Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Torture, the Geneva Conventions and the School of the Americas By Ann Wright, US Army Reserve Colonel

Wednesday 29 November 2006

I spoke for the first time at the School of the Americas Watch protest at Fort Benning, Georgia, on Saturday, November 17, 2006. As a US Army veteran with 29 years of active and reserve duty who retired as a colonel, I felt tremendous emotions while addressing over 20,000 protesters from a stage in front of the gates of a major US military installation. We were there as witnesses to a history of involvement in torture by graduates of the US military's School of the Americas (SOA), now known by its less-notorious name, the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation.

Standing with me were seven members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, including two war resisters: Darrell Anderson, who returned from Canada in October 2006 and was discharged from the US Army, and Kyle Snyder, who also returned from Canada and attempted to turn himself in to the US Army.

School of the Americas and Torture

I had served three years in the middle 1980s with the US military's Southern Command in Panama while the School of the Americas was still located there. People in Central and South America were tortured by members of their militaries throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Terrible periods of torture in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were conducted by members of militaries from those countries. Some of the known torturers attended the School of the Americas.

When I was in the military, I never heard from other US military personnel that SOA was training students in torture techniques. But there were rumors from non-military organizations of SOA involvement. I thought that if the rumors were true, surely we would hear about it through the informal communications network that operates very effectively in the US military. Techniques for harming others are not hard to figure out and would not need to be taught by the US military. Why would the US military train members of other militaries in torture techniques and thereby expose the US military to charges of international and domestic criminal activity?

In 1996, seven Spanish-language military manuals prepared by SOA surfaced that advocated such tactics as executions of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse and paying bounties for enemies. These documents came to light because of an investigation into the involvement of the CIA in Guatemala. But I still thought that it wouldn't be the US military teaching such methods, but maybe the Central Intelligence Agency, using a US military installation and dressing in US military uniforms.

Torture in Iraq and Afghanistan: Who Are the Teachers and What Is Taught?

But then the US military went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Photos of the abusive treatment of prisoners in Bagram Air Base and Kandahar, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib made me question the professionalism of the US military and what was being taught in military schools. Perhaps there was a program of instruction that taught torture techniques to military intelligence, CIA and contractor interrogators. The Bush administration's "torture memos" certainly provided the environment for the military to "take off the gloves," a statement attributed to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's counsel, according to a June 12, 2002, Justice Department document. We now know the sordid history of abuses and torture that occurred from 2001 through 2005 and that are probably still happening.

Questions abound concerning US military and CIA involvement in torture. What manuals are used in training US military interrogators at the US Army Intelligence School at Fort Huachuca, Arizona? What is taught to US Marines at Camp Pendleton, California, and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and US Army infantry troops at Fort Benning, Georgia, who initially stop and detain Afghan and Iraqi citizens? What is taught to military police at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, about custodial care of prisoners by the US military? What are the guidelines for evaluating the limits of physical and psychological abuse taught to military doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and psychologists at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospitals in Washington, DC? When do doctors call a halt to physical and emotional abuse and torture?

Are military lawyers taught at the US Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) School at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Virginia, or at the US Navy JAG School at the US Naval base in Newport, Rhode Island, to parse regulations that prohibit torture into guidelines that provide legal cover for torture? Do Special Operations Forces of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force practice on detainees the interrogation techniques they are subjected to during their Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington, and Naval Air Stations in Brunswick, Maine, and North Island, San Diego, California? What are the limits of abusive interrogation techniques taught to CIA and CIA contract interrogators in the various CIA training areas around Washington, DC, and other locations in the US?

What Is the Effect of Torture and Abusive Behavior on the Perpetrators?

With so many US military and CIA personnel involved in some level of abuse toward detainees and prisoners, what is the emotional toll taken on them when they know they are conducting harmful, as well as illegal, actions on those in their custody? Do military, CIA and contract interrogators, military police, medical personnel and military and civilian lawyers who have gone along with the torture policy suffer from post traumatic stress disorder following their tours in Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and secret prisons? Are their abusive behaviors brought home? The answer to both questions is yes.

Recently made public was the September 2003 suicide of US Army interrogator Alyssa Peterson, who was an Arabic-speaking interrogator assigned to the prison at the Tal-afar airbase in far northwestern Iraq near the Syrian border. According to the report of the Army's investigation into her death, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage, and shortly after committed suicide.

In the past five years, thousands of military police, military interrogators, medical and legal staff and hundreds of CIA personnel have been involved with detainees and prisoners. So many persons associated with the prisons in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered emotional damage that Eve Ensler wrote a play concerning the experience of one interrogator entitled "The Treatment," which is now playing off-Broadway. The play chronicles the psychological damage done to an Army interrogator who abused a prisoner and the treatment he needed to address the demons released by his actions.

While there has been no specific study of those involved in detaining and imprisoning persons in Afghanistan and Iraq, suicides, family abuse and inability to function because of the trauma of the experiences in those countries are at an all-time high in the US military. In 2002, four Special Forces soldiers murdered their wives upon their return from Afghanistan.

Torture, the Geneva Conventions and the Military Commissions Act

Have military leaders objected to the Bush administration's torture policies? Senior military lawyers (the Judge Advocates General) strongly disagreed with the Bush administration's decision to describe those detained in Afghanistan and other countries as "enemy combatants" and thereby deny them protections accorded to prisoners of war (POWs). Interrogation techniques authorized by former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, presidential legal counselor and now Attorney General Antonio Gonzales and a group of political appointee civilian lawyers, and a few military lawyers, clearly amounted to torture.

Now the US Congress, through the 2006 Military Commissions Act, has undercut the important provisions of the Geneva Conventions forbidding torture by authorizing "alternative" interrogation techniques and preventing bringing to trial any US citizen who committed criminal actions related to torture prior to December 31, 2005.

In the many military schools throughout the United States (the military prides itself on being the nation's largest schoolhouse), military professionals must now teach the "Bush administration version" of the Geneva Conventions to US military personnel.

While at the School of the Americas Watch protest, I visited the SOA School and spoke to the chief of the Human Rights division, a US Army major. I asked him how he now taught the Geneva Conventions to the international classes that come through the school. Did he teach the original Geneva Conventions or the new modified US version of the Conventions? The Major without hesitation said that since the students represent governments that, at least officially, have not changed the language of the Conventions, he would teach the original Geneva Conventions.

Ironically, it is now only in the US military schools that train international students that American students will be exposed to the original Geneva Conventions that prohibit torture in all forms, including the "alternative" methods that the Bush administration and the US Congress now condone but which are still criminal in international law. Military schools with only US students will teach the Bush version of the conventions.

But not all countries want US military training. After much lobbying by families of victims of torture, the Defense ministers of Argentina and Uruguay notified the United States in March 2006 that their countries would no longer send students to the School of the Americas, because of its legacy of torture and social repression. Venezuela had earlier stopped sending students to the school. But the Bush administration is on the offensive to provide military training, even to those countries that courageously stood up to the administration's demand for exemption of US soldiers from prosecution for war crimes. On October 2, 2006, because of its concern over the rise of populist governments in Latin America, the Bush administration without fanfare lifted the 2002 US prohibition of training militaries from 22 countries that refused to exempt US soldiers. Eleven Latin American and Caribbean countries that were previously banned from US military training will now be eligible to attend US military courses, if they wnt it. Many of the students from those 11 countries would go to the School of the Americas.

Normally one would call for the US Congress to closely monitor the content of the instruction in the military's Infantry, Military Intelligence, Military Police, Judge Advocate General, medical and SERE schools to prevent torture techniques from being taught. But now the US Congress has given the military and the CIA a blank check by authorizing "alternative techniques" for interrogation. However, a certain level of Congressional oversight of the CIA and its interrogation techniques is still permitted through the Congressional Intelligence Committees. That oversight must begin quickly with the new Congress.

Demand that Congress Repeal the Military Commissions Act and Close the School of the Americas

The reputation and stature of the United States have been incredibly damaged by the torture and abuses from graduates of the School of the Americas over the past thirty years and by torture perpetrated by the US military and the CIA on behalf of the Bush administration. For the integrity of our country and the moral structure of our military, we, the citizens of the United States, must demand that the new Congress, as one of the first items of business, close the School of the Americas and repeal the torture and criminal free-pass provisions of the Military Commissions Act.

We are complicit in the abuses if we do not get SOA closed and the legalization of torture repealed.

Let's get to work on the new Congress - in December in their home districts and in January in Washington!


Ann Wright is a 29-year US Army/Army Reserve colonel and a 16-year diplomat who resigned in March 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq. Colonel Wright is the president of the Camp Casey Veterans for Peace chapter located in Crawford, Texas. Veterans for Peace is a peace organization that is on the Pentagon's unlawful watch list of anti-war organizations.