As TFP member Gregory Escaro and I drove up to Fort Benning, in Columbus, Ga., on November 15, we did not know quite what to expect. We had set an interview with Mr. Lee Rials, Public Affairs Officer at the base’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) which replaced the School of the Americas (SOA). Personally, I must admit to being a bit intimidated.
After all, 20,000 pacifist protesters descend each year on the base to rail against the school, claiming that it secretly teaches torture and killing techniques to police and military officials from Latin American countries. Though my past experiences with such liberal gatherings convinced me that the opposition was distorting the facts, I had never visited an elite military academy whose existence was so controversial.
I knew that if I had to face one tenth of the lies and bad press the school receives each year, I would be less than welcoming to unknown guests asking for an interview. Nevertheless, we were committed to the appointment and that was that.
What we experienced was shocking. First of all this “secretive” base is absolutely open to the public at all times. To obtain a free day pass, all we needed to do was present a driver’s license and proof of the car’s registration and insurance. We were not even asked the nature of our visit. We were then set free to travel anywhere on the base we desired. In fact, we later learned from Mr. Rials that no less than 13,000 vehicles enter and leave the base daily.
Arriving at WHINSEC, which is a few miles into Fort Benning, we parked in a side lot. Feeling somewhat emboldened by our recent experiences, we decided to enter, unannounced, into a side door that had no receptionist. We went through the unlocked entrance and began to wander aimlessly through the halls.
The soldiers we met were very friendly and not a single one tried to stop us, despite the fact that classes were in session. Finally, we asked one to direct us to Mr. Rials’ office, where we were cordially treated to a two-hour visit that included the enlightening interview that is transcribed below. During this time, we learned that each year, protesters are encouraged to take a comprehensive tour of the fort and school, at which time, any questions they have will be answered. In fact, several hundred protesters participate in these tours each year.
After the visit, we were encouraged to wander anywhere we pleased and told to take pictures of anything we wished.
In stark contrast to the transparency we experienced at the base, soliciting interviews from members of the School of the Americas Watch, a group founded to fight against WHINSEC, proved more difficult.
When we arrived at a support group meeting for those who had been imprisoned for trespassing on Fort Benning in years past, we were immediately stopped at the door.
“Who are you?” an elderly lady asked me.
“I am a journalist, I just wanted to talk and observe your meeting…or is this a closed session?” I inquired.
“It is closed.” After this curt response, a former prisoner walked us outside, where he explained that neither he nor anyone else could talk to us at that time. However, he suggested that we return after the meeting, when he and others would be able to converse and take interviews.
We returned after the meeting and were once again stopped at the door. When we asked permission to speak to former prisoners, we were taken to the group leader and again blocked from taking interviews. We slipped by this lady and were fortunate enough to schedule an interview with one of the meeting attendants for the following day.
Our first experiences in Columbus were quite telling. First of all, we had experienced utter transparency at the “secretive” WHINSEC. We had recorded an informative interview with the institute’s Public Affairs Officer Lee Rials (transcribed below). In this interview, Mr. Rials dispels the myths that keep protesters coming back year after year. He offered to let us wander anywhere through the school we wanted, even telling us to sit in on classes.
Meanwhile, the opposition that demands the closing of the school at the base had been rather opaque. This left us wondering which side truly has something to hide. Read the interview transcribed below and decide for yourself.
Interview with WHINSEC Public Affairs Officer, Lee Rials
TFP: First of all, the school recently underwent a change of name. What is its full name, and why the change?
Mr. Rials: It is the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). In the year 2000, those opposed to U.S. interaction with Latin Americans were threatening to kill this training altogether. So, the members of Congress and the Pentagon, desiring the continuation of this work with our allies, feared that unless they closed the School of the Americas, they might lose this valuable interaction entirely. Thus, they passed a law to close the School of the Americas, and another one to create WHINSEC.
TFP: President Clinton did this?
Mr. Rials: Yes, President Clinton signed the law. Few realize that the military, including this institute, is apolitical and therefore supports no political party. In fact, the whole system of training that invited Latin Americans to participate started under President Truman, became the School of the Americas under President Kennedy and then, of course, was transformed into WHINSEC under President Clinton.
TFP: So what exists right now is little more than a continuation of what was started under President Truman?
Mr. Rials: For the most part, it is a continuation of the two goals of the mission the school has had all along: First of all, to provide professional education and training, but equally important, to foster openness, friendships and relationships, not only with the U.S., but also among those countries who attend the institute. That is why most of our classes include representatives from various countries and conditions, including: police, military and, in some cases, civilians as well.
Practically speaking, the difference between the School and the Institute, besides the legal one, is that the institute is more relevant to our times. The School of the Americas was focused essentially on Cold War issues. Our government was telling it who to work with, how to work and what to do.
TFP: Which was very important because of the threat of having Communist governments right at our back door.
Mr. Rials: We think so. However, what I am saying is that the school supported the governmental policies at the time. We still do so, but now things are quite different, because the threats and challenges we and our neighbors face in this hemisphere have changed. Now we deal more with natural disasters and drug running. Right now, there is a medic-training course in the field. This course trains people to be emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and these students will even learn to deliver babies!
These soldiers will be the only medical professionals in some sectors of their countries. They need to know how to provide health services, not only to their soldiers and units, but to the local populace as well.
TFP: What is the purpose of the school, exactly? What is your mission statement?
Mr. Rials: The mission statement comes from the law and states that we will professionally educate and train our students, in accordance with the charter of the Organization of American States (OAS), that we will foster openness, transparency and cooperation with the countries of the OAS and finally that we will foster human rights, U.S. democracy and U.S. culture in the fulfillment of these tasks. Thus, when we bring students here, they study a lot about democracy, ethics and human rights. In fact, this makes up about ten percent of all their coursework.
In the field studies program, we have taken it to a new level. Every class visits the smallest levels of local government and departments of public safety. They see how the police and 911 operate in the U.S.. They go to city councils to learn how they operate…
TFP: To teach them more about democracy, I suppose.
Mr. Rials: Yes and no. All these countries already have democratically elected civilian leaders, so it is not so much to introduce them to democracy as such, but rather to show them the oldest democracy in this hemisphere and how our citizens can approach their governing officials locally, statewide and nationally.
Another interesting thing we have been doing during election years, like 2004 and 2006, is to take the students into a Columbus precinct to show them how Americans vote. To some of them, it is quite surprising that people stand in line, talking freely, with neither police nor any form of security maintaining order. We think that is very powerful.
TFP: Do you still teach techniques for counter-terrorist activities against organizations like the FARC in Colombia or…
Mr. Rials: Not directly. That is, we do not teach counter-terrorism as a single course. I am quite sure that counter-terrorism is addressed in a way suitable for mid-level officers in our Command and General Staff Officer Course, which is our only year-long course. This is the same course the Army teaches at Fort Leavenworth, Kans., only here it is taught in Spanish.
The purpose of this course is to form mid-level officers as leaders at home or abroad – because we also train U.S. and Canadian troops in this course. Nevertheless, the thrust of the institute is 17 specific courses addressing different professional subjects, but all emphasizing democracy and human rights. The tactical courses, if you want to call them that, are geared at training medical assistants, teaching engineers how to operate, and police and military how to conduct counter-drug operations. Also, we educate soldiers in the intelligence side of counter-terrorism or counter-narcotics operations.
TFP: Could you share with our readers some of the institute’s success stories?
Mr. Rials: Probably the best success stories come from those people who have attended our counter-drug courses, and then participated in drug busts. That has happened in Paraguay and several other countries as well.
What people fail to understand is that our graduates are not the leaders of their countries. They are people of the working level. So they arrive as, say, counter-narcotics police, take our course and go back to apply what they have learned to their jobs. That leads to a better success rate intercepting drugs. That is a great success story in itself.
Also, there was a Colombian Colonel, who was a Deputy Commandant at WHINSEC. Before his assignment here, he had been assigned in Eastern Europe to Kosovo to that conflict and was actually taken prisoner. It is just another indication of how Latin America is taking its place in the world, not just here, but everywhere.
Another story happened with the School of the Americas. Continuing with the same theme of developing relationships between the different countries of this hemisphere, Ecuador and Peru were in a conflict years ago that could easily have erupted into fighting. However, the two opposing commanders had been classmates in a course here at the school, so they chose to talk, rather than to fight.
TFP: When I arrived here at the base this morning, I was shocked at how open it was. When I arrived at the visitor center to get a day pass, they didn’t even ask me why I wanted to visit. All I had to do was show an ID. Everyone was very welcoming. This kind of openness is quite different from the impression one gets reading the propaganda from the other side. Do you ever get protesters coming here to see for themselves?
Mr. Rials: Well you know Fr. Roy, the Maryknoll priest who started all this, lives just outside the gates. He is close enough, but he will not come in.
In fact, I say sometimes that that may be part of their integrity. If they actually saw the institute they could never say the things they say or do the things they do, since their actions are based on not knowing.
I frequently make the comment that there is not a single example of anyone who studied at the School of the Americas and used the information he learned here to commit a crime. Not one.
If you analyze the motivation of those who have taken any of our courses and become criminals, you cannot simply assume that the 3 weeks, 4 weeks, 6 weeks or even the year he spent here was the governing factor that convinced him to go bad. To make an educated guess at what impact our school had on his behavior, you must at least know what he learned and where.
TFP: If these protesters are ignorant of what is taught here at the school, and are not interested at learning the truth of it, what are they really protesting?
Mr. Rials: You can answer this question quite simply, by asking the protesters themselves. They will tell you quite honestly that we are simply a symbol of American foreign policy, which they see as their true enemy.
Ironically, the policy they oppose may have existed 20 years ago, but it does not anymore. For example, our courses support the human rights and democracies that exist now, but did not exist then. Part of what we teach to fulfill our democracy and human rights requirements is respect for civilian authority and the subservience of the military to that authority.
Currently, even those countries that have turmoil tend to resolve their problems without military intervention. An example of this is Ecuador. A couple of years ago, when they had difficulties with their president, he was replaced with no military involvement.
Throughout this entire hemisphere now, not all democracies are mature, they are in various stages of development, but elected civilians are running them and their militaries are respecting that.
TFP: Well what would you say to allegations, that in the past torture was taught here?
Mr. Rials: I would say that there is absolutely no evidence of that. That is a libel against the soldiers who have worked here, because there is no evidence that it is true. By the way, since you are a religious organization, I would also say it is a violation of the 8th commandment, bearing false witness.
TFP: One last question, who exactly is involved in the protest? You mentioned Catholics and Presbyterian…
Mr. Rials: Well, there is an interesting mixture. Of course, the protest is led by a specific organization called the: School of the Americas Watch. This group is focused on WHINSEC. However, I like to call this event, the November opportunity, because various groups get involved. We get anti-war protesters, sometimes PETA gets involved…basically, any organization that wishes to be heard.
TFP: I’ve heard even homosexual organizations get involved.
Mr. Rials: That may be so. I have no idea, because most protesters demonstrate quite legally in the city of Columbus. We only have direct contact with the ones who break the law by trespassing onto Fort Benning.
TFP: Thank you.