Transparency Debated in Congress; WHINSEC (Ex-School of the Americas) Continues to Spark Criticism

• Passage of House legislation concerning WHINSEC.

• School of the Americas (SOA) legacy continued.

• Department of Defense upholds contradictory policy.

• US Foreign Policy in Latin America misguided and ineffective.

• A demand for transparency and change.

The McGovern/Sestak/Bishop Amendment
The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), successor to the Pentagon’s notorious School of the Americas (SOA), has once again drawn attention following recent legislation fueled by ongoing opposition to the school’s historically controversial role. On May 22, 2008, the US House of Representatives voted to approve the McGovern/Sestak/Bishop Amendment, which will require the Defense Secretary to release the names, ranks, and countries of origin of all graduates of and instructors at the school upon request. If authorized, WHINSEC will be required to release the aforementioned information from 2005-2008 and all years thereafter.

Passage of the amendment was a landmark victory for the social activists and congressmen who have relentlessly fought WHINSEC’s chronic lack of transparency. Representative James McGovern (D-MA) recently told COHA, “I’m very pleased that a majority of my colleagues voted for transparency and accountability. There is simply no reason why the Pentagon should continue to black out the names of WHINSEC attendees. I will be working hard as this process moves along to make the McGovern/Bishop/Sestak amendment the law of the land.” This amendment has already progressed further than its failed predecessors.

Past Legislation in Opposition to WHINSEC
McGovern first introduced an act on May 10, 2001, entitled the Latin American Military Review Act, which proposed WHINSEC’s closure and the creation of a congressional task force to investigate the nature of the education and training that has been conducted at the school. The bill failed to progress beyond even its preliminary stages, and reintroductions of the bill in March 2003 and 2005 met a similar fate.

McGovern reintroduced the WHINSEC issue through an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act to halt funding of the school. Though the amendment failed by a vote of 218-188, it led to the first debate in Congress regarding WHINSEC since 2001 and provided an opportunity for McGovern and other representatives to cite multiple reports of human rights violations perpetrated by both SOA graduates as well as some of its current students. In August 2006, shortly after the Congressional discussion of the aforementioned violations, the names of and information about WHINSEC students, instructors and graduates were suddenly classified by the Department of Defense. This was a surprising development considering the very same information had been available to the public upon request for more than 40 years.

The following year, a congressional debate regarding WHINSEC funding revealed that a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by a human rights group monitoring WHINSEC – School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch) – had yielded a blacked out list of the names of attendees for 2005. Students, politicians, and various other human rights organizations both in the United States and throughout Latin America joined in opposition to WHINSEC’s secretive practices and the deplorable record of SOA alumni.

A Brief History of the SOA/WHINSEC
In 1946, the School of the Americas was established in Panama by the United States Army for the purpose of training Latin American military personnel in combat tactics and strategy. The expiration of the Panama Canal Treaty in 1984 terminated the basis for continuing presence of US military in Panama and forced the SOA to move to its current location in Fort Benning, Georgia. The SOA trained over 63,000 soldiers from some 22 nations. For decades revelations regarding its alumni established that literally hundreds of former students and graduates had been connected with human rights abuses throughout Latin America. The school had invoked persistent criticism for its training tactics and its failure to adhere to its stated mission.

The School of the Americas came under even more heightened scrutiny after Salvadoran SOA graduates methodically killed six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America in El Salvador in 1989. This killing involved 26 perpetrators, 19 of whom were SOA graduates. Joining them on the roster of pathological students are Panamanian dictators Manuel Noriega, and Omar Torrijos, as well as, the military personnel responsible for the brutal assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the culprits of the Mozote massacre in El Salvador. SOA alumni have also been linked to the murder of four US churchwomen in El Salvador, in addition to the gunning down of union leaders, journalists, priests, students and professors across Central and South America and the Caribbean. The numerous examples of the group’s atrocities are the very reason its critics have worked tirelessly to close its doors permanently.

What’s in a name?
Demands against the institution to change its practices or to close its doors have been mounting annually. In 1996, public pressure forced the Pentagon to release training manuals used at the school, which revealed that tactics such as execution, torture, and blackmail were part of the SOA’s curriculum. In 2001, just as legislation proposed by the opposition movement was posed to win congressional approval, the Pentagon salvaged the school by way of a cosmetic name change approved by the Defense Authorization Bill. The School of the Americas’ closure coincided with the launching of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which occupies the same buildings used by the SOA, uses more of the same personnel, and only differs in name, not mission.

The Department of Defense claims that the School of the Americas closed because it had fulfilled its Cold War-era purpose. To justify the opening of WHINSEC the Department of Defense cited the need for an institute to foster democracy throughout the hemisphere. WHINSEC asserts its mission as being, “To provide professional education and training to eligible personnel of nations of the Western Hemisphere within the context of the democratic principles set forth in the charter of the Organization of American States [OAS].” Its critics cannot swallow this explanation and insist that name-change and new ideological goals mask the simple fact that the SOA’s legacy lives on.

Among its clauses, the OAS charter claims that its members must work to promote representative democracy with due respect for the principle of non-intervention, as well as the promotion and protection of human rights as a prerequisite for the existence of a democratic society. The charter also asserts that the promotion of democracy, peace and development are inseparable parts of a renewed and integral vision of solidarity in the Americas. Finally, WHINSEC’s mission states that it aims to foster mutual knowledge, transparency, confidence and cooperation among the participating nations as well as to promote democratic values and respect for human rights. These principles, however, are categorically inconsistent with a number of basic WHINSEC practices as viewed by its critics.

In WHINSEC’s Defense
WHINSEC reminds its critics that it offers classes in peacekeeping and human rights, with a mandatory eight-hour instruction on human rights, the rule of law, due process, civilian control of the military, and the role of the military in a democratic society. Similar classes were also included in the SOA curriculum after news of the torture memos broke, but were habitually poorly attended. When WHINSEC replaced the SOA, its sponsors pointed out that the new school would put less emphasis on military training and more on leadership development and peace support. The SOA also claimed to place emphasis on leadership training, but issues of importance to civil society were always sacrificial to skill training, tactics, and coat of arms. WHINSEC, like the SOA, uses academic material aimed at advancing a military education so as to achieve its goals of democracy and peace building.

WHINSEC defends its transparency by citing its Board of Visitors (BOV), a group intended to oversee the quality of teaching at the school that is similar to the SOA’s board of overseers. The BOV at WHINSEC is comprised of fourteen members, six of whom are handpicked by the Secretary of Defense, with the remainder coming from the Senate and House Armed Service Committee, the State Department, and other military appendages. The BOV reports on the practices of the institute and its relevance to US foreign policy, but is limited in its capacity to engage in critical analysis of the school’s overall performance. Therefore, there is little assurance that the BOV will provide the kind of scrutiny that the SOA board failed to provide.

The Department of Defense’s Inconsistencies Revealed
WHINSEC faithfully mirrors the SOA in form and philosophy, as well as in its insistence that it is capable of meeting its self proclaimed goals. If the SOA was deemed outdated, nonresponsive and unnecessary by its critics, what purpose will the nearly identical WHINSEC serve? The same failure of the SOA to claim responsibility for the results of its teaching is manifested in WHINSEC’s shortcomings. There is no procedure in place to analyze the actions of the alumni and how their behavior might reflect the quality of education they received from either the SOA or WHINSEC. Due to the lack of a systematic tracking method, WHINSEC claims that they are not responsible for the human rights abuses that former students have committed. Yet they have boasted, “The vast majority [of students] contributed positively to the region’s transition to democracy,” even though they have made no effort to evaluate the conduct of their graduates in normative terms. If, as they claim, the Department of Defense does not oblige the school to track former students, how can they ensure that these students contribute positively to the region? In fact, the defense that the Pentagon offers in this respect is purely anecdotal, if not a total invention.

At the same time, the US government prides itself on conducting a thorough background check of all incoming students to ensure that, “if there is any hint of wrongdoing in the student’s past, the student is not permitted into the United States to attend WHINSEC.” If students come to WHINSEC with a clean past, as suggested, yet commit human rights abuses after they leave, perhaps the screening process is flawed or the school has had some influence on the graduates’ actions.

Until August 2006, independent groups such as the SOA Watch had been tracking the institute’s former students. However, when WHINSEC began blocking the names of its students and instructors, this task became nearly impossible. Thus, to carry out the proposed Congressional legislation mandating openness would be an important step in the direction of holding members of the SOA/WHINSEC community accountable for the manner in which their graduates apply what they learned in the classroom.

Contradiction and Misrepresentation by the Department of Defense
The Department of Defense’s classification of WHINSEC files in 2006 and failure to adhere to FOIA requests coming from the public, demonstrates how transparency is far from being a constant with the Pentagon. Where does the US military stand on the subject, since transparency fluctuates at the convenience of the authorities? A prime example of the contradictions between goals and tactics in achieving its foreign policy ends can be seen in the treatment of Luís Posada Carriles, a notorious SOA student. Today, Posada walks the streets of Miami a free man, though he previously admitted he was the mastermind behind the bombing of a Cuban passenger jet in 1976, which killed 73 people. The US government is fully aware that Posada is charged with terrorism in Venezuela, but he has been allowed to find de facto sanctuary in the US.

Further evidence of a policy based on convenience rather than principles is the Department of Defense’s inability to provide a concrete reason for its decision to classify school files, which had never appeared to be a problem before, over four previous decades. What happened in the past three years that left WHINSEC feeling it has something to hide? Why now? The long list of human rights abuses at the hands of SOA graduates could make WHINSEC’s sudden need for confidentiality readily understandable.

In recent years, there has been a substantial Latin American backlash against the school that is supposedly committed to aiding society and promoting cooperation. Since January 2004, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez became the first regional leader to withdraw his country’s military personnel from WHINSEC participation, four more Latin American countries have reported their intent to withdraw from the school. Over the past two years, leaders from Uruguay, Argentina, Costa Rica, and Bolivia have all declared their withdrawal from the school due to related human rights issues, including torture and social repression and WHINSEC’s negative image in the region.

A Misguided Approach to Foreign Policy in Latin America
Growing opposition to WHINSEC both in the US and in Latin America demonstrates the flawed nature of its inclusion in US foreign policy. The failure of past US initiatives in Latin America should have been a warning to government officials against employing the armed forces to “promote democracy.” Both direct and indirect US support for military intervention in Latin America on national security grounds, from the 1970’s to the 1990’s, including those in Chile, Brazil, Guatemala, Argentina, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, should exhibit the danger of using military devices to support democracy. Military movements in all these countries employed the calculated use of intimidation resulting in the repression of their citizens’ freedoms, completely contradicting the democratic values professed by the United States. Promoting democracy by means of militarism in Latin America usually is not a successful strategy and carries with it a large potential for negative consequences. Why does the United States continue linking itself so aggressively to the Latin American military if the past is filled with disturbing evidence of this baleful approach?

The actions of the Department of Defense with respect to WHINSEC demonstrate that the school’s true goal is not what is advocated in the mission statement, but is instead to act as a vehicle for the Bush administration to project its conservative values and covertly oppose leftist governments and regional bodies. Professor Lesley Gill, author of School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas, observes that WHINSEC is a “central tool in the construction of US hemispheric dominance.” The aim of US foreign policy as embodied by WHINSEC, is to provide a source of influence and stabilization of the Latin American region, in sharp contrast to the supposed aims stated in its motto, “Libertad, Paz y Fraternidad” (Freedom, Peace, and Brotherhood).

A Call for Responsibility
With the McGovern/Sestak/Bishop Amendment moving towards deliberation at a joint House-Senate conference committee and the March 2007 Latin America Military Training Review Act still in committee, WHINSEC promises to remain under scrutiny from Congress and regional activists. The mounting pressure against WHINSEC and its contradictory practices could very well persuade the Department of Defense to either more clearly define WHINSEC’s goals and missions, or realize that a new policy is needed. A new policy should encourage constructive engagement between the north and the south and would probably benefit from the absence of an institution that has such a troubled history.

For more information regarding SOA and WHINSEC see COHA’s past articles:
WHINSEC Remains Open…
School of Americas – A Black Eye to Democracy
Torture is Un-American – The SOA and Its Devastating Legacy