorting through the site.’

One of the leaked logs contains a summary of a conference call on 8 March 2008 when the then head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security, Amrullah Saleh, tells senior American officers that three named Taliban commanders in Kapisa province are ‘not reconcilable and must be taken out.’ The senior coalition officer ‘noted that there would be a meeting with the Kapisa NDS to determine how to approach this issue.’

It is not clear whether ‘taken out’ meant ‘killed’ and the logs do not record any of their deaths. But one of them, Qari Baryal, who was ranked seventh in the Jpel list, had already been targeted for killing two months earlier.

On 12 January 2008, after tracking his movements for 24 hours, the coalition established that he was holding a large meeting with other men in a compound in Pashkari and sent planes which dropped six 500lb bombs and followed up with five strafing runs to shoot those fleeing the scene.

The report records that some 70 people ran to the compound and started digging into the rubble, on which there were ‘pools of blood,’ but subsequent reports suggest that Baryal survived and continued to plan rocket attacks and suicide bombings.

Numerous logs show Jpel targets being captured and transferred to a special prison, known as Btif, the Bagram Theatre Internment Facility. There is no indication of prisoners being charged or tried, and previous press reports have suggested that men have been detained there for years without any legal process in communal cages inside vast old air hangars. As each target is captured, he is assigned a serial number. By December 2009, this showed that a total of 4,288 prisoners, some aged as young as 16, had been held at Btif, with 757 still in custody.”

[End Davies Quotes]

Davies’ article paints a grim picture of a war of targeted assassinations and documents numerous cases of civilian deaths. However, the New York Times, with access to the same information simply wrote on July 26, “Secret commando units like Task Force 373 — a classified group of Army and Navy special operatives — work from a ‘capture/kill list’ of about 70 top insurgent commanders. These missions, which have been stepped up under the Obama administration, claim notable successes, but have sometimes gone wrong, killing civilians and stoking Afghan resentment.” (NYT, p. 1)

The Washington Post only mentions TF 373 in a July 27 editorial by Eugene Robinson on page A-17.  Robinson writes:

“The leaked documents sketch the activities of the secret ‘kill or capture’ unit named Task Force 373 — and in the process, according to the Guardian, raise fundamental questions about the legality of the killings . . . and also pragmatically about the impact of a tactic which is inherently likely to kill, injure and alienate the innocent bystanders whose support the coalition craves.

The Guardian highlights a 2007 incident in which TF 373, operating in a valley near Jalalabad, set out to apprehend or kill a Taliban commander named Qarl Ur-Rahman. As the commandos neared the target, someone pointed a flashlight at them; they called for air support, and an AC-130 gunship strafed the area. Later, they discovered that they had killed seven Afghan National Police officers and wounded four others.

A few days later, according to the documents, members of a TF 373 unit fired rockets into a village where they believed a foreign jihadist fighter from Libya was hiding. They killed six Taliban fighters — but also seven civilians, all of them children. One was alive when allied medics arrived. ‘The Med TM immediately cleared debris from the mouth and performed CPR,’ the incident report states, but after 20 minutes the child died.’”

A search of Lexus-Nexus shows that the Task Force 373 story was widely covered in Great Britain and Canada appearing in the Guardian, International Herald Tribune, Daily Telegraph, National Post (Canada), The Sun, Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Sun, and on BBC.

However, the Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk VA) was one of the only newspapers to use the NY Times quote, burying it on page 10, while only the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and the Virginian-Pilot reprinted the Washington Post op-ed.  Most newspapers in the US completely ignored the story.

While the news about WikiLeaks was widely covered in the US media, most papers framed the story in the context of the White House press release and how the release could result in harm to US forces. The Grand Rapid Press reported on page A2 using the headline, “White House condemns war leaks; WikiLeaks provides ground-level account of Afghan military moves.” The Lewiston Morning Tribune (Idaho) on July 26, one of the few in the US to have full coverage of the Guardian’s story, headlined the piece,  “Leaked military records provide ground-level account of Afghan war: White House condemns Internet disclosure.”

It is safe to conclude that the corporate media in the US is significantly under-reporting or failing to report (i.e., censoring) the full story from the Guardian regarding the specifics of civilian deaths and assassinations by US Commando Unit Task Force 373. The few US newspapers that mentioned TF 373 failed to say how the targets were selected, gave no specifics on the number of civilians killed, and did not address the thousands in prison.  Instead, the corporate media continue to amplify the spin of the US political establishment, decrying WikiLeaks’ actions as potential treason rather than what they really are:  actual reporting.


For the full account in the London Guardian see:

Peter Phillips is Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University, and President of Media Freedom Foundation/Project Censored

Mickey Huff is Associate Professor of History at Diablo Valley College, and Director of Project Censored/Media Freedom Foundation