The sacking of the head of NATO’s military command in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, caused a surge in coverage of the man described by political analyst James Petras as “Cheney’s chief assassin”. 

In May 2009, Petras sampled from McChrystal’s CV. The general had played a central role in directing units involved in “extrajudicial assassinations, systematic torture, bombing of civilian communities and search and destroy missions”. He was “the very embodiment of the brutality and gore that accompanies military-driven empire building”. (’s_chief_assassin_is _now_obama’s_commander_in_afghanistan/?page=1)

Between September 2003 and August 2008, McChrystal commanded the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations (JSOC), tasked to set up death squads and paramilitary forces to terrorise communities and movements opposing the US and its allies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. JSOC’s Major General William Mayville described the operation in Iraq: “JSOC was a killing machine.”

JSOC has also been described as “the Salvadoran option” after the US-created death squads that brutalised El Salvador in the 1980s. (Ibid.) McChrystal was in charge of the “direct action” forces of the Special Missions Units. Petras explained:

“‘Direct Action’ operatives are the death-squads and torturers, and their only engagement with the local population is to terrorize, and not to propagandize. They engage in ‘propaganda of the dead’, assassinating local leaders to ‘teach’ the locals to obey and submit to the occupation.” (Ibid.)

The investigative reporter Gareth Porter noted that McChrystal’s May 2008 nomination to become director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon had been delayed for months while the Senate Armed Services Committee investigated “a pattern of abuse of detainees by military personnel under his command. Sixty-four service personnel assigned or attached to Special Operations units were disciplined for detainee abuse between early 2004 and the end of 2007”.

W. Patrick Lang, formerly US defence intelligence officer for the Middle East, suggested that the McChrystal nomination sounded “like a paradigm shift in which Obama’s policy of destroying the leadership of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan takes priority over everything else”. Affirming again, as Alexander Cockburn observed, that McChrystal’s expertise was “in assassination and ‘decapitation'”. (

Tough Job

In the last two years, McChrystal has been mentioned in 1,929 articles in the UK press (LexisNexis, July 1, 2010). We found no articles that mentioned the term “death squad” in relation to McChrystal’s career.

Instead, Simon Tisdall wrote in the Guardian that McChrystal was “an able general, a special forces guru at his best when up against a wall”.
( cifamerica/2010/jun/22/stanley-mcchrystal-nato-himself-blame)

A Guardian leader described him merely as “a talented but maverick soldier”. ( 2010/jun/24/editorial-afghanistan-mcchrystal-petraeus-obama)

A Times leader commented:

“Rolling Stone’s profile leaves the reader profoundly grateful that there are men of the calibre of General McChrystal present in the front line of a war that affects us all. Let us not pretend otherwise: it is a blow that he has gone.” (Leading article, ‘General Failure,’ The Times, June 24, 2010)

In a BBC Radio 4 report, Lyse Doucet talked of “the tough commander of the US war effort in Afghanistan”. Doucet began by recalling McChrystal’s unusually sombre arrival at an earlier interview: “He was usually so quick to smile and talk,” she observed:

“I knew he had just come from the presidential palace. Questions raced through my mind.

“Had something gone wrong again with President Karzai? Or on the battlefield?

“To break the silence, I simply said: ‘Tough job.’

“‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I just heard my college room-mate died. He’s been ill.’

“‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Would you like more time?’

“‘No,’ the general insisted, visibly tightening his jaw and sitting up straight. ‘This is my job.’

“And the general focused. That was Gen McChrystal in the field, in his element, in command.” ( our_own_correspondent/8763114.stm)

The last sentence was closer to Mills & Boon than serious journalism. Any number of facts and figures can be cited from media database searches to indicate media bias, but it is much more difficult to measure biased +tone+ of this kind. The look of cold outrage when journalists report the crimes of ‘the enemy’. The undertone of tragic irony when they describe US-UK ‘mistakes’ in slaughtering civilians – the irony being that good people have to do bad things to achieve good results. The open displays of affection and deference when the likes of Barack Obama and David Cameron are interviewed. In a recent interview with Hugo Chavez, the BBC’s Stephen Sackur, brow permanently creased with scepticism and disdain, asked:

“Is it possible to have genuine democracy and genuine respect for the rule of law within your socialism?” (Hardtalk, BBC News Channel, June 18, 2010)

Imagine Sackur asking Obama:

“Is it possible to have genuine democracy and genuine respect for the rule of law within your capitalism?”

As we described earlier this year, under McChrystal’s command, American-led troops dragged Afghan children from their beds and shot them during a night raid in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan on December 27, 2009. Ten people were killed, including eight schoolboys from one family. (See our media alerts: ‘Were Afghan Children Killed By US-led Forces?’ and ‘Nato’s Fire Sale – One Dead Afghan Child, $2000’)

In The Times, Jerome Starkey reported the testimony of Mohammed Taleb Abdul Ajan, father of three of the boys killed:

“When I entered their room I saw four people lying in a heap. I shook them and shouted their names but they didn’t respond. Some of them were shot in the head. Some of them were shot in the chest.

“I was praying that in the next room maybe they were still alive but when I went in I saw everyone was dead. I saw blood on their necks. I became crazy. I don’t remember what I felt.” (Jerome Starkey, ‘Assault force killed family by mistake in raid, claims Afghan father,’ The Times, February 25, 2010; afghanistan/article7040216.ece)

Can we imagine a BBC journalist opening with Doucet-style empathy a report on a senior Hamas or Taliban leader responsible for this kind of atrocity?

McChrystal is, Doucet went on, a “soldier’s soldier”:

“No-one talked much about what had really gone on when he headed what is called the most secretive force in the US military, the Special Operations unit hunting al-Qaeda militants in Iraq.”

Nor did Doucet – this was her only reference to Special Operations in the broadcast. She added:

“I once joked with Gen Petraeus that he had to spend more time in Afghanistan because he was being outdone in the image stakes by the other hard-charging general.”

Doucet described Petraeus and McChrystal as “poster boys for a new way of fighting wars”. Alexander Cockburn commented on McChrystal:

“Actually there’s nothing fresh or sophisticated in what he did. Programs of targeted assassination aren’t new in counter-insurgency. The most infamous and best known was the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, designed to identify and eliminate cadres of Vietnam’s ‘National Liberation Front’… of whom, on some estimates, at least 40,000 were duly assassinated.” (Cockburn, op.cit.)

Doucet claimed McChrystal had contributed his “personal stamp”, emphasising “the need to avoid civilian casualties, to protect the population”. Indeed, Doucet was tireless in listing McChrystal’s virtues, which were the stuff of legend, with “much myth-making around the gaunt commander who slept four hours a night, ate one meal a day, and removed cushions from office chairs so visitors would not stay too long”.

This is a theme in BBC reporting. In the October 4 edition of the Mail on Sunday, Justin Webb, a presenter of the BBC’s Today programme, wrote:

“Stanley McChrystal is a character. In some respects he straight is out of central casting: big, with fierce eyes and weather-beaten skin. He looks every bit as fit as a Hollywood version of a special forces soldier. Yet he eats only one meal a day.”

The title of Webb’s piece described McChrystal as “my pal Stan”.

Doucet noted that McChrystal is also a skilled diplomat:

“Gen McChrystal was praised as the man who knew how to deal with a difficult ally [Karzai], unlike almost everyone else on Obama’s Afghan team.”

The conclusion of her report echoed her introduction:

“I walked with him to the door of his office. When we parted, I said: ‘I’m sorry about your college friend.’ ‘No, it’s OK,’ he replied brusquely, ‘I should not have said it.'”

Unlikely Babe Magnets

Doucet’s sympathetic approach humanised a general at the heart of some of the most brutal and devastating wars of modern times. Iraq has been all but destroyed by the US-UK invasion and occupation. The devastation in Afghanistan goes almost completely unreported, but must be enormous. We are not suggesting that McChrystal is a bad or evil man who should not be afforded compassion. The point is that he is a deeply controversial figure responsible for the killing of enormous numbers of people. Attention should be drawn to the controversial and bloody nature of his activities, as would happen as a matter of course if he was one of ‘the bad guys’. Questions should be asked and answered about the death squads, about the allegations of torture, about the tsunami of civilian casualties.

Even more fundamentally, Doucet could have raised serious, thoughtful questions about the self-defeating nature of the war in Afghanistan. Consider this view expressed in the Middle East Journal:

“Delicate social and political problems cannot be bombed or ‘missiled’ out of existence… Violence can be likened to a virus; the more you bombard it, the more it spreads.” (James Bill and Rebecca Bill Chavez, Middle East Journal, autumn 2002)

Or consider this obvious common sense from Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, then of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in January 2002:

“If anyone thinks that this temporary degradation of al-Qaeda’s capabilities through the elimination of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan somehow or other will reduce the risks of terrorist attacks in the future, I’m afraid they’re wrong. Because terrorist training camps don’t have to be in Afghanistan, they can be anywhere. And indeed the temptation now for al-Qaeda will be to site the training of its operatives in Western Europe, Canada and even in the United States.” (Bulmer-Thomas, Jonathan Dimbleby programme, ITV, January 27, 2002)

Or Doucet could have considered the argument that the war in Afghanistan is really a civil war – that NATO is primarily waging war on Pashtun tribes, not the Taliban.

It is not the job of serious journalism to fall at the feet of power, but British and American journalists habitually do just that. ABC Pentagon correspondent Martha Raddatz wrote of General David Petraeus:

“A warrior and a scholar, Petraeus is sometimes jokingly referred to as a water walker, since almost everything he touches seems to turn to gold.” ( 06/24/media-access-and-McChrystal/)

The US media watch site Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has collected comments referring to former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld:

“Sixty-nine years old, and you’re America’s stud,” Tim Russert told Rumsfeld when he interviewed him on NBC’s Meet the Press; on CNN Larry King informed him that “you now have this new image called sex symbol”. Fox News’ Jim Angle called him “a babe magnet for the 70-year-old set.”

“I love you, Donald,” Margaret Carlson announced on CNN’s Capital Gang. Carlson’s Time magazine colleague, Mark Thompson, told the Chicago Tribune, “Although he has not told us very much, he has been like a father figure.” (Ibid)

Once again, we recall historian Walter Karp’s observation:

“It is a bitter irony of source journalism that the most esteemed journalists are precisely the most servile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the ‘best’ sources.” (Quoted Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.199)


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Lyse Doucet
Email: [email protected]

Write to Steve Herrmann, editor of BBC online
Email: [email protected]