Lost History: The School of Assassins

WASHINGTON -- For years, human rights activists have accused the U.S. Army's School of the Americas of teaching torture and assassination techniques to military officers from around the Western Hemisphere. For just as long, the Pentagon has denied the charge.Then, late on Friday afternoon, Sept. 20, the Pentagon released a report admitting that some of those concerns were well-founded. From 1982-91, the School of the Americas used seven U.S. Army intelligence training manuals, written in Spanish, which advocated executions, torture, blackmail and other forms of coercion, including the kidnapping of a target's family members.But the Pentagon was still grudging in its admissions. The investigation into the offending manuals actually took place more than four years ago -- in 1992 -- and had been kept under wraps since then. Even more disturbing, many of the historical records that would shed light on the origins of the human rights abuse training were shredded by order of top Defense Department officials before the end of the Bush administration.In the Pentagon's investigative report, dated March 10, 1992, Werner E. Michel, then assistant secretary of defense for intelligence oversight, disclosed that seven Spanish-language manuals had been compiled from "old material dating back to the 1960's from the Army's Foreign Intelligence Assistance Program, entitled 'Project X'." Michel wrote that the "Project X" material "had been retained in the files of the Army Intelligence School at Fort Huachuca, Arizona."The mysterious "Project X" apparently was a program for developing advanced counter-insurgency techniques for allied armies. It could have been the rationale for human rights violations practiced by anti-communist militaries during the last 25 years of the Cold War. From the context of the Pentagon report, it was clear that the project at least was the source for the abuses recommended in the seven Spanish-language training manuals. But Michel's report gave little additional information about "Project X."Future historians also will find little more in the Pentagon's files. One of Michel's proposals in 1992 was to retain only one copy each of the seven offending manuals. "All other copies of the manuals and associated instructional materials, including computer disks, lesson plans and 'Project X' documents, should be destroyed."Senior Defense Department officials approved Michel's recommendation and all documents relating to "Project X" were destroyed in 1992, according to Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Arne Owens. "We didn't see any need to have these things floating around," explained Owens.REAGAN LEGACY The Pentagon report portrayed the production of the new manuals in 1982 as a mistake. But their use to train Latin American officers fit with the Reagan administration's hardening stance against leftist insurgents in Central America in the early 1980s. In winning the election in 1980, President Reagan had publicly renounced President Carter's strong emphasis on human rights.In the months immediately after Reagan's election, right-wing Salvadoran "death squads" went on a rampage of political slaughter, including the rape-murder of four American churchwomen. In 1981-82, the "death squads," often consisting of plain-clothes soldiers, butchered thousands of perceived leftists with little criticism from a White House that was drawing a line against communism. In December 1981, a U.S.-trained Salvadoran battalion swept through the remote village of El Mozote and massacred about 800 men, women and children.The Reagan administration also warmed up to the Guatemalan army as it launched extermination campaigns against suspected leftist strongholds among that country's Indian population. Most controversial of all, the CIA began organizing the Nicaraguan contra rebel army to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government. The contras, too, gained a quick reputation for human rights atrocities during raids into northern Nicaragua.Simultaneously, to improve the professionalism of the Central American armies and to appease congressional concerns about human rights, the Reagan administration began to send more and more of the region's soldiers through the School of the Americas at the Panama Canal Zone and later at Fort Benning, Ga. It was during this period in the early 1980s that the manuals containing "objectionable material" -- in the Pentagon phrase -- were published.As an insurgent army, the contras did not qualify for School of the Americas training. But in summer 1983, CIA director William Casey proposed giving them their own training manual. During a trip to Honduras, Casey ordered production of a "psychological operations" manual for the contras. It would teach them many of the same intelligence strategies contained in the seven school manuals.The 90-page contra manual also was cobbled together from past Special Forces training booklets. It, too, counseled the contras in a variety of questionable tactics. One passage recommended the "selective use of violence" to "neutralize" civilian Nicaraguan officials. Others suggested creating a "martyr" for the cause by arranging the death of a contra supporter and assigning "special jobs" to criminals.LENIN VS. JEFFERSON In September 1984, while with The Associated Press, I obtained a copy of the contra manual and managed to confirm its CIA authorship. My story touched off a furor in Washington, with Democrats accusing the CIA of adopting tactics more fitting a totalitarian state than a democracy. "It espouses the doctrine of Lenin, not Jefferson," charged Rep. Edward P. Boland, D-Mass.When I interviewed contra director Edgar Chamorro about the manual, he admitted misgivings about the language in the booklet, but added that the contras did "practice" the execution of Sandinista officials who were deemed "criminals." Chamorro told me that "in a guerrilla war, if you have to exact justice immediately, sometimes you have to do it."After several weeks of embarrassment over the manual flap, Casey ordered the disciplining of several mid-level CIA officials. Chamorro was punished, too, by being ousted from the contra leadership, apparently for his frankness. President Reagan pronounced the controversy over. "It's much ado about nothing," Reagan declared.The CIA manual controversy apparently did not prompt a broader investigation of where the abusive language originated. Similar advice remained in the teaching course at School of the Americas for another seven years, according to the 1992 Pentagon study. Those booklets were still recommending the "neutralizing" of various "targets" and "executions" for political purposes.For critics, the disclosure of the training manuals will reinforce the image of School of the Americas as School of Assassins. Without doubt, the school has graduated some of the most infamous human rights abusers in the modern history of the Western Hemisphere. The late Salvadoran Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson passed through the school before presiding over the notorious Salvadoran "death squads." The school also trained the 19 Salvadoran soldiers blamed for the murder of six Jesuit priests in 1989. Panama's dictator Manuel Noriega was another graduate.Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, D-Mass., one of the school's leading critics, has called for the school's closing. But the Pentagon continues to insist that overall the school imparts valuable lessons for professionalizing the region's armed forces and for teaching respect for human rights.The belated disclosure of the manual report will make that an even harder sell. And the destruction of the "Project X" documents may prevent the public from ever knowing just how far this human rights scandal went.

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