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Pentagon's Legacy of Training Soldiers in Torture

From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release May 24, 2004

Pentagon's Legacy of Training Latin American Soldiers in Torture Techniques Haunts Probe Into Iraqi Prisoner Abuse Scandal

Interview with Eric LeCompte, organizing coordinator, School of the Americas Watch, conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:

While Congress viewed thousands of photographs of U.S. military personnel abusing and sexually humiliating Iraqi detainees in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, the nation was horrified by the videotaped beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg. Confirming the fears of violent repercussions resulting from the torture allegations in Iraq and beyond, the masked insurgents in the videotape stated they had executed Berg in retaliation for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Thus far, the Pentagon has filed criminal charges against seven U.S. soldiers for their alleged mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners. Public courts martials were convened in Iraq on May 19.

Although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied in public testimony before Congress that the Pentagon had authorized the abusive interrogation techniques employed at Abu Ghraib prison, a recent article by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker magazine claims that Secretary Rumsfeld had authorized a secret operation that "encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq."

While the White House and Pentagon maintain that the abuse of prisoners in Iraq is an aberration, the history of the U.S. Army's training School for Latin American soldiers tells a different story. The School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has for decades trained thousands of soldiers and officers from nations across Latin America in torture techniques and psychological warfare. Between the Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Eric LeCompte, organizing coordinator with the group School of the Americas Watch, who looks into the connections between the alleged abuse of Iraqi detainees in U.S. custody and the Pentagon training of Latin American soldiers who have been complicit in widespread human rights abuses and atrocities.

Eric LeCompte: The School of the Americas is a training base that's located at Fort Benning, Ga. This particular training base of the last 50 years has trained over 60,000 soldiers from Latin American countries: Colombia, Bolivia, El Salvador, Brazil in such techniques as torture, execution, assassination, counterinsurgency and combat skills. The soldiers who come to the United States, to this U.S. taxpayer-funded school, learn these skills and they've gone back to their home country and they've used these skills against their own people. Right now, what we're hearing about at Abu Ghraib, Iraq, in terms of the alleged torture that's taken place against Iraqi prisoners there, we at the School of Americas Watch see that as an actual matter of U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, what happened at Abu Ghraib is not an isolated incident, it's not an aberration of U.S. foreign policy, it's actually a clear illustration of U.S. foreign policy.

Scott, we see that so clearly with what has happened at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. In 1996, the Pentagon was forced to release through grassroots and congressional pressure, manuals that were used at the school. These were training manuals that the Washington Post and New York Times dubbed as torture manuals, because these manuals which trained Latin American soldiers actually instructed them to use such tactics as torture, execution against church leaders, human rights advocates and union organizers.

In fact, these manuals, they (soldiers) were told in terms of the torture techniques within them, these soldiers should use them on those who "do union organizing or recruiting." They should be used on those who "make accusations that the government has failed to meet the basic needs of the people."

So we look at what's happening at Abu Ghraib and other places in Iraq -- for us, we see another incident of this U.S. foreign policy which promotes torture like it has been promoted at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.

Between The Lines: It seems that the U.S. press and the Congress have very little memory about the revelations about these torture manuals related to U.S. policy in Central America, because they seem to be not mentioned at all in the context of those at the Pentagon and the White House, saying this is not something that America does, that America does not torture its prisoners, it does not encourage the mistreatment or abuse of those in our nation's custody. But of course, we do have these torture manuals which really speak to a wholly different reality.

Eric LeCompte: Exactly, unfortunately, a cliché does come to mind. Those can't remember their history are doomed to repeat it. And that's exactly what we're seeing terms of what happened at Abu Ghraib. These kinds of torture manuals coming back and these kind of torture manuals being used. Unfortunately, it's clear that members of Congress and members of the Pentagon don't want to admit that there has actually been a part of U.S. foreign policy that has promoted torture and that has promoted assassination of human rights advocates. And in terms of those earlier manuals, what's known as Operation Condor in Latin America. In Vietnam, there was Operation Phoenix; there are many (instances where) both the CIA as well as other security agencies have promoted the actual use of torture in the history of the United States, and clearly that was used at the School of the Americas. It seems like it's a very important moment for us to remember our history so that we can look at what's happening at Abu Ghraib, we can look at what's happening at Guantanamo Bay, we can look at the training at the School of the Americas and we can start to act as a people of conscience to stop this kind of training from taking place.

Between The Lines: I know that your work over at the School of the Americas Watch has included trying to get this information into the hands of the U.S. press corps when they were looking at the Iraqi prison abuse story. What kind of reaction did you have from the U.S. press?

Eric LeCompte: The Detroit Free Press, which is a fairly conservative publication in Michigan, actually ran an editorial calling for the closure of the School of the Americas in light of what's happening in Abu Ghraib, calling the school Torture U. The Chicago Tribune did a rather extensive piece on the School of the Americas and related the connections to what happened and is happening in Iraq right now. There have been several other newspapers that have run stories. But it hasn't received the kind of attention that one would expect when it comes out very clearly that what's happening in Iraq is not an isolated incident, but is actually a matter of U.S. foreign policy.

What has been interesting over the past few weeks, is that we at the School of the Americas Watch -- the organization to close the school at Fort Benning -- we've been receiving many calls everyday from members of the international press. Mainstream papers and networks from international publications and networks have been very willing to cover the story. But we haven't had that kind of enthusiasm in the United States so far.

Call School of the Americas Watch (202) 234-3440 or visit their website at

Related links:

"Torture Followed CIA Manual"

"US forces were taught torture techniques"

"Army training memo reveals neglect for human-rights law"

"Chain Of Command: How the Defense Dept. Mishandled The Abu Ghraib Disaster"

And more ...


Scott Harris, is the executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines ( for the week ending May 28, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Anna Manzo and Scott Harris.

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