Human Rights

The Great SOA Debate

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The article published by COHA on April 22, 2011, “School of the Americas: The Spirited Campaign Against the SOA-WHINSEC Continues with Critics and Advocates to Be Heard,” has generated a number of passionate responses in the past few days. Since we at COHA have always encouraged voices of all points of view to be heard on issues of concern to our readership, we have decided to publish several of the email responses that we have received, which often did not agree with some points being made in the COHA press release. These responses, unedited and without annotation, are featured below, along with a personal response from our director, Larry Birns.

Dear Lisa and some other of our critics,

Unfortunately, I agree with you Lisa, and most of the other critics who have had tough words to say about COHA’s position on the SOAW. The COHA article appeared after many rounds of edits were eventually extorted from the author, which ultimately became our somewhat troubled viewpoint. It was a war of the generations. The author felt that facts were facts. My camp held out for a principled position; that the issue being upheld here involved a lot more than just a name change, and that the enormously committed work of the SOAW did not necessarily have to meet the standards of a departmental peer review panel. My side recalled U.S.-supplied gunships slamming hundreds of rounds of .50-caliber bullets into the side of Guazapa, while collaterally blowing apart the children of campesinos hiding in the brush. At the same time, Catholic priests were being murderously gunned down by U.S.-trained units, including those within and outside a structured involvement of Pentagon-supplied trainers and missions. All the while the State Department lied to us concerning El Salvador’s awful human rights record.

Yet, at the end of the day, it didn’t help to act as if only my own voice mattered, and it became important whether people working in the same crowd, with differing opinions, could harmonize their positions in a common cause. So, we didn’t entirely squelch the dissident voice of some research associates. As for myself, I feel that Father Roy and his people are magnificently doing the work of the gods. As George Santayana once told us, ugly truths must at times give way to what could be called beautiful lies.

Be assured that while I’m at the helm here, COHA will never become a cluster of técnicos who wait for the next phone call from the State Department, or cater to Foundation-fueled prospects that just happened to be on the latter’s agenda, or collect large names with even larger records appearing on their letterhead, some of which have been at the cost of the cherished dreams of their own people. COHA will always be on Father Roy’s side, rather than former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s advocacy of Defense Department Ministerials in curbing and minimizing U.S. ties to the worthy traits of the Latin American armed forces.

What I might add here is that another important part of the equation is what our twenty to thirty young researchers tend to carry from their experiences after coming to COHA from all over the world. They eventually learn that COHA takes on a myriad of issues, and that people can care enough to spar over values and stands, but they also can come together at the end of the day to protest their intellectual bonds. Ultimately, it is their responsibility to help preserve Latin America’s democratic genes from assault from the U.S., as well as from its own malefactors.

Larry Birns, Director



On January 17, 2001, the School of the Americas was replaced by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. As a result of a Department of Defense proposal included in the Defense Authorization Bill for Fiscal 2001. The measure passed when the House of Representatives defeated a bi-partisan amendment to close the school and conduct a congressional investigation by a narrow ten vote margin. The amendment was sponsored by Representatives Moakley (D-MA), Scarborough (R-FL), Campbell (R-CA) and McGovern (D-MA).

COHA has apparently a very different view about the role of U.S. military and the SOA/WHINSEC in Latin America than I do. The following post is not to address that but only provides some information in regards to COHA’s claim that “WHINSEC’s current curriculum is strikingly different from the SOA’s,” that the SOA is closed and that WHINSEC is a reformed school. The COHA webpage did not allow the posting of the following summary of a comparison between the “new” school with the School of the Americas. Please ad it to the page.

In a media interview, Georgia Senator and SOA supporter, the late Paul Coverdell, characterized the DOD proposal as “cosmetic” changes that would ensure that the SOA could continue its mission and operation. Critics of the SOA concur. The new military training school is the continuation of the SOA under a new name. It is a new name, but the same shame.

The approach taken by the DOD is not grounded in any critical assessment of the training, procedures, performance, or results (consequences) of the training program it copies. Further, it ignores congressional concern and public outcry over the SOA’s past and present link to human rights atrocities.



School of the Americas:

“The Secretary of the Army may operate the military education and training facility known as the United States Army School of the Americas.” U.S Code: Title 10, Section 4415

Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation:

Secretary of Defense authorized to “operate an education and training facility…”
Secretary of a department of the military designated as the executive agent to run school
U.S. Code: Title 10, Section 2166.

Concerns and Comparison of Authority: The Secretary of the Army, under the direction of the Secretary of Defense, operated the SOA. After the new proposal, the Secretary of the Army, or another department of the military, still operates the school as an agent of the Secretary of Defense. The proposal offers no substantive change to the SOA.


School of the Americas:

provide “military education and training to military personnel of Central and South American countries and Caribbean countries.” US Code: Title 10, Section 4415
provide “military education and training to the nations of Latin America”,
“promote democratic values and respect for human rights; and foster cooperation among multinational military forces.” SOA Course Catalogue, 1998/99

Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation:

provide “professional education and training to eligible personnel of nations of the Western Hemisphere,” defined as military, law enforcement, and civilian personnel “while fostering mutual knowledge,[ …] and promoting democratic values, respect for human rights”. U.S. Code Title 10, Section 2166. Pentagon officials state this will include counter-drug operations, peace support, and disaster relief.

Concerns and Comparison of the Purpose and Mission: The purpose for the new school as described varies in scope and detail from the original language that authorized the SOA. However, the current “working” mission of the SOA as reflected in the 1998/99 SOA course catalog combined together with the actual day to day practice at the SOA is consistent with a supposed changed mission statement for WHINSEC. In short there is no change in purpose between the new school and the SOA as its mission has evolved.

As with the “working” mission of the SOA, the purpose stated for the new school downplays the militaristic aspects of the training offered and focuses instead on “leadership development, counter-drug operations, peace support, and disaster relief.” These courses existed at the SOA but have never been well attended. The 2000 SOA Certification Report to Congress shows that in 1999 a scant 14% of SOA soldiers took the peace operations, civil/military relations and the like. Over 85% took the standard SOA fare: commando tactics, military intelligence, psychological operations, and combat training. A recent newspaper headline sums it up: “Bombs and Bullets Most Popular Classes at the US Army School of the Americas.” Nothing in the Defense Authorization Bill makes a change to the attendence of classes at the new replacement school to reflect the “new” mission

The new school allows for the training of police and civilian personnel. That practice was already in place at the SOA. Further, the new authorization allows any and all military training that has been central to the SOA, including advanced combat arms, psychological operations, military intelligence, and commando tactics.

The consequence of this kind of training has been at the heart of the public and congressional controversy surrounding the SOA. It hones the skills of Latin American soldiers who then can use what they learned against their own people. For example, some of the Salvadoran soldiers cited in the UN Truth Commission report for the massacre of six Jesuit priests and their women co-workers had just returned from taking the SOA commando operations course. The Jesuit massacre by all accounts was a commando-type operation.


School of the Americas:
No specific detail in original congressional authorization
Practice: 8 hours human rights instruction tacked on

Western Hemishpere Institute for Security Cooperation:

Includes “mandatory instruction for each student, for at least 8 hours on human rights the rule of law, due process, civilian control of the military, role of the military in a democratic society” U.S. Code Title 10, Section 2166
No restrictions on type or amount of military training

Concerns and Comparison of the Curricula: The new school includes human rights instruction, but that is not new. As the public outcry grew and congressional censure mounted, the SOA instituted first a four-hour human rights component and then upped it to eight hours in an effort to quell critics.

While the eight hours of human rights training is not harmful, it is minimal and inadequate for a school that touts its mission mandate as “promoting democratic values, respect for human rights.” There is no requirement that the new school seek input from noted outside human rights specialists and no provision to modify the content to address specific human rights issues in particular countries (for example, paramilitaries in Colombia). In addition, there is no attempt to evaluate or to measure the effectiveness of the training through long-term monitoring of graduates or by any other means.

Although the bill is careful to minimize any mention of military training, the fact remains that, like the SOA it replaces, this is a military institution and Latin American troops will be sent there to learn military skills. The clearest proof of this is to ask how many soldiers would come to the school if it removed ALL combat-related training? We must also ask, if the primary purpose of the institution is to teach democracy and human rights, as claimed, isn’t this more appropriately done in a civilian setting?


School of the Americas:
No mention of a Board of Visitors (BOV) in the original congressional authorization.
6-member BOV
Not independent oversight board

Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation:

BOV membership: 2 military officers; 1 person selected by Secretary of State; 6 people selected by Secretary of Defense including “to the extent practicable” members of the academic, religious and human rights communities; chairs and ranking minority members of House and Senate Armed Services Committees included on BOV
meets at least annually to “inquire into the curriculum, instruction, physical equipment, fiscal affairs, academic methods, and other matters”
Reports its actions and recommendations to Secretary of Defense
U.S. Code Title 10, Section 2166

Concerns and Comparisons of the Board of Visitors: In response to congressional and public criticism, the SOA instituted a six-member Board of Visitors (BOV) that was reconstituted in 1999. The BOV has been a handpicked group of SOA proponents that, according to the 1998 SOA Certification Report to Congress, focused significant energy on PR campaigns in the media and Congress to polish the SOA’s image. Despite the illusion, the SOA’s BOV does not provide independent, outside critical review or oversight of the SOA.

The authorization calls for a BOV, but gives the Secretary of Defense the broad authority to determine the composition and actual members of Board. Though a provision exists for the possible inclusion of members of the human rights, religious and academic communities, these communities are not defined, nor is any selection criteria established. Furthermore, nothing mandates the inclusion of independent human rights experts, religious leaders, and other potential critics. It is up to the discretion of the Secretary of Defense to determine whether or not it is “practicable” to include them. The Congressional make up of the Board of Visitors, limited as it is to members of the Armed Services Committees, would exclude many of the school’s congressional critics. The Board of Visitors proposed would – like the SOA BOV — be primarily a handpicked group of SOA proponents.

The problem persists: The new BOV does not provide for independent, outside oversight or critical review of the school.


School of the Americas:
No provision in the original congressional authorization

In recent years, Appropriations Committees have required report on school and “general assessment” of graduates

Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation:

Within 60 days of meeting the BOV must submit to the Secretary of Defense a “written report of its action and of its views and recommendations pertaining” the new school.

By March 15 the Secretary of Defense must submit a report on the “activities of the Institute during the preceding year” to Congress U.S. Code Title 10, Section 2166

Concerns and Comparisons of Annual Report: While the SOA authorization did not mandate an annual report, in practice, the SOA has been required recently to make a report to the Foreign Operations Committee. The new provision simply codifies the current practice, but weakens even the minimal reporting requirements that have stood for the last few years.

The Annual Report – unlike the SOA Certification Report – does not require even the minimal tracking or monitoring of recent graduates that was called for in the SOA Certification Report. The proposed Annual Report is not an analysis, critique, assessment, evaluation, appraisal or examination with recommendations from an outside, independent source. It is simply “a report” of the “activities” of the school.


Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation:

Secretary of Defense ensures that the Secretary of the Army provides for transition from SOA into new school. The proposal calls for the repeal of original congressional authorization of the School of the Americas.

Questions and Recommendation: By repealing the original congressional authorization for the SOA, the bill closes the School of the Americas on paper. Inexplicably, however, it does so with no word of analysis. Why close a school that is without fault? Why open another that is, for all intents and purposes, identical except for name?

The DOD proposal to close the SOA and replace it with an SOA clone skipped over one vital step: Evaluation of the SOA model upon which it is based. The opening of the new school is not grounded in any critical assessment of the training, procedures, performance, or results (consequences) of the training program it copies. Further, it ignores congressional concern and public outcry over the SOA’s past and present link to human rights atrocities.

At the very least, a thorough independent investigation and report on the SOA are warranted before Congress can adequately consider the merits of any new proposal for an SOA-like training facility. A rigorous outside investigation of charges against the SOA is a reasonable approach to resolve the controversy over the School of the Americas or its replacement. The new school is substantially the same as the SOA it purports to replace. The issues raised by critics of the SOA are not addressed by the recently enacted changes. As the United States is pouring money, military hardware and military training into Colombia and SOA human rights abusers continue to operate with impunity in Colombia, Guatemala and elsewhere, these issues remain as crucial and immediate as ever.


Greetings friends from COHA, I was delighted to see in my inbox the first part of the title of the recent COHA article(“the Spirited Campaign against the SOA/WHINSEC……..). And so, I immediately opened it with enthusiasm. I asumed that, since your office is right between Dupont Circle and the White House, you might have opened your window 2 weeks ago and seen the spirited march passing by, calling for the close of SOA. I assumed that you had also seen the huge puppets marching with spirited toddlers, trumpeters, octogenarians, nuns and political refugess along with other spirited participants from California and Canada, Florida and Michigan, Mexico and Argentina, calling for the close of the SOA.. Or that maybe that abundance of spirit had motivated you had to join the parade yourself, so that you joined them in arriving at the White House where a spirited theatrical performance drew in hords of tourists. And that that maybe you were moved by the bold spirit of many young people, such as my daughter Maia, as they chose to participate in the die-in at the White House, knowing that arrest awaited them.

I wonder if you asked Maia if she agrees with your author’s statement that the SOA is “a rather irrelevant institution”. She was 14 years old when SOA graduates overthrew her president, someone she knew to be the champion of the poor communities where we lived in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Or if you had asked Gerardo Torres of Honduras, who marched with Maia, if he thought of SOA/WHINSEC as irrelevant. It’s less than 2 years since their graduates removed his president, and along with that, the ideal of birthing a new and hopeful moment for his country.

Over the past 4 years I have visited 18 countries with Fr. Roy Bourgeois, on the live trail of the SOA. There is no room in this email to share the enormous trail of tears that we have heard on that journey. There are literally no words to come any where near to expressing it, even if I were Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau or Isabel Allende. Never could I find the words.

But, I will mention that, to put it mildly, to Latin Americans, from the Rio Grande to Patagonia, the SOA/WHINSEC is not a “rather irrelevant institution”. It is a source of tremendous evil both past, and present. This is also what we heard when representatives from 19 countries of the Americas gathered a few months ago for the SOAW South-North Encuentro, to look at ways to work together to close this school.

I will also mention that in my journeys I have sat down with many SOA graduates, some of them quite well known. One, the former Venezuelan Defense Minister General Raul Baduel, asked to meet with Fr. Roy and I when he knew that we heading to Argentina to ask (successfully) that they withdraw from the SOA. What he told us was this: It’s not what they teach at the SOA, it’s the fact that once you go, you are a members of the Boy’s Club. When they need something accomplished, they will call on you” .A year or so after that conversation, it seems that he received a tap on his own shoulders.

Another thing we learned, from one of the presidents we visited, who took it upon himself to look into how the SOA decides whom to invite. In most countries, they insist upon choosing the invitees, and that these invitees are the most promising and rising stars in their military fields. Many do go on to be leaders, and their loyalty to their alma mater is often very evident.

So, back to the march. It is definitely a shame that you didn’t see us go by since you would have realized that we actually are heeding the second part of your sugggestion (part 1 seems to be that we stop wasting time on such an irrelevant institution, but part 2 calls us to look at the larger issue of US militarization in Latin America.) That’s exactly what the march are previous conference focused on. I wish that you had been at the conference,as there was so much to learn first hand about this, with workshops led by activists from Honduras, Haiti, Venezuela, Mexico, Costa Rica and other places.

So, join the spirit and sign up for the SOAW list serve and better yet, order a box of PRESENTES to distribute. It will help you have a lot more spirit (and information) when writing about Latin America. Seriously folks, you have only done a disservice to your otherwise quite insightful and informative analyses.


When COHA talks about “WHINSEC’s relative circular transparency,” it seems like an omission to not mention that in July 2010, the Obama Administration made a decision to cement the secrecy around the SOA/ WHINSEC program and deny human rights organizations like SOA Watch access to who trains and teaches at the school.

SOA Watch compiled the names, course, rank, country of origin, and dates attended for every soldier and instructor at the SOA/ WHINSEC from 1946 to 2003. After researchers exposed several cases of known human rights abusers attending the WHINSEC (despite claims that the “new” school was committed to human rights), and shared this research with Congressional decision-makers, the Department of Defense (DOD) under Gates refused to disclose any future information about who was training and teaching at the WHINSEC.

The human rights community and the U.S. Congress did not agree with the decision. In 2008 and again in 2009, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill demanding that the DOD release this information to the public. Last year, this measure was signed into law by President Obama, However, SOA/ WHINSEC supporters in Congress managed to slip in the caveat that Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense could issue a waiver to ignore the public’s right to know and refuse to release the information, if he “determines it to be in the national interest.”

Predictably, Obama’s Secretary of Defense used the waiver to deny human rights organizations and the public access to any more information.

Reports that look at the effects of U.S. military training are essential resources for Congress and Administration officials making decisions about foreign military training. Despite the value of transparency, openness, and the public’s right to know, the Obama Administration made a clear decision to value secrecy instead, and to prevent further exposure of the negative impact the SOA/ WHINSEC has in Colombia and the rest of Latin America.

SOA Watch is appealing the denial of our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and is working on a campaign to call attention to the continued human rights abuses associated with the SOA/ WHINSEC and demand that transparency be restored.