On June 25, 2009, The House of representatives passed an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act which would require the School of the Americas/WHINSEC to release to the public the names, ranks, countries of origin, courses taken and dates of attendance of all the students and instructors at the institute.
Torture has been considered a logical and necessary component in the expansive arsenal of dirty practices which comprise the field of special operations (commando tactics, sophisticated counterinsurgency techniques, military intelligence, covert intelligence activities, psychological warfare, psychological operations or “PSYOPS”, and other covert procedures), all initially honed by the British in Malaya and by the U.S. in the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, and more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, the 1963 CIA ‘KUBARK’ interrogation and torture documents and the early 1980s torture manuals authored by the U.S. Army for use at the SOA both document torture practices which have been central to the school’s curricula. These were being taught to thousands of officers from eighteen Latin American countries for several decades. These materials specifically instructed their students on how to coerce prisoners into being cooperative through the use of fear, extortion, kidnapping, the administration of truth serums, beatings, rape, false imprisonment, torture of children in front of their parents and vice versa, beheadings, live burials, public execution and acts of massacre.
A 1,169 page U.S. Army “Foreign Intelligence Training Program” called “PROJECT X” was designed “to develop an exportable foreign intelligence training package” to provide counterinsurgency techniques learned in Vietnam to Latin American countries. Much of the material for “X” came from Army Field Manual FM 30-18, a classified intelligence operations manual. After being translated from English to Spanish, it was distributed to the military establishments of Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Peru. Its contents were also transmitted in one form or another to SOA students from Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela.
Examining the school’s record
The U.S. Army School of the Americas used training materials that condoned “executions of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion, and false imprisonment,” asserted an Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) Report issued June 28, 1996, in Washington, DC. The IOB, a four-person, independent board created by President Clinton, was assigned the task of investigating excesses and abuses by the U.S. intelligence community.
In Latin America, the SOA was popularly dubbed the “School of Assassins” after a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission revealed there were 19 SOA graduates among the 26 Salvadoran officers implicated in the 1989 “execution style” massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in San Salvador. The U.N. Commission went on to report that three-quarters of the Salvadoran officers known to be responsible for seven other massacres during El Salvador’s bloody civil war were trained by the SOA. Yet, “The school has never taught torture and never will,” the SOA commandant at the time, Col. Glenn R. Weidner, told a November 1998 news conference. Meanwhile, Weidner referred to the at least 500 SOA graduates found to be directly implicated in the worst documented human rights abuses recorded throughout Latin America as “a few bad apples.”
While that was the official line, others who were directly involved with the accused officers, revealed a quite different story. “When I was at the school, we routinely had Latin American students who were known human rights abusers, and it didn’t make any difference to us,” one former SOA instructor related. Another, with close personal knowledge of the inner workings of the school, tells a story that is even more revealing:
“The school was always a front for other special operations, covert operations. They would bring people from the streets into the base and the experts would train us on how to obtain information using torture. We were trained to torture human beings. They had a medical physician, a U.S. medical physician which I remember very well, who was dressed in green fatigues, who would teach the students … [about] the nerve endings of the body. He would show them where to torture, where and where not, where you wouldn’t kill the individual.”
Such training has been provided to Latin American militaries with the assumption that they would use these acquired skills to get the job done — to use repressive tactics to neutralize ideologies found to threaten the status quo throughout the region. In certain instances this meant the direct physical presence of American trainers alongside their Latin American ‘students,’ while the torture was in progress. Circumstantial evidence pointed to accounts given by blindfolded torture survivors who recall hearing men speaking English or broken Spanish with an American accent.
A name change does not transform reality
The notoriety which the School of the Americas earned came, in part, as a result of the bloody fruits of its academic record in Panama from 1946 through 1984. This is when the terms of the Panama Canal treaty were being implemented and it was necessary for the facility to relocate to Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. In December 2000, the SOA was allegedly closed in the wake of flaring negative publicity resulting from the disclosure of the torture manuals being used in the SOA curriculum, and massive protests and demonstrations outside the base’s gates. This was just as the phalange of the institution’s opponents, which now included outspoken members of Congress who were on the cusp of representing a legislative majority ready to dismantle the SOA.
In a surprise move, the Pentagon submitted a Defense Authorization Bill for the 2001 fiscal year that put forth a name change for the SOA. The facility was then reopened on January 17, 2001 with a new name – “The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation” (WHINSEC). It was housed in the very same building at Fort Benning where the SOA was formerly headquartered. The late Georgia senator, Paul Coverdell, a fervent backer of the institution, told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer that the Pentagon name change proposal was “cosmetic.” Further evidence of these cosmetic changes were evident in a statement issued on December 12, 2000 by Major Thomas Collins, a U.S. Army spokesman: “The new school is going to continue the same vital functions the School of the Americas did. We see a great need to continue the same military-to-military, country-to-country contact.”
Responding to injustice
As a result of the controversial role played by the SOA and its sibling, WHINSEC, five countries – Argentina, Bolivia Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Venezuela – have decided to completely withdraw their personnel from future training at WHINSEC. The sentiments of these nations felt toward the SOA/WHINSEC were summed up by former Uruguayan Defense Minister, Azuceni Berrutti, who observed, “we have absolutely no need for training at this kind of school.” Several more nations, which have for years sent their military officers to the SOA/WHINSEC for advanced training, are now actively considering the termination of their involvement with the organization. In addition to the growing discontent with the SOA that has been brewing for years in Latin America, last year, a vote in the U.S. Congress to cut off funding for SOA/WHINSEC, lost by just six votes, demonstrating that support for the controversial institution is also waning in the U.S.
President Obama has come out strongly against torture: “I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture. And I’m going to make sure that we don’t torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.” Obama added: “[w]e’ll reject torture – without exception or equivocation.” It remains to be seen whether the new president’s commitment will actually halt the practice of torture by the U.S. military and intelligence operators. Will this also mean that the U.S. will cease encouraging others to torture their citizens in order to safeguard and advance its own national interests? If concrete changes are the objective, then Washington must start its reforms with this repeatedly incriminated United States military institution, the SOA.
Thousands of innocent men, women, and children have been defiled, tortured, massacred, disappeared, and executed at the hands of graduates of this now nefarious institution. The values and principles which the United States is supposed to uphold and represent should not be permitted to be tarnished any longer by the shameful debauchery of this institution. Moreover, it is morally – as well as legally – unacceptable to argue that the national security of this country can either be justified or advanced by the repressive and anti-democratic activities which this institution has promoted through much of its history.
Self-determination, land reform, improved living wages, and better and more accessible health care availabilities were the simple, yet essential and popular aspirations of those who opposed the Washington-backed military juntas that held power in Latin America during the 1970’s-1990’s. This was often with the direct, or at least covert, encouragement of U.S. policymakers. During that period – at the height of the Cold War – the local militaries, in partnership with U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence agencies, routinely painted their socially-minded opponents as subversives and Communists, while depicting their own forces as patriots, despite their use of repressive military and intelligence apparatus that the Pentagon systematically implemented throughout Latin America. Washington’s arrogant doctrine of exceptionalism and its blind faith in the supremacy of U.S. interests have reigned in the region for decades. But this is a new era, and hopefully the brutal practices of the past will be laid to rest in the dustbin of history.
Consistent with the Cold War mentality and the simple-minded anti-communist policies of the post-World War II political landscape, the SOA and its successor, WHINSEC, today operate on the premise of George W. Bush’s credo: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” But today there is hope for change as a conscious, organic resistance has been prompted by the notion that the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean yearn for self-determination, and better living conditions. Last year, a bill in Congress completely terminating the near-$20 million in annual funding of the SOA/WHINSEC nearly passed, being defeated by just six votes. This year, with a new level of public awareness about the practices of torture that we now know have been sanctioned by U.S. authorities, there is a distinct possibility that this time the bill might pass, inaugurating what could turn out to be a different Latin America.