in the US School of the Americas (SOA)
by Lisa Haugaard
The Pentagon revealed what activists opposed to the school
have been alleging for years-that foreign military officers were
taught to torture and murder to achieve their political objectives,"
says Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy Il (D-MA), who has waged a three-year
campaign to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA).
Hoping to elude media attention, the Pentagon waited until late
on a Friday to release training manuals used at the school and
distributed throughout Latin America that instructed officers
on the use of torture, murder and blackmail in the fight against
The most egregious passages in the declassified manuals advocated
such tactics as executions of guerrillas, extortion, physical
abuse and paying bounties for enemy dead. One of the manuals offers
the following techniques to recruit a guerrilla as an intelligence
source: blackmail, false arrest, Imprlsonment of the potential
recruit's parents and execution of all other members of his guerrilla
cell. Another manual contains detailed instructions for making
The Pentagon released the manuals after a sustained public pressure
campaign focused on the role of the CIA in Guatemala, which was
the subject of a June report by the President's Intelligence Oversight
Board. Since the board's report mentioned the manuals, the Pentagon
received requests to declassify them in their entirety.
The seven Spanish-language training manuals, totaling 1,100 pages,
were prepared by the U.S. military and used between 1987 and 1991
for intelligence training courses in Latin America and at the
School of the Americas. These manuals, with titles such as "Counterintelligence"
and "Revolutionary War and Communist Ideology," were
based on lesson plans used by SOA instructors since 1982. These
lesson plans, in turn, were based in part on older material dating
back to the '60s from "Project X," the U.S. Army's Foreign
Intelligence Assistance Program. The U.S. government estimates
that as many as a thousand copies of these manuals may have been
distributed at the SOA and throughout Latin America.
In late 1991, after the Bush administration "discovered"
the use of these manuals, the office of the assistant to the secretary
of defense for intelligence oversight launched an investigation.
The Pentagon provided the resulting report to congressional intelligence
committees in 1992, but it remained sealed from the public until
now. The investigation concluded that the manuals' authors and
SOA instructors "erroneously assumed that the manuals, as
well as the lesson plans, represented approved doctrine."
When interviewed by the investigators, the manuals' authors stated
that they believed intelligence oversight regulations applied
only to U.S. personnel and not to the training of foreign personnel-in
other words, that U.S. instructors could teach abusive techniques
to foreign militaries that they could not legally perform themselves.
The response to this investigation was limited to damage control.
The Bush administration ordered the retrieval and destruction
of the manuals, and the U.S. Army Southern Command advised Latin
American governments that the handbooks did not represent official
U.S. policy. However, the whole episode was treated as an isolated
incident. The individuals responsible for writing and teaching
the lesson plans and manuals were not disciplined. SOA and other
U.S. military instructors were not retrained. And military training
programs were not rethought.
Along with the declassified manuals, the Pentagon released two
dozen excerpts from the manuals that contain "objectionable
and questionable material." Yet a preliminary examination
of the manuals by Kennedy" office revealed other citations
that describe techniques violating human rights. The "Interrogation"
manual taught military officers to gag, bind and blindfold suspects,
while the "Terrorism and Urban Guerilla" guide explains
how to build mail bombs.
Analysts at the National Security Archive, a Washington-based
research organization, point to sections of at least two of the
manuals that equate democratic, non-violent and even strictly
electoral campaigning with terrorist activity. "It is important
to note that many terrorists are very well trained in subversion
of the democratic process and use the system to advance their
causes," one manual states. "This manipulation ends
with the destruction of the democratic system. Discontent that
can become political violence can have as its cause political,
social, and economic activities of terrorists operating within
the democratic system." Another manual warns that rebels
are active in political organizations, legislative initiatives
and political education, and that they can "resort to subverting
the government by electoral means." This sort of analysis
encourages military officers to perceive democratic challenges
to a government as threatening and worthy of a military response.
One manual describes '60s activist Tom Hayden, currently a California
state senator, as "one of the masters of terrorist planning."
It is precisely this identification of activists for social change
as terrorists that led death squads in Latin America to kill thousands
of religious leaders, students.
union members and human rights activists.
These manuals provide a paper trail to the counterinsurgency techniques
taught at the School of the Americas. Since its inception in 1946
in Panama, the school has trained 57,000 Latin American officers
and soldiers. (In 1984, under the terms of the Panama Canal treaty,
the Pentagon moved the school to Fort Benning, Ga.) While the
United States provides military training to soldiers from many
other countries, only Latin Americans have a special school where
they are trained in their own language. Despite its stated mission
to promote human rights, the school has long had an unsavory reputation
in Latin America, where it has been dubbed the "school of
the assassins" and the "coup d'etat school" for
the records of some of its notorious graduates. In the United
States, Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois initiated a campaign in
1990 to close the school, opening an "SOA Watch" office
right outside Fort Benning's gate. The effort to shut the school
gathered steam following revelations that year that more than
two-thirds of the Salvadoran officers cited for atrocities in
the U.N. Truth Commission report were SOA graduates.
The school's opponents are not naive. They know that closing the
school would not end U.S. training of Latin American militaries
and intelligence services, since these activities can and do take
place in other settings. Nonetheless, they believe that it would
be an important symbolic victory.
In public relations efforts to counter the campaign, SOA officials
emphasize the school's role in teaching human rights, democracy
and civil-military relations. They point to recent changes in
the curriculum that, they say, highlight these subjects. However,
the main thrust of the school continues to be combat and intelligence
training. The 1996 course catalogue lists courses in battle staff
operations, commando operations, intelligence, border operations,
artillery, psychological operations and helicopter operation and
repair. Counterinsurgency techniques are listed as topics in several
courses. Only one of the 32 courses taught at the school focuses
on democracy. No separate course on human rights is offered, although
a four-hour "mandatory human rights awareness training"
session is included in several courses.
Even if human rights violations were not part of the curriculum,
critics question the rationale for teaching combat and intelligence
skills to Latin American militaries. During the Cold War, they
point out, militaries used these skills to thwart democratic opponents
of repressive regimes. Today, such skills are obsolete and in
fact hinder the concerted struggle by Latin American citizens
to assert civilian control over still powerful armies.
The revelations about the manuals give new impetus to efforts
to close the school. Kennedy has twice tried to pass legislation
that would have closed the school. Both attempts ended in defeat
(with votes of 256-174 in October 1993 and 217-157 in May 1994).
Supporters of the school maintain that the school's notorious
graduates are "just a few bad apples," that it is premature
"to throw the baby out with the bath water," and that
the SOA exercises a positive influence upon Latin American militaries.
Last year, Kennedy tried a new approach. Seeking to gain the support
of those in Congress who believe the United States can exercise
a positive influence on Latin American military officers, Kennedy
introduced legislation in November that would close the school
but open a new U.S. Academy for Democracv and Civil-Militarv Relations.
This school, to be run by the U.S. military with civilian oversight,
would offer training solely in democracy, human rights, resource
management and civil-military relations. The bill did not receive
sufficient co-sponsors to be brought to the floor. In any case,
religious and human rights activists who oppose the school were
skeptical of this new strategy, doubting that the U.S. military
could be trusted to teach democracy and human rights. The recent
revelations about the manuals erode that trust even further.
The same month that Kennedy proposed the new academy, police arrested
protesters at Fort Benning for trespassing as they re-enacted
the 1989 massacre of six Jesuits in El Sal vador. This April,
13 were sentenced to jail terms. Ten received two-month jail sentences.
Father Bourgeois, who was sentenced to six months, and Vietnam
vet Louis De Benedette and Jesuit priest Bill Bichsel, who each
received four-month terms, are still behind bars, completing their
The school's opponents are planning another November vigil at
Fort Benning this year. "The uncovering of the torture training
manuals leaves no doubt that the instruction was an intentional
and methodical part of the curriculum at the School of the Americas,"
says Carol Richardson, who is running the SOA Watch office while
Father Bourgeois is in jail. "This should be the final nail
in the coffin to bury the School of the Americas along with its
despicable history and practice. Policy-makers should move quickly
and decisively to cut SOA funding. Not one more dime of U.S. taxpayer
money should go to support the training of terrorists, assassins
Lisa Haugaard is legislative coordinator for the Latin America
a coalition of non-governmental organizations based in Washington,
This article was published in IN THESE TIMES magazine, October
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of the Americas Watch