US 'military school of torture' will operate despite citizens' concerns - expert
Mr Voss, can you tell us a little bit more about this School of the Americas program that began back in 1946? What was the impetus for even starting it?
Hendrik Voss: The School of the Americas started in 1946 in Panama. Originally, it was founded as a jungle warfare school for US soldiers. But then, pretty quickly it became a school where the US was training Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics. One of the big lessons for the US out of the Vietnam war was that if the US soldiers are coming back in body bags – this is a big PR disaster for the US military. So, what the Pentagon has been doing with the School of the Americas was that they were training Latin American soldiers to do the dirty work for the Pentagon in Latin America.
They had used torture manuals in their training for at least ten years. Those manuals were talking about execution, had different torture techniques in it and they also talked about the enemy targets against who those manuals should be used. In those enemy targets were listed people who do union organizing or recruiting, people who speak out against the government, people who say that the government has failed to meet the basic needs of the people. So, it is a very clear cut about what the school is there for.
Dr. Williams, you heard Hendrik talk about panama, but there’s been a lot of places where there’ve been atrocities in Latin America – in Argentina, in Peru, Guatemala. How much the School of the Americas has been a part of that?
Philip Williams: It was based in Panama and that was partly for convenience reasons. It served as a regional training facility. It was logistically easy to bring military officers from various Latin American countries to train in Panama, as opposed to bringing them all to the US. During the Cold War time it was primarily used for counterinsurgency training purposes that included torture techniques, extrajudicial executions etc. All of those officers were receiving training in their own countries as well.
So, in terms of responsibility for abuses that took place during the Cold War, in fact the majority of the training was received in their home countries. But there are well-documented cases of military officers who, when they went back to their countries, were involved in significant human rights abuses. One of the best known ones was the killing of the six Jesuit priests in 1989 in El Salvador.
This fuelled a lot of the protest movements over the years. Almost every year legislation is being introduced to close this school. Now it is known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, it was renamed in 2001.
Hendrik, you have been fighting against the School of the Americas and what the training has led to for years now, and legislation has been put forward from time to time in the past, and there is a bill that is being offered now.
Hendrik Voss: In 1999 we introduced a legislation that would have defunded the school. That legislation succeeded in the House of Representatives overwhelmingly, which was a shock to the Pentagon. However, then that victory was taken away and the funding was restored.
The Pentagon really took this as a warning signal and next year, when we were poised to win another vote, the Pentagon preempted a vote and introduced legislation themselves which renamed the school into Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. But it was still the same instructors, the same location and the same mission.
At that point, a lot of the members of the House of Representatives, who had voted with us to shut down this school, were ambivalent and they mostly voted with us because of constituent pressure. Those members were saying – hey, let’s give them a chance, let’s take a look if the training has changed.
And we did take a look at the training and at the people, and they were still admitting human rights abuses. We put that together in a research report that was distributed to the members of Congress in 2004. As a response to our research the Pentagon acted by not disclosing the names of the graduates of the School of the Americas any more. Following that, we also put in legislation to get the names public again. We won that legislation twice in the House, but both times the administration found a way around it.
Now, the SA Watch has taken the US Government to court. And actually earlier this year we won the lawsuit in Northern California where the judge ruled that the Pentagon had no grounds for not disclosing the names. However, the Obama Administration is appealing this ruling as well, so that it goes up to the 9th District Court in California, which is a next higher federal court.
Another way that we are trying to shut down this school is by executive orders. We are running a campaign to pressure the White House. Specifically, we are sending letters to the Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to get the White House issue an executive order to close the school. And then, of course we also have the ongoing public education campaign in which we use direct action, media work to get attention to this issue.
After Edward Snowden, is this a time that you think Americans are questioning more what is necessary in the name of national security?
Philip Williams: I think there may be more attention, but I don’t think this is going to receive a bipartisan support. In case of the NSA, it really touched Americans directly. This case doesn’t affect Americans as directly, except for the fact that it is taxpayers’ dollars that are funding these courses. But I would like to mention that there’s been a lot of opposition in Latin America and for example the governments of Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia – they have suspended sending their officers to participate these training courses.