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Teaching Torture

Congress keeps the School of the Americas alive

By Doug Ireland

Remember how congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle deplored the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as "un-American"? Last month, the House of Representatives quietly passed a renewed appropriation that keeps open the United States' most infamous torture-teaching institution, known as the School of the Americas (SOA), where the illegal physical and psychological abuse of prisoners of the kind the world condemned at Abu Ghraib and worse has been routinely taught for years.

A relic of the Cold War, the SOA was originally set up to train military, police and intelligence officers of U.S. allies south of the border in the fight against insurgencies Washington labeled "communist." In reality, the SOA's graduates have been the shock troops of political repression, propping up a string of dictatorial and repressive regimes favored by the Pentagon.

The interrogation manuals long used at the SOA were made public in May by the National Security Archive, an independent research group, and posted on its website after they were declassified following Freedom of Information Act requests by, among others, the Baltimore Sun. The National Security Archive noted that the manuals "describe 'coercive techniques' such as those used to mistreat the detainees at Abu Ghraib."

The Abu Ghraib torture techniques have been field-tested by SOA graduates; seven of the U.S. Army interrogation manuals that were translated into Spanish, used at the SOA's trainings and distributed to our allies, offered instruction on torture, beatings and assassination. As Dr. Miles Schuman, a physician with the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture who has documented torture cases and counseled victims, graphically wrote in the May 14 Toronto Globe and Mail under the headline "Abu Ghraib: The Rule, Not the Exception":

"The black hood covering the faces of naked prisoners in Abu Ghraib was known as la capuchi in Guatemalan and Salvadoran torture chambers. The metal bed frame to which the naked and hooded detainee was bound in a crucifix position in Abu Ghraib was la cama, named for a former Chilean prisoner who survived the U.S.-installed regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. In her case, electrodes were attached to her arms, legs and genitalia, just as they were attached to the Iraqi detainee poised on a box, threatened with electrocution if he fell off."

The long history of torture by U.S.-trained thugs in South and Central America under the command of SOA graduates has also been studiously documented by human-rights organizations like Amnesty International (in its 2002 report titled "Unmatched Power, Unmet Principles") and in books like A. J. Langguth's Hidden Terrors, William Blum's Rogue State and Lawrence Weschler's A Miracle, a Universe. In virtually every report on human-rights abuses from Latin America, SOA graduates are prominent. A U.N. Truth Commission report said that over two-thirds of the Salvadoran officers it cites for abuses are SOA graduates. Forty percent of the cabinet members under three sanguinary Guatemalan dictatorships were SOA graduates. And the list goes on.

In 2000 the Pentagon engaged in a smoke-screen attempt to give the SOA a face-lift by changing its name to the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) as part of a "reform" program. But as the late GOP Sen. Paul Coverdale of Georgia (where SOA/WHINSEC is located) said at the time, the changes to the school were "basically cosmetic."

The lobbying campaign to close SOA/ WHINSEC has been led by School of the Americas Watch, founded by religious activists after the 1990s murder of four U.S. nuns by Salvadoran death squads under command of one of the SOA's most infamous graduates, Col. Roberto D'Aubuisson. Lest you think that the school's links to atrocities are all in the distant past, School of Americas Watch has documented a raft of recent scandals postdating the Pentagon's chimerical "reform." Here are just two of them:

* In June 2001, Col. Byron Lima Estrada, an SOA grad who was head of Guatemala's bloody D-2 intelligence unit, was convicted of Guatemalan Bishop Gerardi's murder by bludgeoning--two days after the bishop released a report concluding that the army was responsible for a majority of the 200,000 killed in his country's civil war.

* In April 2002, two SOA graduates (Army Commander in Chief Efrain Vasquez and Gen. Ramirez Poveda) helped lead a failed coup in Venezuela. The notorious Otto Reich, a failed Bush administration appointee who sat on WHINSEC's Board of Visitors, met with the generals in the months preceding the coup.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., has spearheaded opposition in the House to SOA/WHINSEC, but his amendment to the Foreign Operations appropriation killing money for the school (which had 128 co-sponsors) was withdrawn at the 11th hour on July 15 after a bipartisan agreement limited the number of amendments that could come to the House floor.

The last chance for killing the school's money this year now rests with the Senate--but when past SOA critics Sens. Boxer and Feinstein were called to find out what they planned to do, the response was a deafening silence from their offices. In light of the School of Americas Watch's extensive lobbying, our elected representatives can't claim they don't know of the school's record on torture.

This episode calls to mind Mark Twain's observation that "there is no distinct, native American criminal class--except Congress."

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From the August 25-31, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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