Last January, the Colombian Navy, with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard, stopped two homemade submarines off the South American coast. Each vessel is believed to have carried more than 10 tons of cocaine, but they both sank after the crews flooded the hatches and jumped overboard.
Every year, drug traffickers use an unknown number of these self-propelled semi-submersibles, or SPSS, to transport hundreds of tons of cocaine to delivery points in Central America, Mexico and the United States. In 2007, 13 were seized on land or at sea by Colombian and U.S. Navy patrol boats. With a skeleton crew of four, an average length of 60 feet and ballast tanks to keep it just under the surface of the water, the vessels are nearly undetectable, making them more than an annoyance to anti-drug authorities. They are likewise considered a growing threat to U.S. and regional security. Drugs aside, who's to say one of the subs couldn't be manned by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction?
These challenges and others shape the mission of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), which opened in 2001 at Fort Benning, Ga. Last year, 1,534 students from 24 countries - military personnel, law enforcement and civilians - attended the school. Nations represented included Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru and St. Kitts.
"We're in a world now that requires we work as teams, whether it's to defeat narco-terrorists or help our friends in need when they are hit by an earthquake or a hurricane," says U.S. Army Col. Gilberto Perez, a Cuban native who served as WHINSEC commandant from 2004 to 2008. "What we are trying to create at this institute is a sense of unity, hemispheric friends and partners.
"Some of the countries in this region have had political differences and, in some cases, have even fought with each other. That has changed. We want them to be willing to work with each other and with the United States, not only in this part of the world but around the world."
Counterdrug operations and combating narco-terrorism rank high on WHINSEC's curriculum; graduates often play a role in interdictions, such as the 2007 bust by the Colombian Navy. But the school offers far more. Faculty members - about 35 percent are foreign guest instructors - teach courses on disaster relief, medical casualty care, and how to plan and conduct civil-military, engineering, joint and peacekeeping operations. Professional development is also covered, in leadership courses for noncommissioned officers, junior officers and cadets, intelligence officers, captains, and command or general staff officers.
Undergirding the entire program is WHINSEC's emphasis on human rights and ethics, which constitute at least 10 percent of every course's content. That's more than any other DoD facility - more than any other U.S. education facility, for that matter - and a point of pride for the WHINSEC staff.
Even so, the school may be shut down by Congress because of pressure from peace activists who criticize the program as a U.S. training ground for foreign soldiers to fight battles that go beyond protecting America.
The Opposition. In recent years, WHINSEC has teetered on the edge of losing government funding - the school's budget is about $11.5 million, about the cost of a single Black Hawk helicopter. In June 2007, an amendment that would have cut off funds failed by just six votes in the House; the year before, the margin was 15 votes.
Opponents accuse the School of the Americas - and by implication, WHINSEC, claiming it's merely a continuation of the former institution - of complicity in crimes against humanity and other atrocities in Latin America. Led by Father Roy Bourgeois, a Roman Catholic priest of the Maryknoll Order, an organization called SOA Watch has regularly demanded investigation of the school and called for its closure over the years.
Named for WHINSEC's predecessor, the School of the Americas, SOA Watch was founded in 1990 - a year after Salvadoran soldiers killed six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter at the Central American University Pastoral Center in San Salvador. Of the 26 soldiers later implicated in the murders, 19 had received some type of training at the School of the Americas.
Since then, the school has been in SOA Watch's crosshairs. The group claims that WHINSEC teaches torture, that graduates are guilty of other human-rights abuses, that the school has no accountability, and that it violates U.S. and international law.
"There's a lot of blood connected to this school," says Bourgeois, who lives in an apartment outside Fort Benning's gate and leads an annual protest vigil against WHINSEC there. "With the name change, it still remains a symbol. We do not believe this school is what Latin America needs."
Much of the controversy swirls around manuals used by the U.S. military for intelligence-officer courses at the School of the Americas, and at training sites in Latin America between 1982 and 1991. The Pentagon later admitted that objectionable material had inexplicably been included in the manuals - references to execution, torture, blackmail, false imprisonment and other forms of coercion, according to a Sept. 21, 1996, Washington Post article. An internal investigation called inclusion of the methods a "mistake" and a "bureaucratic oversight," finding "no evidence that this was a deliberate and orchestrated attempt to violate Defense Department or Army policies."
DoD reported that two dozen objectionable passages were found in 1,169 pages of instruction. The source for much of the content was training instruction influenced by Project X, a military initiative to create field manuals based on counterinsurgency experiences in Vietnam. In 1992, DoD discontinued use of the manuals, explaining that the flagged passages did not represent U.S. policy. Copies were recovered or destroyed in the field.
SOA Watch has publicly hammered WHINSEC, saying in a 2006 publication that SOA-trained troops "consistently return home to wage war against their own people ... Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, ‘disappeared,' massacred, and forced into refugee camps by those trained at the ‘School of the Assassins.'"
Bourgeois and other activists routinely visit Latin American countries, urging presidents and foreign ministers to withdraw their troops from WHINSEC training. They carry with them a list of the school's 60,000-plus graduates, among whom they claim are the continent's worst violators of human rights.
But how many graduates have actually gone on to commit crimes? And can their actions be traced to what they learned?
The Defense. U.S. Army Chaplain (Maj.) John Kaiser, who serves as WHINSEC's command chaplain and ethics instructor, says that of the 64,000 people who have attended the school, "fewer than 600 have ever been implicated in any kind of wrong, which means that well over 99 percent of our graduates have gone on to serve their nations well.
"If a police academy has a graduate who goes on to commit a crime, are you going to close the school because of that? I don't think so, because that's not what is taught at the school," Kaiser says. "If an individual crime is committed, you don't blame the institution that trained the person in the right way to perform his duties."
WHINSEC's official position is that the school should be judged by an informed evaluation of its operation, not by a list of students who attended and later were accused of wrongdoing. As for SOA Watch's call for WHINSEC to keep tabs on its students, the school insists that no educational facility in a democracy has the authority or ability to track its alumni. Besides, most of WHINSEC's students are from foreign countries and beyond the reach of U.S. directives.
"We are challenged by a group of opponents who try to create a cause-and-effect relationship between some individuals who may have graduated from a course at the old School of the Americas and their behavior later on in life," Perez says. "In other words, if you attended a course and, 20 years later, commit some sort of heinous crime, the school is blamed for being the cause, which makes no sense whatsoever.
"However, our opposition has been very effective in conveying to a sensitive public that WHINSEC teaches unethical behavior - criminal behavior - which is, of course, impossible. I'd be in jail, and my instructors would be in jail, if that was the case," Perez says.
"The U.S. justice system and the military justice system would take care of that. Anyone can come here at any time and sit in a classroom, talk to students, talk to our instructors, or review our lesson plans and literature. They will see there's nothing illegal, immoral or unethical. It's all U.S. doctrine."
Perez says that SOA Watch is unable to prove that even a single graduate of the old School of the Americas ever misused his U.S. education and training. SOA Watch doesn't even acknowledge that the School of the Americas and WHINSEC are different institutions altogether, governed by different public laws; critics dismiss this as a cosmetic change.
Finally, WHINSEC defenders point out the extremely tenuous link between the School of the Americas' training of "notorious" graduates and their later crimes. For example, Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri attended a U.S. engineering course in 1949, when he was a 23-year-old lieutenant in the army. The implication is that the course led him to become a general and junta leader 30 years later.
What bothers WHINSEC's chaplain most, he says, is that SOA Watch's crusade taints the reputation of American soldiers. "They don't like the U.S. military, even though they say they support the troops. We've been called a terrorist training camp, and I won't stand for that. You can say whatever you want about me personally. That's fine. But if you insult my fellow soldiers, I'm going to get a little upset, and I'm going to challenge you."
Kaiser has debated opponents of WHINSEC, even within his own Presbyterian denomination, and says their agenda is about more than just closing the school.
"WHINSEC is the lightning rod that attracts all of the anger these people have," he says. "They want to change U.S. foreign policy. They're very much against any kind of cooperation or military interaction with Latin American militaries. They basically try to turn WHINSEC into a scapegoat on false premises. The ‘torture-manual' issue wasn't really an issue at all, because in the same manuals where they talked about interrogations they were talking about human rights and not to cross the line. The way this has been spun by SOA Watch isn't the truth, and they've been able to go on for years with nobody really challenging them on this."
Besides, Kaiser says, people know enough about committing crimes to do it without U.S. help.
"You don't have to teach anyone to be evil or to do bad things. We actually do the opposite here. We try to teach them how to perform their military duties in a moral, ethical and legal way."
Transparency. WHINSEC's most effective counterargument may be that it's open and accessible to anyone. Visitors are welcome, and need only a photo ID to get onto Fort Benning's grounds. In fact, the institute hosts an open house every November during SOA Watch's peace demonstration, and invites protesters to see the campus for themselves.
WHINSEC is governed by a 14-member board of visitors that includes representatives from the State Department, U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Northern Command, and the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, as well as members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. The Defense secretary designates six members from the human-rights, academic, religious and business communities.
"They have complete and absolute authority to come here anytime, unannounced, and review anything and everything that we do here," Perez says. "We could not be more transparent."
In May 2007, the House Armed Services Committee voted unanimously to continue funding WHINSEC, with Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., calling the program "critical to our national security."
"It is so important to remember that this may be the only medium we ever have to engage the future military and political leaders of these Latin American countries, who are America's closest neighbors," he said. "If we were not to engage with these nations ... the void created would be filled by countries with different values than our own regarding democracy and human rights, countries such as Venezuela and China, whose influence in the region is growing."
Last October, The American Legion's National Executive Committee voiced its support for WHINSEC, urging full funding by Congress. Resolution No. 21 declares the school's hemispheric training and alliance building a "vital interest" of the United States.
SOA Watch doesn't see it that way and continues to ask Congress to squeeze WHINSEC. Last year, Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Joe Sestak, D-Pa., and Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., cosponsored, and the House approved, an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2009 that would require the school to release to the public the names, ranks, country of origin, courses taken and dates attended. The final bill, after conference with the Senate, did not include the amendment.
Perez protested, saying such disclosure could endanger Latin American soldiers who are fighting drugs and terrorists, particularly those working undercover. Their families could also be targeted.
The legislation also moves SOA Watch and its allies another step closer to their ultimate goal.
"They're gaining the votes in Congress to close us down," Kaiser says. "Is it a possibility? Yeah, I think it's a real possibility unless these people are challenged and held accountable."
Matt Grills is associate editor at The American Legion Magazine.