Terrorist Training, American Style
by Heather Wokusch
October 28, 2002
Insisting that global terrorism can only be stopped by "destroying it where it grows," George W. Bush has conveniently forgotten the US military's own terrorist training facility: the infamous Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). Located in Fort Benning, Georgia, WHISC has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in the most heinous of counter-insurgency warfare techniques, and its graduates have gone on to comprise a bloody who's who of coups, chaos and destruction.
WHISC is also the reason several non-violent protestors languish in US jails today, and with a massive demonstration planned at the WHISC site November 15-17, that number is about to skyrocket. Between the upcoming protest and a House bill aimed at shutting down the operation once and for all, it's clear America's very own terrorist training camp will soon be in the spotlight. Less certain is whether the result will be a brutal chapter of our history closed, or a deadly double standard expanded.
Established by the US military in Panama in 1946, WHISC(or School of the Americas/SOA, as it was previously known) was booted out and forced to relocate stateside in 1984. Its graduates have repeatedly been implicated in cases of torture, rape, massacre and assassination, their victims frequently social rights activists and other civilians. Small wonder that former Panamanian President Jorge Illueca described the school as the "biggest base for destabilization in Latin America."
Bowing to public pressure back home, in 1996 the Pentagon released several of the school's training manuals, detailing a curriculum advocating the use of blackmail, psychological warfare, torture and execution. By 2000, the appalling degree of human rights abuses committed by SOA graduates prompted several in the House of Representatives to try closing the school, but just before the key congressional vote, SOA personnel presented the Department of Defense with a compromise: "Some of your bosses have told us that they can't support anything with the name 'School of the Americas' on it. Our proposal addresses this concern. It changes the name." And with that SOA was closed, WHISC was duly opened, and in spite of a few cosmetic additions to the curriculum, America's terrorist training camp continued business as usual.
The farcical charade doesn't get very far with Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of the Americas Watch. One of the remarkable priests whose untiring social activism is detailed in Strabala & Palacek's "Prophets Without Honor," Bourgeois sees the Latin American military's role as keeping "the poor on edge and the small elite in power. The School of Americas is connected to that." Bourgeois has done repeated stints in US prisons due to criminal trespass, or "crossing the line" into Fort Benning - but he isn't alone. Of the 10,000 who peacefully protested at WHISC last November, a full 36 were given sentences of up to six months in federal prison, and it's anyone's guess how many new US political prisoners will result from the upcoming protest.
A bipartisan effort to shut down WHISC was narrowly defeated in the House last year, but a similar bill (HR 1810) has been reintroduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA). HR 1810 already has 112 sponsors, and if passed would not only close the school but also establish a joint congressional task force "to conduct an assessment of the kind of education and training that is appropriate for the Department of Defense to provide to military personnel of Latin American nations."
Which is probably why the Bush administration is pushing through plans to set up a successor to WHISC in Costa Rica. With billions in US military aid funneled to dirty wars throughout Latin America, local fighters are needed to carry out Washington's agenda, and their training cannot hinge on such niceties as law or public opposition. Case in point: Colombia has received military equipment and a $1.3 billion aid package- not to mention over 250 US military personnel on the ground - to help the government fight against what it calls counter-insurgents (frequently peasants or community leaders such as educators, union organizers and religious workers). Add to that a full 10,000 Colombian WHISC/SOA graduates and plans to set up WHISC-oriented training locally, and it's clear the US is not only inviting mission creep, but more importantly entering a bloody and unethical quagmire.
The choice is ours: pay lip-service to fighting global terrorism as we secretly conduct terrorist training on the side, or confront this beast wherever it grows, both abroad and at home.
Heather Wokusch is a free-lance writer with a background in clinical psychology. Her work as been featured in publications and websites internationally. Heather can be contacted via her website: http://www.heatherwokusch.com