|A Conversation with the Public Affairs Officer at WHINSEC|
A School by Any Other Name - by Craig Wiesner
Originally posted on Reach and Teach
On February 21st, 2013, I had a pleasant and informative conversation with Mr. Lee A. Rials, long-time Public Affairs Officer for WHINSEC (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). The conversation was initiated at Mr. Rial's request, after I had written a Tikkun Daily blog post about the school, which was formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA). For decades the school has been accused of having some responsibility for "graduates" (a term Lee and I will debate later in this post) who were later accused of committing atrocities.
I have spent time with people from Central America who were tortured, who saw their families murdered, and barely escaped death squads during the 1980's and 90's. I've spoken on a panel with one US soldier who was involved in supporting those acts. And I've spent countless hours with religious leaders and other activists who have worked for years to close WHINSEC. I have written about WHINSEC before and my latest post at Tikkun Daily caught Lee Rials' attention.
Click here to read that original post.
I'm posting this article on the Reach And Teach web site because I believe it does fulfill our mission to "transform the world through teachable moments."
Children and adults who become passionate about an issue can and should take any chance they can get to speak with people in power, ask questions, make clear requests for whatever they want, and document the results. While I am absolutely NOT one of those people who likes to claim that we live in the best country in human history, I will say that compared to many countries, we do live in a remarkable place, where the government can be held accountable for its actions and we can, more often than not, get the information we need to form our opinions and inform our actions.
Yes, it may take years and dogged determination, but eventually, in most cases, facts will be revealed.
I'd like to start by saying that Mr. Rials was open, friendly, and at times quite witty, and I am convinced that he is a true believer in the mission of WHINSEC, the people who work there, and the people who attend classes there. He believes they are doing good in the world and that the school has gotten a "bum rap." I shared a first draft of this post with Mr. Rials and have updated this post based on some of his feedback.
First Teachable Moment: Measure the Effectiveness of Your Tax Dollars at Work
When Mr. Rials reached out to me via email, I was quite surprised. I'd also been surprised over a decade earlier, when I wrote a letter to the then-named School of the Americas and got a response. It turns out that there was a plan for this! In 2005, according to an article at SourceWatch.org, activists who had been charged with tresspassing on the SOA/WHINSEC property (an annual right of passage for activists is to illegally enter the school and get arrested), offered an "SOA Communication" plan as evidence in their trial.
The plan, which according to Mr. Rials had never gotten funded, proposed spending $246,000 to try to counter the growing demand that the school be shut down. One part of the plan was "to track news media coverage of the school worldwide, to create pre-fab letters to the editor to counter negative views and to track the comings and goings of [SOA Watch founder Father Roy] Bourgeois, with the aim of getting an Army representative on the bill to counter the priest's point of view whenever he speaks."
It was Roy Bourgeois' invitation to a delegation to El Salvador that prompted my most recent post about WHINSEC on Tikkun Daily.
Despite the program never getting funded, Mr. Rials has been a one-man-PR-department for years.
How have the PR campaign and the passage of time worked out for WHINSEC? Mr. Rials and I would agree that the vociferous calls for the school to be closed have diminished along with the number of people getting themselves arrested crossing the threshold of the school's gates each year. Father Roy, recently stripped of his ordination by the Vatican because of his stance on ordaining women in the church (you go Roy!!), has been and continues to be one of the most vocal opponents of WHINSEC. But the number of people joining him at WHINSEC protests has dramatically decreased. To be blunt, some of my activist colleagues who were involved in trying to close the school have died, others have reached an age where they can't keep fighting as they had previously, and, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the abuses of power by our more recent administrations (drone assassinations for example), and other pressing issues have also diverted attention away from the school in Georgia.
Still, when someone like me writes an article about WHINSEC, Mr. Rials' "Google Alert" goes off and he goes into action. In trying to declide what my major emphasis would be for our conversation, I decided to focus on whether the school was delivering "value" to the American people. Basic question: Are America's tax dollars being well spent at WHINSEC? A question that I asked Mr. Rials several different ways boils down to this (which Rick Ufford-Chase, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA, suggested I include in my conversation):
Are there any success stories about graduates that WHINSEC can brag about?
Mr. Rials did not have any success stories to share. And... when I used the word "graduate," Mr. Rials took exception. He pointed out that many people "attend" courses at WHINSEC, but to refer to them as "graduates," according to him, is not accurate. Plus, he told me, that it was unfair to look at a person who had attended a course 30 years ago, and then committed some kind of a crime years later, as a "WHINSEC Graduate."
SOAWatch, an organization that has doggedly pursued SOA and WHINSEC, recently filed a lawsuit over the Pentagon's refusal to release the names and other information about 21st Century WHINSEC students. As Mr. Rials points out above, information used to be available which allowed organizations like SOAWatch to investigate and report on allegations of misconduct. Now, that information is no longer available.
One final quip about using the word "graduate." Mr. Rials told me he had quipped to a German journalist while watching a group of Chilean cadets, that "the cadets were here for only 10 days, but in 10 years would be 'WHINSEC graduates.'"
I thought to myself, wouldn't it be amazing if one of them was getting a Nobel Prize for peacemaking?
Just to show that the folks at WHINSEC are just as guilty of using the term "graduate" as their opposition, note the wording of part of the unfunded communication plan.
Let's go, though, to the heart of a question I think we should all be asking. Are the American people getting value for the money being spent at WHINSEC? How do the powers-that-be justify the spending if they can't specifically point to a specific return on investment for WHINSEC's graduates (or, um, people who successfully completed some course of study comprising some length of time)?
I am a graduate of Air Force Basic Training (six weeks), the Defense Language Institute (47 weeks), Cryptologic Linguist School (six months) Air Force NCO Leadership School (four weeks), the US Army Chaplains Lay Leadership Course (two weeks), Department of State East Asian Affairs course (one week), etc..... And I can point to behaviors, actions, ways in which I carried out my work, days, weeks, months, and years later, as direct results of something I was taught in a course during one of those trainings. I saved a fellow airman's life using the Heimlich Maneuver just a few months after I had taken a safety training course! Most importantly, I know that in the case of virtually every type of formal training, there was a feedback loop that reported backwards and forwards so that the effectiveness of training in one place could be judged based on performance in another.
Mr. Rials said that the main feedback loops for WHINSEC were reports from US commanders in the Northern and Southern Commands on the effectiveness of their cooperative work in countries with people who had attended courses at WHINSEC and:
That seems somewhat vague, but perhaps official unclassified reports will shed more light on details of that effectiveness. And, I wouldn't be surprised if there were some other feedback mechanism outside of the Department of Defense and State Departments, perhaps through some other US government three-letter entities, that did, in fact, track WHINSEC graduates in their police, military or political careers.
Remember that we're the United States of America. In God we trust. All others we monitor.
The take-away from the "show me the money/success" part of my conversation with Mr. Rials is this: If WHINSEC's work is truly valuable to the United States, that value should be easily articulated and demonstrated. Let's ask for a clear and compelling report from the Department of Defense on significant achievements that can be directly attributed to WHINSEC training.
With sequestration in the news today, and budget woes facing our country for a long time to come, are US tax dollars being effectively spent at WHINSEC? Let that be a question asked at the next Congressional hearing on the matter.
Second Teachable Moment: RTFM (Read the _____ Manual)
Whenever possible, don't take word of mouth as evidence. Get your hands on the stuff about which you are complaining, read it (or watch it or listen to it), and then make your case.
Early in my conversation with Mr. Rials, we agreed that curriculum as well as reports made each year about the school are not classified. Therefore, those reports and training manuals should be viewable by the public. I am particularly interested in the instructor manuals and student manuals used in the three week long "Human Rights Instructor's Course." That course is designed to train people to return to their home countries and teach human rights curriculum to their own people. When visiting the WHINSEC web site, this is an area for which WHINSEC is particularly proud, saying that their human rights education efforts are both "ambitious and effective."
During my talk with Mr. Rials, this was the one place where I felt that he was not being completely frank with me. He indicated that there might not be a single "manual" per se, but that there were lesson plans and materials gleaned from other content taken from here and there. I was both a consumer / user of Army and Air Force training materials AND the developer of courses. There is always a manual. It may be something that is, in fact, a compilation of stuff from all over the place, but there is a compilation. No instructor walks into a classroom and wings it. And, when the course is a "train the trainer," designed to send someone home to teach, that trainer always walks away with an instructor's guide. It would be very instructive (pardon the pun) to have access to those manuals. Mr. Rials has promised to look into getting me course materials. He clarified:
I'm very interested in the "case studies" referred to in the WHINSEC course catalog describing the human rights training. Mr. Rials mentioned that one case study he knew of involved "false positives" in Colombia. A "false positive" refers to a situation in which innocent civilians have been killed in a military operation, and in order to protect themselves from prosecution, soldiers dress the dead civilians up in rebel uniforms, or plant other evidence to make it look as though the civilians were engaged in hostile acts.
The course catalog also says that learning the difference between lawful and unlawful orders is covered. Would being ordered to plant evidence on dead civilians be considered an unlawful order? And if so, what is a soldier supposed to do about it?
Yes, I'd love to see those manuals and case studies. Making those manuals public could go a long way in demonstrating the nature of today's WHINSEC.
RTFM is as military a phrase as it is in computer technology circles. That's why when I asked if there was an instructor's manual I already knew the answer, there must be. Now the question is whether we'll get to see it (or something).
Third Teachable Moment: You Must Remember This, A Kiss Is Just A Kiss, A Name Is Just A Name
Back in the days of my foolish and naive youth, in a letter I wrote to the commander of the School of the Americas (SOA), I suggested that given that the institution had a terrible reputation, if they were truly changing their stripes, they should also change their name. While I can't take credit for it happening, the school did, in fact, change its name.
One of the ways in which the SOA's name got permanently stained was through the public release of SOA training manuals in the 1990's, which did, in fact, include passages teaching the use of torture. At least 1,000 of those manuals were distributed throughout Central and Latin American. In 1992, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney ordered the recall and destruction of those manuals.
You may be able to shred and burn manuals, but that stain is impossible to erase, along with the stains of blood and tears that soaked into the soil of El Salvador, Chile, Nicaragua, Honduras, and other countries during the 1980's and 1990's. There is no question that many of those blood stains were caused by US hands, promoted by US foreign policy.
Mr. Rials pointed out that WHINSEC is but a tiny school, with only a few thousand students attending each year, and that in his view it is unfair to lay the blame for atrocities committed by people who had attended a course or two at some point in history on the then School of the Americas or today's WHINSEC.
On that score history will eventually decide. The names of those who, to use Mr. Rials' language, "attended" SOA courses who went on to torture and kill innocents can not be erased. Such lists are easily acccessed on the web, just use the search term "SOA Graduates." In fact, Mr Rials did his own analysis of one of the most heinous crimes committed in El Salvador, the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. I'll share his analysis later in this post.
There are some, though, who thought that one way to erase that stain or at least move on to other battles was, in fact, to change the school's name. There were others who came up with the response "Different Name, Same Shame." (Remember Blackwater changing its name to XE?) Is WHINSEC a completely different school than the School of the Americas? No. When President Bill Clinton signed the law creating WHINSEC, most of the civilian instructors stayed on. The military instructors, as military instructors do, rotate in and out. Commanders come and commanders go. Today's commandant, according to Mr. Rials, though, was at the School of the Americas before it became WHINSEC, went on to do other things for many years, and came back. And now he's in charge.
The name change discussion is one place where Mr. Rials takes the greatest offense.
Have things changed?
Unlike the SOA, WHINSEC does work hard to appear as publicly transparent as possible. You can go to their web site and read their mission statement, read their course catalogs, newsletters, and see pictures of attendees and instructors. Mr. Rials invited me to visit and says that he invites many people to come. Rick Ufford-Chase told me about his visit, back when he was Moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA. That visit consisted of a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation and a brief tour. He was underwhelmed, but he felt that Mr. Rials was earnest in his belief in the school and open and pleasant with his guests. If I were to visit, I'd want unfettered access for at least a few weeks. According to Mr. Rials, they gave such access to a British doctoral candidate named Ruth Blakely, who wrote her dissertation with WHINSEC as her subject. I'd love to see that dissertation so if anyone has access to it and would share a link, that would be great. Click here to read one article in which she is quoted talking about her time at WHINSEC (in which she says that she found no evidence that WHINSEC was advocating torture or human rights abuses) and click here to read another article about her views on our more recent involvement in the "drug wars.".
One clearly negative change on the idea of transparency is being litigated by SOAWatch, as mentioned earlier. The Pentagon no longer releases the names of the students who attend courses there. That makes it impossible for civilians to track them.
A big question, though, doesn't have a clear answer. Does the school serve a useful purpose? Is keeping it open in the strategic interest of and does it demonstrably advance the security of the United States? Are attendees taught to protect and defend human rights and dignity as the law establishing the school clearly demands, and do those students, in fact, return to their home countries and do so? Seeing the manuals and getting better and clearer answers from the Northern and Southern commanders in Congressional testimony, along with any informtion other agencies of the US government may have about those who have been taught at WHINSEC, including the public release of their names/countries, may help to start to answer those questions.
Forth Teachable Moment: Be Prepared AND Specific When You Ask Questions
Our conversation was somewhat rambling, but I did have a script. Before you talk to someone in power, be as prepared as possible. Before my conversation I reached out to activists to get some ideas of questions they might want to ask if they had an opportunity for this kind of conversation. Here are some of the specific questions I asked and the answers Mr. Rials provided (paraphrased, not word for word).
1. Does WHINSEC track graduates, and are there reports about activities of graduates made available to Congress or other oversight groups?
2. Are your mandated annual reports to Congress classified?
No, but those reports are not available online. The law, establishing WHINSEC, also mandated a "Board of Visitors" and their minutes/reports are available online at http://fido.gov/facadatabase/committeemenu.asp?CID=80390
3. In what ways do you measure "success."
See the details in the discussion above.
4. Is there a school similar to WHINSEC for other hemispheres?
5. Do any of your courses include interrogation techniques?
6. Do you teach about the use of drones in any of your courses.
No. "We have nothing to do with drones whatsoever."
7. Why did you want to talk to me?
"Any time we have a chance to talk to the opposition, we like to do that."
There were a few questions about torture and assassination that didn't make it into the conversation. Mr. Rials mentioned that I might want to talk to Mr. Antonio Raimondo, who teaches the Human Rights course. I'll save those questions for him!
Fifth Teachable Moment - Identify Your Lens
When you take on an issue and express your opinion about that issue, be open and communicate the lens through which you see the issue. I view the discussion about SOA/WHINSEC through the eyes of a person who has sat with victims of torture and murder. One of my dearest friends lives in constant physical and emotional pain because of the atrocities committed against him and his family during the Salvadoran civil war. His wife suffered terribly while he was locked in a prison, taking care of their children with virtually no means of support. Then the entire family had to flee for their lives the day he was released because they were warned the death squad was on its way. What was done to them and the crimes that were committed against countless others were crimes against humanity that I was taught, as a US military member, were absolutely forbidden. Yet other US troops, in other places, were taught and behaved differently.
I take Mr. Rials' objections to the charges against SOA/WHINSEC seriously, because I remember how it felt when I had just left the Air Force to hear people I respected telling me that the US government had a hand in such terrible acts. I didn't want to believe them, but have come to know that our government can, has, and will commit what will some day be judged as crimes, in the name of national security. That's why we have to dig and dig and dig when we think something is wrong.
Today we have "drug wars" going on in Colombia and Mexico and the "war against terror" is in full swing all around the world. Drones have been used to kill countless people, including an American citizen. It is our responsibility as citizens to stand up and demand the truth, no matter how long it takes to get to it.
Mr. Rials also dug, and put together an analysis of the murder of the Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Click here to view a PDF of that analysis.
The account of the murders and coverup is chilling. During my time serving in the military, if anyone had ever said anything about partipating in, supporting, condoning, or assisting in acts like these, I would have reported them. Yet I know, for a fact, that our government did condone acts like these in the then war against "communism." Dick Cheney might have ordered the shredding of those damning training manuals in 1992, but he's also the same person who supported water-boarding after September 11th and the photos from Abu Ghraib illustrate that the stains of mistreatment continue to streak our flag.
Sixth Teachable Moment: Follow Up
Having an opportunity like this is incredibly valuable, but it will have been a waste of time if action does not come out of it. Here are my plans for following up and I invite you to share your comments and suggestions on next steps.
Finally, as a way of thanking Mr. Rials, I'm going to send him a copy of We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures, and ask that he share the book with colleagues at the school. WHINSEC's charter calls on it to teach internationally recognized human rights laws and this book offers a great starting point for having conversations about all of the issues with which activists, members of the "opposition" to the school, political leaders, members of the press, former victims of human rights abuses and their families, and ordinary citizens are concerned.
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
PO Box 4566
Washington, DC 20017