Shuck and Jive

Monday, December 17, 2007

Searching for Truth About School of Americas

A couple of days ago I posted, Have You Been to Jail for Justice? regarding the protest at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA).

In response to that posting, the public affairs officer, Lee A. Rials, responded in the comments section. I thought it important to give him an opportunity to respond and for the rest of us to ask some questions, if he is willing.

As this discussion raises emotions I request that we be cool. We don't want to bear false witness. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask hard questions. We should seek the facts. This is Mr. Rials' response:

For all you good Presbyterians who are willing to bear false witness against your fellow man--do a little serious research and put a little bit of truth in this discussion. SOAWatch is a fraud on all you who seek peace and justice, because its basic premise is false. There is not one example, from SOAW or anywhere else, of anyone using what he learned at the School of the Americas to commit any crime--not a single one! To say so is a moral libel of the Soldiers who taught there.

Think about it; the whole argument of SOAW is that any association with the SOA is proof of a connection to wrongdoing. The Army gave SOAW the entire list of students who attended SOA until it closed in 2000. Look at that list. You will see people who took one or two courses, most six weeks or less. Less than one percent of those people are accused of any crime, less than half that are accused of human rights crimes, and none are charged with a crime related to their studies.

The most absurd example? Leopoldo Galtieri was a 23-year-old lieutenant in 1949 when he took a 12-week course in engineer operations. Would someone like to link that to his part in the military junta 32 years later? Get real.

The protests go on quite legally in Columbus, GA. Those who trespass onto Ft. Benning are being cynically used by SOAW for publicity. That is the only result of their trespass, other than a certain federal conviction on their records.

I am the public affairs officer for WHINSEC, which replaced the SOA when it was closed seven years ago. Pres. Clinton signed the law that closed the one and created the other. I invite anyone to come see what we do. You don't have to stand at the gates of Ft. Benning. Show a photo ID and drive to our door. Sit in a class, talk with students and faculty, review our instructional materials. I'll introduce you to our chaplain, who happens to be endorsed by PC(USA).
Sincerely, Lee A. Rials

Here is the website for WHINSEC

School of Americas Watch SOAW

Here is the article I cited from the Presbyterian News Service

Here are a number of articles on the Witherspoon Society website including one by Doug King who attended the demonstration and visited the site to learn about the program.

Mr. Rials writes the following: "There is not one example, from SOAW or anywhere else, of anyone using what he learned at the School of the Americas to commit any crime--not a single one! To say so is a moral libel of the Soldiers who taught there."

Well, folks. Is Mr. Rials correct? If so, what is the reason to close this school?


  1. I could be wrong, but I think the SOA came to a lot of people's attention as a result of the US government's support of the death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s, which committed horrible atrocities. The United Nations issued a Truth Commission report in 1993 about El Salvador that found that SOA graduates played a numerically significant role in many of those atrocities: the El Mozote massacre, the murders of US nuns, and the assassination of Archbishop Romero, for example. Of course, the real problem is that the US government fully supported El Salvador's government back then, which was intimately tied to the death squads. (Remember when the Salvadoran political leader, Roberto D'Abuisson, was called a "pathological killer" by a former US Ambassador?)

    I think that, because so many terrorist atrocities had so much involvement from SOA graduates, the SOA became a kind of flash point that symbolized a morally bankrupt foreign policy . Renaming the SOA was a rather meaningless gesture designed to assuage concerns. It was just a case of re-branding. It seems to me that what the US really needs to do is officially acknowledge, apologize for, and atone for for the crimes against humanity that the government provided support for in Latin America during the 1980s.

  2. Thanks Seeker,

    Yes, the school is the extension of America's foreign policy.

    In regards to the statement by Mr. Rials, it depends upon what is called a crime. Is the murder of nuns a crime? What is the definition of torture? What is the relationship between the SOA graduates and these atrocities that Seeker mentioned?

    Has the SOA been able to track the activities of all of its students?

    I am not convinced that having a PCUSA chaplain at SOA is going to make it more holy.


    A few links you might find interesting. Though SOAW seems to be the foremost authority.

    Just to mention,

    When the House had to opportunity to cut funding for South American military personnel to train at SOA, many Democrats tried to stop the funding. They came up a few votes short.
    Here's two pigs with familiar names that joined pro-torture Republicans in funding these "exchange students"....



    Terrorists training camps in the middle east? We have our very own.

  4. I appreciate the nice way you have posed this as a question, and I probably should not be commenting again so soon, but I just want to point to some sources of information. The '93 UN Truth Commission Report is on the web; you may have to use the term 'Equipo Nizkor' to find it. It does not address anyone's background; it does not address the SOA. The linkage to the school of those who were involved with crimes was done by SOAWatch and others, again with no analysis of their roles in the crime, the dates of their courses, or the subject matter of the courses. As to calling this place 'holy,' nothing is further from my mind. What I want to emphasize that the institute is a part of the Dept of Defense, subject to the same laws and values of any US institution. Anyone can visit at any time; Rick Ufford-Chase found this out in 2006, when he came in for a short visit. My contention, and I hope to support it with your own investigation, is that SOAWatch and others created the myth that the school had some role in the crimes of individuals who had attended at some time. That myth became 'truth' because no one early on challenged that construct. Thankfully, when the WHINSEC opened, a decision was made to aggressively inform the public about it. That's why I like to respond to blogs such as this. I'm not asking you to believe me, just do your own research. Now I'll butt out again and let the discussion flow.

  5. I believe that Mr. Rial's argument about finding one person who has committed a crime is a bit of a strawman. He was vague in his comments, but I think he is saying that not one US Soldier has committed a crime. However, since the CIA used the SOA throughout the 80s as a training ground for Contras and Salvadoran Death Squads, who would then go and do the dirty work on their own populations, he may be technically correct. He may also not know everything.

    I have seen the training manuals that were used by the CIA to train Salvadoran soldiers. I have spoken with Rene Hurtado, who was trained by the CIA at SOA and who did commit crimes against his fellow Salvadorans. I sat on the board of the Central American Resource Center with the brother of a priest who was "disappeared" by Honduran death squads, some of whom also receieved training at SOA. The CIA can stay clean because others are happy to do the nasty stuff - especially when the US funding pipeline is in full production, as it was in the 1980s. As Mr. Reagan once said when Congress threatened to cut off funding for the Contras (paraphrasing), "We have enough money and arms in the pipeline to keep them funded for at least 6 months, until the new congress takes over and gives us what we want."

    Just as our government is willing to turn a blind eye to allow for things like extraordinary renditions and waterboarding, arms sales mediated through Nazi war criminals (Klaus Barbi) as well as maintaining Guantanamo Bay, they are also able and have shown a willingness to push well past the bounds of ethics to keep their friends in control - until it is comvenient for them to switch friends. (The US has no BFFs, unless it be Saudi Arabia.) Maybe the new and improved SOA is not as bad as the old one, but honesly, Mr. Rial, with this administration, how can we possibly assume anything but the worst?

  6. The '93 UN Truth Commission Report is on the web; you may have to use the term 'Equipo Nizkor' to find it. It does not address anyone's background; it does not address the SOA.

    True, but irrelevant. The UN report identified individuals who committed major atrocities in El Salvador. People who read that report then did further research on those named individuals discovered that a huge percentage of them were graduates of the SOA.

    If a majority of people who were involved in the assassination of Archbishop Romero, a majority of the people who murdered US nuns, and a majority of the people who engineered the El Mozote massacre were all graduates of the SOA--then a question has to be asked: what kind of training is the US doing when it sends its students back home where they then commit some of the most notorious atrocities of that decade? And then we have to add on top of that the fact that those atrocities were committed by death squads that were intimately involved with a government and military apparatus that had the full support of the US Government.

    Thus we see the basic problem. The US government supported a government in El Salvador that was intimately involved in death squad activity that perpetrated atrocities. The US trained individuals in the SOA who played leading roles in atrocities that were carried out in order to promote the policies of that same government in El Salvador.

    The SOA was thus one part of what was a total moral failure of US foreign policy.

  7. The Fort Benning web filters won't allow blogs, so I have to do this at home. I'm not sure why, because here is my third offering, and all I get is semantic games and debate points. For example, Rev. Shuck wants to talk about the definition of crime. I offered him any definition he chose, because I said that of the crimes committed by people who had attended the SOA at some point, not one could be attributed to that attendance. And for 'snad,' what could be clearer than that? Don't go off on all other aspects of US foreign policy, because that is what is irrelevant. 'Mystical seeker' mentioned Roberto D'Aubisson, an undoubtedly bad person, primarily responsible for the planning of Archbishop Romero's murder. But what did a course for Communications Officers eight years earlier have to do with that murder? Do you suppose learning how to use military radios and telephones leads to murder? Of the six people directly involved in killing Archbishop Romero, one other had attended a cadet course at the school 13 years earlier. Do you suppose that four-week course formed his values? I stand by my statement and ask, why do you let this fraudulent 'movement' waste your time and effort? There is not a scintilla of evidence that anyone was taught anything illegal, immoral or unethical at the school. If you have such evidence, bring it forward. Otherwise, you are simply libeling the people who taught there. Furthermore, if you refuse to examine the institute that is here now, how can you make affirmative statements on what it is doing? And you can examine it, any time you like. I don't mind discussions, but I don't appreciate dishonesty and disingenuity.

  8. Mr. Rials,

    You don't mean that the bloggers here are displaying dishonesty or disingenuity, are you? Neither do I think you are. I am pleased that you are engaging with us.

    What I understand you to be saying is that it is not the school's responsibility for what individuals do with the training they received at SOA.

    They may have done (and may continue to do) bad things but it isn't SOA's fault for teaching them how to use the radio.

    The soldiers who are teaching these courses are simply doing their jobs, as are you.

    That is a legitimate philosophical question however it is answered. Does SOA bear some responsibility for the activities of those who received its training, even if the training was limited?

    I am pleased that SOA (now WHINSEC) is becoming more transparent and open to the public about its training and purpose.

    In fact, a colleague of mine, Doug King, reported on that seminar here.
    (Scroll down to the second article).

    Another thing I hear you saying is that the old SOA is not different from WHINSEC except in regards to public relations.

    From Doug King's observations of the seminar at Fort Benning, he seemed to suggest that the panelists took great pains to say the new WHINSEC is much different from the old SOA. He wrote:

    "Along with scores of others, I waited in line for a couple hours at one of the gates of the base, to visit the WHINSEC building. Our wait was rewarded by a chance to hear a panel of military and civilian staff members tell us about their current program. They underlined repeatedly how very different the current school is from the old "School of the Assassins," from which graduated so many Latin American military officers who perpetrated a variety of abuses on their return to their home countries.

    After brief introductory statements from the panel members, the first audience question came from U.S. Representative James McGovern, Democrat from Massachusetts. He acknowledged the claims by the panelists that WHINSEC offers a very different program from the old SOA program, and so is not doing any training of military personnel to engage in torture, intimidation and the like. How can that be believed, he asked, when the new Institute does not make public the names of its trainees, so no one can observe their actions when they return home? He indicated that numerous human rights groups and others have tried to track the WHINSEC graduates, but without some degree of transparency on the part of the Institute, that is almost impossible. 'How do you measure success [in making these changes] when you can't track your 'product'?'"

    My two questions then are these:

    1) Does WHINSEC bear some responsibility for what its students do with the training they receive?

    2) Is WHINSEC different from the old SOA besides having a chaplain and a publicity department? Specifically, is the content or the goal of the training different?

    I have some other questions as well as follow-up questions to these, but that is good for now.

    Thanks for taking your time to converse with us.

  9. Like I said: strawman.

    Thanks for your time on this topic, John.

  10. Dear Mr. Rials,

    I too have a question or two, if you are in the mood.

    I believe you regarding the specific details of what you say. I grew up in one of those Latin countries and I am pretty sure their military had a mind of its own and did not rely on their American education to cook up their own crimes.

    But you are missing the point I think.

    Providing military aid to these countries was a case of aiding and abetting. That aid was material, intellectual and psychological. They had no doubt in their minds that the American people approved of their actions. The kids Pinochet shot in his football stadium, he shot with American guns, and American bullets. The soldiers were wearing uniforms that duplicated American uniforms, from their helmets to their boots. And the helicopters the Argentineans used to toss college kids out on the Bacia de la Plata were American Hues. When people watched those troops stomping on the necks of unarmed civilians, they saw essentially American troops with different flags on their shoulders.

    Did American soldiers do this? Of course not. Did American soldiers tell them to do this? Of course not. Even teach them? I really doubt that too. But did we do anything to discourage these allies of ours from using American taxpayer money and support to commit these crimes against their own people? Again the answer is no.

    The Brazilians have a saying that “Quem cala consente”. What that means to them is that our silence means consent.

    So the real issue is that unless the training America gives explicitly forbids the recipient nations from using military might against their own civilians, forbids the creation of paramilitary forces that operate outside the law, forbids death squads, torture, and human rights violations, then the presumption is that it endorses these actions.

    And now they have live images to prove it. Half of our politicians don’t even have the courage to label water-boarding as torture.

    The people of these nations hold the American people accountable for what their own military did to them because our military aided and abetted their military.

    That in a nutshell is the issue on the table. Just because the people who bring it to our attention may or may not have additional agendas does not mean they are wrong. I do not share those agendas, but neither do I think we should have remained silent when Pinochet charged the mothers of the kids he killed a ransom for their bodies based on the number of bullets holes they had.

    (After all we had already paid for those bullets.)

    There are widows and orphans and mothers out there to whom we owe a deep apology. How do you suggest we do that? Is WHINSEC silent on these matters? If silence is our only guilt, then how do we atone for our silence?

    With respect, and I really do mean that,


  11. Dear Jodie,

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your comments, but I don't think we as a nation can separate ourselves from the world just because some of our past policies have been bad. Has anyone here looked at our course list to see what sort of education and training we are sharing with our neighbors? And I do mean sharing, because not only is our student population from all over the hemisphere, our faculty is always one-third to two-fifths foreign guest instructors. Our courses help those who are already professional military or law enforcement do their jobs better. And 10 percent of the content of every course is devoted to democracy, ethics, and human rights training. This is not about giving people weapons--these representatives of democratic countries already have the weapons. Don't you think it worthwhile to emphasize the appropriate use of those weapons? Most of our courses are not addressing the use of weapons anyway. We offer a Peace Operations Course that teaches how to operate in a UN Peacekeeping mission. Is it coincidence that Latin American and Caribbean nations have more than 6500 Soldiers and Police in 14 of the 15 UN missions now going on? Again, look at our course list and see what you object to. No one is trying to close the SOA of 25 years ago; people are trying to close WHINSEC now--I think they should be able to articulate what they object to now. Sincerely, Lee

  12. I see, in my focus on Jodie's note, that I missed a couple just above it. For Rev. Shuck, what I am trying to say is that there is no indication from anywhere that anyone who committed crimes after attending the school did so using what he learned there. If you teach someone Math, and he fails his English test, do you feel responsible for that failure? If military training were required for people to commit crimes, we wouldn't have to worry about street crime, would we? Anyway, the Soldiers are doing their jobs, teaching legal, moral and ethical instruction. Why would you blame them if that person later commits a crime totally unrelated to what they taught? We are responsible for our own acts, and trying to place that blame elsewhere with no evidence is wrong. You could certainly make the argument (answer to question #1, finally) that instructors bear responsibility for what is done with what they teach. The question is, do you have any evidence at all that they taught anything that led to wrongdoing? As for question #2, I'll overlook the facetious nature and say that the two major differences are the law; the US Congress and Pres. Clinton closed the school and created the institute in law; and relevance--the institute offers courses that address the needs of our own and our neighboring countries. If we didn't, students wouldn't come, and we operate at near capacity every year. I do have to challenge the claim that transparency depends on knowing the names of the students who come here. I've told you we are open, and you can visit. You can stay for a month, as one doctoral candidate did, and examine everything we do. That is true transparency--nothing we do is hidden. The offensive nature of saying you will determine our value by seeing how students do later is that this pre-supposes that we are teaching something illegal, immoral, and unethical. I think a serious researcher would rather look at the teaching to make that determination than wait to see if anyone later commits a crime. Oh well, you all have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and come down after the first of the year, when several courses will be in session at the same time; you can see the variety of those courses. Sincerely, Lee