A School for Torture
June 25, 2009 10:19 AM   Subscribe

An amendment to the Defense Authorization Act currently under consideration in congress would force the notorious School of the Americas (currently known as "WHINSEC") to "release to the public the names, ranks, countries of origin, courses taken and dates of attendance of all the students and instructors at the institute."

Originally established in Panama in 1946, and now located at Fort Benning, Georgia, the school has variously been dubbed "School of Assassins" and "The Ultimate Union Buster" by human rights watchers and labor organizations. According to the advocacy group School of Americas Watch (SOA Watch), the training center "has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics." Putting it more pointedly, SOA Watch asserts: "Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, 'disappeared,' massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins."

The school remains in operation today, under a new name, despite the lobbying efforts of organizations like SOA Watch to close the program, on the basis of human rights abuses stemming from the school's role in the so-called Argentinian Dirty War and other internal Latin American conflicts.

In the US, the School of the Americas/WHINSEC has more recently come under renewed scrutiny for its possible role in shaping interrogation policies that led to the torture of prisoners held at Abu Ghraib. In 1996, the US Defense Department acknowledged that between 1982 and 1991, the School taught torture techniques and other tactics such as blackmail, beatings and executions determined to be inconsistent with US and international standards of human rights, making the school's training manuals from that period available to the public for the first time.

[Related Previously: 1, 2]
posted by saulgoodman (28 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, yes, democracy through assassination and torture!

Doesn't it feel great to join the free world? Don't hate our freedoms!
posted by yeloson at 10:23 AM on June 25, 2009

Check it: if you do evil shit to people who are evil*, it's not really evil anymore! Doubleplus good!

(*or, at minimum, leftist)
posted by rokusan at 10:29 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

lol torture
posted by zoinks at 10:31 AM on June 25, 2009

But seriously fuck this shit.
posted by zoinks at 10:32 AM on June 25, 2009

Awesome. I hope it passes.
posted by lunit at 10:34 AM on June 25, 2009

This would be great, but I feel like these kinds of things never pass.
posted by OmieWise at 10:40 AM on June 25, 2009

We will be told prob ably that for national securuity reasons, such info can not be made public. Made public or not, it is not the same thing as closing down the place and other places like it.
Just look how things have metastisized since Ike took note of the Military/Industrial complex.
posted by Postroad at 10:41 AM on June 25, 2009

Made public or not, it is not the same thing as closing down the place and other places like it.

That's a good point. The idea seems to be that once enough people get a good look at the list of names and saw just how much blood the school's alumni had on their hands, the political support for taking serious, non-cosmetic steps toward shutting down this and similar programs would reach--or at least bring us closer to--a tipping point.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:52 AM on June 25, 2009

Failed voice vote. Try again later.
DEBATE - Pursuant to the provisions of H.Res. 572, the Committee of the Whole proceeded with 10 minutes of debate on the McGovern amendment number 4.

Amendment offered by Mr. McGovern.

An amendment numbered 4 printed in House Report 111-182 to require public disclosure of students and instructors at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

POSTPONED PROCEEDINGS - At the conclusion of debate on the McGovern amendment, the Chair put the question on adoption of the amendment and by voice vote, announced that the noes prevailed. Mr. McGovern demanded a recorded vote and the Chair postponed further proceedings on the question of adoption of the amendment until later in the legislative day.
posted by smackfu at 11:08 AM on June 25, 2009

Well, it's stalled for now, but not dead... So write your legislators (that should help, right?) if you want to see this happen.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:15 AM on June 25, 2009

Could Obama just shutter the place on his own, as commander-in-chief?
posted by Auden at 11:24 AM on June 25, 2009

Actually, I have no idea if it passed or not by voice vote. The problem is that McGovern has two amendments on this bill, one on this matter and one on an Afghanistan exit strategy, and the floor summary just says "McGovern amendment" in a few places. One passed a voice vote and a recorded vote was requested, one failed a voice vote and McGovern requested a recorded vote.
posted by smackfu at 11:37 AM on June 25, 2009

Keep Calling 1-800-473-6711
If the amendment fails, come to Fort Benning this November. Like every year there will be hundreds of folks demanding an end to this awful program.
And yes, Obama could shut it down within hours.
posted by ahimsakid at 11:48 AM on June 25, 2009

Could Obama just shutter the place on his own, as commander-in-chief?

Actually, no.

Despite what ahimsakid said (I'll assume out of ignorance rather than malice), it was congress that chartered the school's operations again under the new name WHINSEC in an act adopted in 2001.

The president does not have the legal authority to reverse laws duly adopted by congress just because he doesn't like them, though he can exert political pressure on congress (or--and this is a stretch--file suit through the DOJ if he believes the law is unconstitutional; but he'd lose that case).

That's probably why the focus from SOA Watch and other groups has been on pressuring congress to shutter the school.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:01 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

BTW, they claim to be very concerned with promoting human rights under their new charter. More about the congressional re-authorization here.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:03 PM on June 25, 2009

Can we have a MeFi meetup in Columbus, Georgia on November 21? I'll be there. Seems like a few of us will.
posted by Sfving at 12:17 PM on June 25, 2009

It sounds like the kind of place where ritual hazing would taken to a whole new level;

It would be graded.
posted by quin at 1:27 PM on June 25, 2009

Auden: "Could Obama just shutter the place on his own, as commander-in-chief?"

Well, he could order the military not to host it, or provide any instructors or other personnel to it. That's within the realm of his power as CiC. He could not un-fund it, since that was provided by Congress, so it could live on as some type of non-military Federal program. But I think that if he wanted to, yes, he could effectively kill it — without the cooperation of the U.S. military it would be dead. Just remember: every military officer serves at the pleasure of the President of the United States; period. If he really wanted to make an issue of this, he could.

I suspect that if you asked Obama's press secretary, he would claim that the President can't do anything, but it's a lie: separation of powers are quite clearly in his favor if he wanted to order the military to just stop having anything to do with it tomorrow.

The ugly reality is that SoA is not going anywhere. I fully expect this latest initiative to die quietly, later today or this week: I suspect that, behind the scenes, it's probably a bargaining chip of some sort in a bigger game; it'll get dropped when somebody gets what they want from somebody else on some other issue.

The lives of non-Americans don't count for much in U.S. politics.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:33 PM on June 25, 2009

Not to derail the conversation, but as I understand it Obama could shut down Whinsec by issuing an executive order.
In fact, it is with that goal in mind that SOA Watch has gathered thousands of signatures on a petition to do just that. Congress authorized funds, and authorized the name change, but as a function of the Dept. of Defense it falls within Obama's Commander in Chief authroity to decide how, and whether, it operates.

Y'all can still sign that petition online here.
posted by ahimsakid at 1:38 PM on June 25, 2009

1. The point of this school (and others like it) is for American military personnel to build professional and personal relationships with officers from Latin American countries. The "training" is really just an excuse for the U.S. to engage in some marketing as well as build a foundation for intelligence gathering.

2. Some officers in Latin American militaries sometimes engage in egregious, shocking, horrific and systemic abuses of human rights.

The school could be closed entirely. We could ban torture. We could even make murder and corruption illegal.

Statement 2 will still be true, and we will still have a need for Statement 1.
posted by Xoebe at 1:53 PM on June 25, 2009

Well, ahimsakid, he probably could issue an Executive Order to do roughly what Kadin2048 described, but before long, issuing all these Executive Orders that different people want him to issue is going to start verging on breaking his campaign promise not to make the kind of extraordinarily expansive use of Executive Orders Bush did. Not to mention raising congressional and DoD hackles to the point that it makes more pressing problems harder to deal with.

I suspect that if you asked Obama's press secretary, he would claim that the President can't do anything, but it's a lie:

You know, it really doesn't seem fair for any of us to speak on behalf of President Obama on this issue. Especially not if we're going to go so far as to preemptively call him a liar. As far as I know, the president hasn't issued any official statements.

Presumably, President Obama's previous Executive Order condemning torture and requiring all military operations to conform with the Geneva Conventions would apply to the current activities of the school. And the school does have new training materials that at least ostensibly de-emphasize physically coercive and abusive interrogation techniques and similar controversial tactics. Either way, the one who has direct oversight of the operation is Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Not sure whether I trust him or not.

We could ban torture.

Let's at least be clear on this point: We already have.

Whether or not there are still individuals out there who aren't in compliance with the law is a different problem. I assume the fact that murder is illegal is uncontroversial, and yet, equally controversial is the fact that murders are still being committed all over the country as we discuss this now. Is that President Obama's fault? Not from where I sit, but you're free to disagree.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:06 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

"equally controversial" --> "equally uncontroversial"
posted by saulgoodman at 2:08 PM on June 25, 2009

The point to bear in mind is that U.S. tax dollars have, for decades, supported, encouraged, and taught such behavior.

"The Pentagon itself has acknowledged that in the past the School of the Americas utilized training manuals advocating coercive interrogation techniques and extrajudicial executions. After receiving their training at the institution, officers went on to commit countless human rights atrocities in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Colombia."

You can find criminals of every ilk who graduated from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, but no one advocates closing those institutions because of the crimes of some of their graduates. If Harvard, Yale, or Princeton taught their students combat skills that to be used against non-combatant civilians, we would justifiably call for their closure. The few "bad apples" argument is not very convincing, given the weight of the evidence about the involvement of SOA graduates in human rights abuses -- two of three officers cited in the assassination of Archbishop Romero; three of five officers cited in the rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen; ten of twelve cited for the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians; over 100 of 246 cited for atrocities in Colombia. Furthermore, the full scope of atrocities committed by SOA graduates will likely never be known because members of Latin American militaries are generally above the law. It is rare that crimes by members of these militaries are investigated and rarer still when the names of those suspected are released. --SOA Watch

"We in the United States enjoy tremendous freedoms, but we also carry a special responsibility—the responsibility of being the country so many people in the world look to… for human rights leadership.” & "“The very depth of the anti-Americanism felt around the world today is a testament not to hatred but to disappointment, acute disappointment. The global public expects more from America. They expect our government to embody what they have seen in our people: industriousness, humanity, generosity, and a commitment to equality. We can become that country again.” --Obama

He is now in a position to match his rhetoric with his actions. I, for one, hope he does.
posted by ahimsakid at 2:31 PM on June 25, 2009

Hey, it passed, 224:190.

Roll call.

Amusingly, Obama has threatened to veto this defense spending bill, because there is too much money spent on fighter jets.
posted by smackfu at 3:05 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

So the amendment passed (awesome), but the rest of the bill still has to go through the process, correct? Hopefully that means all that porky fighter jet spending that even Robert Gates has said he doesn't want will be cut from the bill before it ever reaches that big ol' signing desk in the White House.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:20 PM on June 25, 2009

This is a good thing. Late but good.
posted by dougzilla at 3:24 PM on June 25, 2009

Yeah, it still has to go through the Senate, and this is the kind of thing that gets cut unfortunately. Not really related to the point of the large bill, and only barely passing the house. Very easy for the Senate to say "what is this doing in this bill?"
posted by smackfu at 3:24 PM on June 25, 2009

Very easy for the Senate to say "what is this doing in this bill?"

What a utopia it would be if anyone ever did that.

"Hey now, this $369M for a bridge to nowhere has nothing to do with school funding!"
posted by rokusan at 1:34 AM on June 26, 2009

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