Sunday, July 1, 2007

Alfred McCoy and William Blum on the School of the Americas

Since a blogger calling himself gatordem, in a response to this post, has admonished me not to "stert [sic] reading books [I] can't begin to understand," I thought I'd reproduce excerpts of some of the material I have read with regards to the School of the Americas, and its implication in the gross human rights violations perpetrated in South and Central America. This of course is the same "gatordem" who also contends that the SOA/WHINSEC is "an important tool for fostering good relations with our southern neighbors."

First let's read what Alfred McCoy has written about the School of the Americas (from chapter 3: Propagating Torture in his book A Question of Torture [2006, Metropolitan Books]):
Public advocacy of human rights and official secrecy over their violations collided most notably in a long-running controversy about torture instruction at the School of the Americas, the training facility for the Latin American military that the U.S. Army had operated in Panama since 1949. As part of the U.S. withdrawal from the Canal Zone, the school moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1984, bringing the facility, for the first time, within striking distance of the U.S. peace movement. Critics, who branded this facility the "School of Assassins," pressed for its abolition throughout the 1990s by mounting an annual demonstration outside the base each November. These swelling protests were led by Catholic activists, Hollywood stars like Martin Sheen, and Washington liberals like Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II (Democrat, Massachusetts). Adding to the criticism of U.S. relations with Latin militaries, the Harvard-trained lawyer Jennifer Harbury mounted a well-publicized campaign about the disappearance of her husband, a Guatemalan activist last seen in a military jail with the marks of torture. Her quiet eloquence and long fast outside the White House reduced this complex issue to a single, comprehensible human loss.

With its mix of idealism and celebrity, the movement served as a catalyst for further disclosures about torture training. After Representative Robert Torricelli (Democrat, New Jersey) charged that Harbury's husband had been murdered by a Guatemalan colonel in the CIA's employ, President Clinton's Intelligence Oversight Board investigated, and, in June 1996, produced an inadvertently revealing report. Deep inside this fifty-three-page document, the board admitted, without any detail, that "the School of the Americas and U.S. Southern Command had used improper instruction materials in training Latin American officers, including Guatemalans, from 1982 to 1991." The training materials, the board said, had passages that condoned "executions of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion, and false imprisonment."

As both the media and the activists seized on this brief passage to file Freedom of Information lawsuits, the national security bureaucracy gradually declassified more detailed documentation. The released papers showed that the CIA's methods had spread beyond the intelligence community and been transmitted, through Army training teams, to military forces throughout Latin America. In a memo dated March 1992, the assistant secretary for intelligence oversight advised the U.S. defense secretary that a review of the department's files had found seven training manuals, all compiled during the mid-1980s, containing "material that either was not or could be interpreted not to be consistent with U.S. policy." These manuals, the assistant secretary added, "were based in part, on material dating back to the 1960s from the Army's Foreign Intelligence Assistance Program, entitled 'Project X.'" The 1992 memo indicates that the Defense Department had somehow lost control of this program, and Army trainers were operating in clear violation of military regulations. Had the CIA detached military officers from the chain of command and integrated them into a covert program with its own extralegal procedures? Significantly, the assistant defense secretary noted: "It is incredible that the use of the lesson plans since 1982, and the manuals since 1987, evaded the established system of doctrinal controls." Interviews with Army intelligence personnel who had used the manuals found they operated under the false impression that regulations on "legal and proper" interrogations "were applicable only to U.S. persons and thus did not apply to the training of foreign personnel." As a corrective, the assistant secretary's office had tried to recover all copies of the manuals from Latin American governments and recommended that, with the exception of a single file copy, the rest "should be destroyed."

The explicitness of the CIA's torture training was finally exposed to public scrutiny eight years after the Cold War's end. In January, 1997, the Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, and New York Times published extracts from the agency's Honduran handbook, the Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual - 1983, describing it as the latest edition of a thousand page manual distributed to Latin American armies for twenty years. Under the damning headline "Torture Was Taught by CIA," one press account began: "A newly declassified CIA training manual details torture methods used against suspected subversives in Central America during the 1980s, refuting claims by the Agency that no such methods were taught there."
Now let's turn to Chapter 7 ("Training New Unsavories") from William Blum's book Rogue State [published 2005, Common Courage Press]:
School of the Americas

The School of the Americas (SOA), an Army school at Fort Benning, Georgia, has been beleaguered for years by protesters because so many of its graduates have been involved in very serious human-rights abuses in Latin America, often involving torture and murder. SOA insists that it teaches its students to respect human rights and democracy. To examine this claim we must note that wars between nations in Latin America are extremely rare. The question which thus arises is: Who are these military men being trained to fight if not the army of another country? Who but their own citizens?

Over the years, SOA has trained tens of thousands of Latin American military and police in subjects such as counter-insurgency, infantry tactics, military intelligence, anti-narcotics operations, and commando operations. The students have also been taught to hate and fear something called "communism", later something called "terrorism", with little, if any, distinction made between the two, thus establishing the ideological justification to suppress their own people, to stifle dissent, to cut off at the knees anything bearing a likeness to a movement for social change which - although the military men might not think in such terms - might interfere with Washington's global agenda.

Those who have been on the receiving end of anti-communist punishment would have a difficult time recognizing themselves from this piece of philosophy from an SOA class: "Democracy and communism clash with the firm determination of the Western countries to conserve their own traditional way of life." This reads as if dissidents came from some faraway land, with alien values, and no grievances that could be comprehended as legitimate by the "Western" mind.

In September 1996, under continual insistence from religious and grassroots groups, the Pentagon released seven Spanish-language training manuals used at the SOA until 1991. A New York Times editorial declared:
Americans can now read for themselves some of the noxious lessons the United States Army taught to thousands of Latin American military and police officers at the School of the Americas during the 1980s. A training manual recently released by the Pentagon recommended interrogation techniques like torture, execution, blackmail and arresting the relatives of those being questioned.
SOA graduates have led a number of military coups - so many that the Washington Post reported in 1968 that the school was "known throughout Latin Ameica as the 'escuela de golpes' or coup school". The most recent SOA-linked coup was the 2002 short-lived overthrow of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Amongst the plotters were two SOA grads: Army Commander in Chief Efrain Vasquez and General Ramirez Poveda.

The school's alumni are also responsible for the murders of thousands of people, particularly in the 1980s, such as the Uraba massacre in Colombia; the El Mozote massacre, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the rape and murder of four US churchwomen, and the Jesuit massacre in El Salvador; the La Cantura massacre in Peru; the torture and murder of a UN worker in Chile; and hundreds of other human-rights abuses.

In the village of El Mozote, El Salvador, in December 1981, from 700 to 1,000 persons were reported killed, mostly the elderly, women and children, in extremely cruel and gruesome ways. Ten of the twelve soldiers cited for the massacre were SOA graduates. In the slaying of six Jesuit priests and two others in November 1989, the UN Truth Commission revealed that 19 of the 26 Salvadoran officers involved had been trained at the SOA.

For decades SOA grads have been involved in the chain of command of virtually every major human rights atrocity in Latin America. The School of the Americas Watch has compiled a large amount of the relevant information, which can be accessed on their website.

The SOA has always claimed that it doesn't teach its students how to torture or how to commit other human-rights abuses. When the truth was revealed by the release of training manuals, the SOA claimed that it had changed its ways. But only one of 42 courses in the 1996 course catalogue - "Democratic Sustainment" - centers on issues of democracy and human rights. In 1997, only 13 students took this course, compared with the 118 who took "Military Intelligence". The "mandatory human-rights component" of other courses comprises only a very small portion of the total course hours. Former SOA human-rights instructor Charles Call has reported that human-rights training is not taken seriously at the school, comprising an insignificant amount of students' overall training.

Access

Why, in the face of decades of terrible publicity, increasingly more militant protests and civil disobedience at the base in Georgia, thousands of arrests, and sharply decreasing Congressional support, has the Pentagon clung to the School of the Americas? What is it that's so vital to the military brass? The answer may lie in this: The school and its students along with a never-ending supply of US military equipment to countries in Latin America are part of a a package that serves the US foreign policy agenda in a special way. The package is called "access". Along with the equipment come American technicians, instructors, replacement parts, and more. Here is the testimony before Congress of General Norman Schwarzkopf, Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), in 1990.
Security assistance leads directly to access, and without access afforded by our friends we cannot project U.S. military forces into [an] area and stey there for any appreciable length of time.... [If] our military assistance programs diminish, our influence will erode and we will come to the point where we will have little or no ability to control the use of the weapons or the escalation of hostilities.... The second pillar of our strategy is presence. It is the symbol of America's continued interest in and commitment to stability in the region... The third pillar of CENTCOM's strategy is combined [military] exercises. They demonstrat our resolve and commitment to the region. They foster increased cooperation, and they enhance our ability to work with our friends in a coalition environment."
Thus it is that military aid, military exercises, Naval port visits, etc. - like the School of the Americas - means repeated opportunities to foster close ties, even camaraderie, between American officers and foreign military personnel; and, at the same time, the opportunity to build up files of information on many thousands of these foreigners, as well as acquiring language skills, maps, and photos of the area. In sum total: personal connections, personal information, country databases - indispensable assets in time of coup, counter-coup, revolution, counter-revolution, or invasion.

US military presence has, in effect, served the purpose of "casing the joint"; it also facilitates selecting candidates, not just Latin Americans for SOA, but thousands of military and police personnel from other continents who come to the US for training at scores of other military schools; the process of access replenishes itself. It is not unusual for the military-to-military contacts to thrive even while diplomatic relations between Washington and the students' government are rather cool (in the late 1990s, e.g., Algeria, Syria, and Lebanon) - another indication of the priority given to the contacts.

The military equipment sales that access leads to are highly valued as well.

The New Improved School of the Americas

When Congress came close to ending funding for the school in the fall of 1999, the Defense Department finally saw the writing on the wall. It announced that it was planning on making major changes to the school - less strictly military focus and more academic; civilian students as well as military; teaching democratic principles, etc.; changing the name to the Center for Inter-American Security Cooperation (Later changed to Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation or WHINSEC).

The question remains: Why keep the school at all? Are there not enough academic schools here and in Latin America that meet such a need? Americans don't have free university education. Why should the United States provide it for foreigners?

The answer appears to be the factor that the changes wouldn't affect - access; perhaps new, improved access, inasmuch as in addition to military students, there will be further access to present and future political and civilian leaders as students.

In any event, there will still be the numerous other military training facilities for foreigners in the US, in addition to the extensive training to the Pentagon abroad.

SOA/WHINSEC now claims that all their applicants must undergo a stringent vetting process, declaring: "Specifically, Chiefs of Missions should ensure that all nominees for training or travel grants, military or civilian, in country or in the U.S., are scrutinized for records of human rights abuses, corruption, or criminal activities that would render them ineligible or inappropriate for the U.S. training programs."

School of the Americas Watch, in Washington, DC, has questioned this. The activist group claims that the screening process for applicants to WHINSEC is mostly cosmetic. They offer the following examples:

In a well known and high profile cases, Col. Francisco del Cid Diaz was investigated by the 1992 UN-mandated El Salvador Truth Commission as having bound, beaten, and shot 16 residents from the Los Hojas cooperative of the Asociacion Nacional de Indigenas. Yet Col. del Cid Diaz attended WHINSEC in 2003.

While a captain, Filmann Urzagaste Rodriguez, was one of those responsible for the kidnap and torture of Waldo Albarracin, then the director of the Popular Assembly for Human Rights in Bolivia. The now-Major Urzagaste took a 49-week officer training course at WHINSEC in 2002.

Three Colombian police officers - Captain Dario Sierro Chapeta, Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Patino Fonseca, and Captain Luis Benavides - were under investigation for personal use of counter-narcotics funds t the same time they attended WHINSEC in 2002-03.
Blum then goes on to offer a brief description of the Office of Public Safety (OPS) schools, that "did for foreign police officers what the SOA did for the military." The OPS and its role in Latin American human rights abuses has been documented extensively in Martha Huggins' book Political Policing. Dr. Huggins also describes the role the OPS played in gaining and maintaining US access in Latin America. Blum has described the human-rights consequences of SOA and OPS training in his book Killing Hope.

A brief synopsis of the above: it should be abundantly clear that contrary to gatordem's protestations (which amount to little more than the parroting of pro-SOA talking points), the SOA/WHINSEC has not fostered good relations with our Latin American neighbors. Nothing could be further from the truth, as SOA/WHINSEC graduates have implicated themselves in many of the most notorious massacres and tortures in Central and South American history. As a means of prying open access to Latin American nations, the SOA/WHINSEC does serve a purpose, albeit that purpose is far from benign. Nor does the new "improved" SOA appear to be all that "improved."

If gatordem can provide a surreal interpretation of the works cited, I would find it entertaining, I suppose - albeit in the sense that a celebrity meltdown can be entertaining. Contra gatordem, I have ample understanding of these authors' books, and am more than happy to share what I have learned and continue to learn to those who dare to read this blog. As for gatordem: my guess is that the dude has never read any of these authors nor would he likely be motivated to do so.

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