“Where the hell did you come from?!” This big trooper yelped like he’d seen a ghost after he spotted me entering building 69, a cavernous concrete structure deep inside Ft. Benning, a sprawling military base in Columbus, Ga. I told him and showed him the same letter from my editor that, through innocent persuasion on my part and helpful gullibility of an MP, had enabled me to violate both the perimeter and an important rule–no press passes and no unescorted tours this year.
They barked at me, colonels telling me to move this way, corporals that, me requesting Monica Manganaro, the assistant public affairs officer for WHINSEC, the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation–the new version of an embattled institution, formerly known as The U.S. Army School of the Americas, both housed in the Old Infantry School building, named after General Matthew Bunker Ridgway.
“Wait here.” So I did, surveying the computer stations and the piles of plastic handcuffs. The detention center. At least I didn’t have far to go if things didn’t go in my favor. They didn’t seem like they wanted me around so I told them I’d wait in my friends’ car.
“Sure,” they said. Outside, we made sure any protest material was safely shoved under the seats–that’ll get you six months in a federal pen for sure–just in time for two burly MPs to take up position behind the car. “Keeping us safe,” I joked.
Monica finally showed up, flustered. She did remember me from last year, thank God.
“First of all, we have to get you off-base,” she said. “Follow me,” repeating the motto of the Rangers; the words stand over the gate in a blue shield emblazoned with a sword. A full military escort–the MP Impala she’d arrived in. Felt like a big shot, I did.
We had screwed up everything, the flow of traffic, the security, everything. Finally, my friends safely outside, I got on a bus and went back on base, to Ridgway Hall with a group.
First objective accomplished: to secure access to the school. But I’d been studying this stuff for a year, and my mission was much bigger: I was determined, through questioning and dogged tenacity, to oblige someone to accept a quid pro quo, that the school as an institution had to address the past in order to move into the future.
In many ways, WHINSEC is the same place as the old School of the Americas. It is in the same building, with much of the same curricula and staff. There are differences, most notably that while the School of the Americas was under command of the Army, WHINSEC answers to Rummy and the Department of Defense, higher up on the military food chain.
Some important findings.
Fact: On the issue of torture training, semantics aside, “coercive” techniques were taught “to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist,” according to the school’s training manuals. Those included prolonged constraint, prolonged exertion, extremes of heat, cold, or moisture, deprivation of food or sleep, disrupting routines, solitary confinement, threats of pain, deprivation of sensory stimuli, hypnosis, and use of drugs or placebos. “Human Resource Exploitation” gives a clear idea of the rule of law at USARSA. “Illegal detention always requires prior HQS [headquarters] approval.” “While we do not stress the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them and the proper way to use them,” was eventually altered to, “While we deplore the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them so that you may avoid them.”
Fact: Many graduates of the School of the Americas were and became human rights violators, some of the worst in the hemisphere–bad dudes like Roberto D’Aubisson, Augusto Pinochet, Manuel Noriega–a laundry list of thugs as bad as you will find, some living in the U.S. to this day. They represent a small percentage of graduates, but as the school’s own training manuals said:
“We have already seen how a relatively small number of individuals can come to control an organization by infiltration and fixed elections. The government can inform itself in a timely way about insurgents’ activity in these organizations, by placing its agents in all organizations that it suspects could interest the insurgent group. Among the main organizations of this type can be mentioned political parties, unions and youth and student groups.” (“Handling of Sources,” p. 7)
Fact: Its graduates left a trail of death in nearly every Latin American country you care to name, killing and terrorizing innocent civilians or suspected insurgents with machine guns, garrotes, axes, chainsaws, tossing them from airplanes, gang rapes and whatever a creative psychopath can think of.
It was two events in El Salvador, graduates raping and murdering four Maryknoll nuns and their domestic staff, followed by the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero the day after he gave a homily on land reform–at the altar no less–that turned the hot lights onto the School of the Americas, hereafter SOA.
Father Roy Bourgeois, a Vietnam War hero turned Maryknoll, moved to a shabby apartment just outside Ft. Benning upon learning the story and declared one-man war on SOA. One night, he and some of his team dressed in U.S. Army uniforms, invaded, hung speakers outside the Salvadoran barracks and blasted the last recording of Romero. Bourgeois did a hitch in Leavenworth for that stunt.
The original 13 who met at the gate on the anniversary of the nun’s death has grown to 7.000 or so, and the plan every November is the same: to get on base and deliver a message to SOA–that anything less than a permanent closing is unacceptable. And despite the new gate and fencing, the warnings, the arrests, the prison terms, 13 years later, still they cross, kids and old ladies, some in their eighties, trussed up and taken away in busses.
That’s all old news. The rhetoric on both sides is predictable; outside the fence “murderers, assassins, torturers”–on the inside, insulated by thick stone walls and wooden federal rhetoric, “does anyone suggest closing down Harvard just because the Unabomber went there?” A stalemate.
I accept that SOA is going to continue. Military people are very tenacious and protective of their units. And I am willing (for now) to accept the WHINSEC transformation has altered the school–although this early in the game, results of the changes are statistically invisible.
If WHINSEC was to accomplish its stated goals, pick up where the School of the Americas left off and begin to enhance the rule of law and civil government, there had to be institutional recognition and legal addressing of past complicity, witting or not, in human rights violations. And there had to be firm plans for dealing with rogues. That’s what I was determined to get someone to acknowledge. Or get thrown out trying.
In Latin America it is very typical, in the rare cases of arrests, convictions, and confinement of military, that the actors, even if they are convicted, to obtain early releases–destroying any legitimacy in the eyes of the local citizenry. If the countries in question wouldn’t do it, it seemed (if we accept the new paradigm of Pax Americana) legitimate for some U.S. legal body, military or the Department of Justice, to go and get these guys. Anything less than a proper legal response destroys the legitimacy they are trying to curry. Sounded reasonable to me.
But there is a huge disconnect, an institutional blind-spot, denial, between the shocking numbers and nature of the atrocities and the willingness of the Army and DoD to accept that the School of the Americas was part of a “culture” that fostered a flagrant disregard for what the school claimed to be teaching. I mean, when a guy breaks the neck of UN observer Carmelo Soria and tosses his body in a ditch and 10 years later ends up being a guest human rights instructor at the school (as did Colonel Pablo Belmar of Chile), well, you get the picture.
And the stakes are higher now. With the Soviet Union out of the way, the United States has for the first time in our history (and the world’s), the ability and the willingness to exploit the globe on our terms, using superior technology coupled with vast material and economic might to extend and enforce our advantage.
The U.S. is prepared to engage militarily wherever and whenever she chooses and for any reason: a Pax Americana, the term unabashedly used in Rebuilding America’s Defenses from the Project for the New American Century (co-authored by Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense). The new America is no longer a republic, but a new empire that will deploy U.S. forces to assure U.S. “interests” if proxies, allies or coalitions can’t do the job. WHINSEC is a tiny, insignificant part of the new plan.
Back in Ridgway Hall I was brought to a panel featuring a number of WHINSEC big shots from last year, among them Don Harrington from the State Department and Col. Richard Downie, commandant of the School since its inception in 2001. I actually like Downie, a total career dude who, even though he was never at USARSA, is forced to take all the flak–and does so with a fair amount of grace and humor. The face.
Last year when we’d locked, I had prefaced a question by attempting to establish an agreement that it has been routine for autocratic governments, operated by the “elites,” to use the military to force their will upon the underclass. Downie responded, “You know, I like the X-Files, too.” It was going to be a long day.
This year, the questioning started with a Downie admitting to a kid’s question that there had been human rights violations by USARSA grads. My turn.
I prefaced my question by raising a comment by the late Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia, USARSA’s biggest supporter in Congress, who said in an unguarded moment (or an accidental admission) that the changes at the school were mostly “cosmetic.”
The thrust of my question was, accepting that admission to be true, if there were any ongoing attempts to address the actions of past graduates, especially ones who had been involved in extra-judicial killings of civilians, especially U.S. citizens.
That was when I first hit the wall. Downie’s answer, long, rambling, full of mil-speak (and actually a question in itself), was how could there be a link between what the students had learned at USARSA and atrocities, especially seeing as how many of the graduates, men like Pinochet and Noriega had taken classes years before. Further, that of the thousands of graduates, there had been but a “handful” of violations. “Colonel,” I said, waving a fat sheaf of papers, “I’ve got 48 pages of violations.” And it was just like old times, me firing off, my old bud Downie bristling like a hedgehog. Your classic standoff.
Gina Dinacolo from DoD came up to me. “This meeting is really for the students. Can we arrange a personal one for you?
“That would be perfect.”
That was it for now. I had been effectively silenced. There was nothing to do but to catch the bus off-base and wait for better weather. We filed out of the school and boarded the bus. I was absorbed in thought, making a plan, mentally reviewing the mountain of information I had exposed myself preparatory to the coming confrontation.
My thoughts went to Joseph Leuer, a civilian whom I had interrogated last year. Leuer, the deputy director of academics, and I had gone at it last year on audiotape which I had transcribed.
At the end of the interview, I reminded Leuer that the unit seal of WHINSEC, the new one, bore the cross of Malta, the emblem of Columbus.
“Now you know that this is a public relations nightmare for you south of the border. This cross is the sign of the conqueror.”
Leuer admitted as much, although he tempered his response by saying that I represented a “shared history and heritage.”
“Of slaughtering Indians,” I had been tempted to say.
Then the bomb. Leuer told a story about the reason that there was a Muskogee County, Ga., and a Muskogee, Okla. The Trail of Tears had begun in Columbus, Ga., and ended in what is now Muskogee.
“This was sacred land, what is now Ft. Benning.”
Columbus, Ga. The Trail of Tears. The cross of the conqueror. My mind spun. Sometimes the best place to hide something is right out in the open.
I snapped back. A tour guide I had been not paying attention to on the bus was speaking of the transformation of U.S. strategy from containment to engagement. I fished around in my bag and found Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book, “The Grand Chessboard.”
“You read this one?” The guy glanced at the book.
“This is the operating system for the new thing.” It was then that I recognized Leuer. “Joe!” I said. He looked at me. “I remember you.”
“I’ll be dropping in at some point.”
“Sure, come and visit.”
There is something about these civilian dudes that defies memory. Rather like “the little gray man” ideal that spy agencies instill in their agents. This guy was invisible.
But I’d secured my second objective: Find someone with whom to do battle.
My friends with the car sat waiting for me at the gate. We proceeded to the protest site.
Last year there had been a legal challenge to the right of the protesters to gather outside the gates of the base, fortified now by a stout chain link fence and barbed wire. The judge had evoked a version of eminent domain: the protest had faithfully gathered for 12 years and it would continue to do so. The response by Columbus had been to establish a perimeter–the all-too-familiar protest pit–this one operated by local law enforcement equipped with Garrett wand-type metal detectors. So to get to the site, even as a journalist, I had to consent to a search, another small chip at the 4th amendment, unobtrusive, true, but a nagging reminder of what is being lost.
It was the same show as last year, the same reporters asking the same questions and getting the same responses. I had that story to death. Nothing to do but groove on the day.
The initial penetration had been a success. I had secured a specific name and number for the show. They knew who I was. Now there was another factor to insure the success of the mission. I started looking around. I needed someone to capture the confrontation on film.
The protest was beginning to spool up and clouds were parting, promising a clear, warm day. It looked like it was going to be a big one. Most of the big protests are a children’s crusade–19 to 25 or so. Sort of a hatchery for protesters. The demographics of the SOA protest are more like the U.S.’s : kids (a lot of them actual children under 18), many students from Catholic high schools and colleges, a bunch of graying war veterans and old folks, and people of faith drawn by conscience and outrage.
I wandered the area, getting the “cop” thing. These people, the kids, see a dude in ordinary clothes and automatically (with some validity) figure cop.
I wandered the crowd until I spotted my mark, a young kid with a nice Canon digital. I approached him.
He turned from the camera. “Yes?”
“I’m taking you hostage.”
The kid panicked for a second.
“Not like that. A good hostage.”
I busted it down. Back in Raleigh, I had decided to return for another incursion–with video support. I tried to arrange video back-up in Raleigh. All my contacts had backed out–or had previously been busted on base (one used to get a “ban and bar,” a letter prohibiting you from entering the base under threat of incarceration). I needed cameras; at this point it didn’t matter whose.
“You need to talk to Roy.”
Turned out I had intercepted Snowshoe, a film collective from upstate New York. This was getting good. I talked with the kid and followed his instructions to find the Capo, worming my way through crowd, infilling by the second. Took me 20 minutes to travel 200 yards.
I found Roy and over several attempts over the huge PA, managed to convey what I had in mind.
“There’s only one other factor.”
My ride, as agreed, was prepared to leave without me. I was a flea, jumping off one dog and onto another, trusting these strangers for transportation and lodging.
I tried to phone and went to look for the car. Gone. No problem. I always do my best work when I’m alone.
A security detail was making its way up the road–big dudes in back raincoats and a trim figure in forest camo–Brig. Gen. Paul Eaton, commander of all of Ft. Benning.
“General Eaton,” I said, extending a hand. “Remember me from the press conference last year?”
He brightened. “Yeah, oh yeah,” he smiled.
“You gonna be at the school tomorrow?”
“I might. I just might.”
“Great. Good seeing you.”
“Yeah, welcome to Columbus.”
Now, there is nothing to do but to enjoy the rebellion.
Individuals driven by courage and conviction breaching the perimeter, squeezing through a slot in the fence, crossing a verdant meadow on base in the hard November sun, kneeling when approached by forces to be zipped up, loaded into 67 passenger Bluebird coaches and taken off to six months (or longer) in the Federal pen–kids, grannies, nuns.
There’s an unruly mob bearing staffs and bloody red banners, screaming and charging the gate–cops with bullhorns on the other side, reading from a clipboard, voice washed away by a roar of indignation and righteous anger.
And a counter-protest, a battle of the bands at a car dealer, them, a Latino band, banners with three-foot vinyl letters GOD BLESS AMERICA, oil change 19.95. They can’t keep the B on there to save their lives, ultimately resorting to smeared spray paint. Free Latino food. I have some. Pretty good, but no one is listening to the band.
And then the shadows get long. The kids are schooling up, piling up in drifts, gathering together in the dropping sun and temperature, clinging to each other for warmth. I’ve been watching the red Snowshoe Films ladder, the one they use for high shots — the marker that it is time to circle the wagons and split. Off in the distance, the crowd is thinning, getting ready to load out and go back to their lives in Iowa, Illinois, California, I see the ladder wiggle. Time to ride.
I grab an end of the ladder. Roy’s on the front.
“Hey, look …” he starts to say, his voice hinting at bad news.
“I know we planned to go in tomorrow and all, but my daughter is getting really nervous about her flight. I don’t think I can work it in.”
Damn. “No problem. There are cameras everywhere. I’ll find somebody easy.”
“It’s cool. Can I still sleep on your floor?”
“Oh yeah, sure, no problem, as long as its OK with Tom. You’ll be sharing his room.”
We break camp and load up the gear in a seasoned Isuzu Trooper and head out.
After an OK Thai dinner and a Guinness back at the HoJo, I need a cig and matches and I wander on down to the lobby, blown out from lack of sleep and the events of the day. Real. Way better than TV. I’m joshing with the chick at the desk, a swarm of protesters stuffing bags in cars and station wagons.
I almost collide with this woman, blond, zaftig — an honest farm girl’s face, natural relaxed expression: friendly, wise–tired.
“Who are you?” I ask.
She’s Christine. From Portland, Ore.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m a filmmaker. I’m going on base to interview the people at SOA tomorrow.”
“I’m seizing you and your camera. You are a hostage.”
This is getting better and better. We walk and find a reasonable brewpub, sit down and map out the plan.
The next morning, oh seven hundred hours. It is the very end. The remaining stragglers are loading up on bagels and bananas and bad coffee. Christine is no longer a hostage; she has been elevated to a Video Specialist II in an army of two. A force with no transportation, and no resources — only some numbers, and a card from the WHINSEC P.I.O., Lee Rials, who I had met outside the gate at the protest site who again promised access.
I have to convince Christine to miss her flight out of Columbus and take a later one from Atlanta. I purr in her ear.
“The birds are talking, Christine. Listen. We’re here. They’re here. You’re going back to Portland. You’re likely going to miss your plane, anyway.”
She closes her eyes and breathes. “Let’s stay.”
We grab the shuttle to the base. Lee Rials is surprised to see us again. After a short whupping on tape, it’s showtime with Joe.
I get up.
“What — uh– was your last name again?” Lee asks.
“Would you care for me to write it down?”
“Yeah, sure.” And I do.
So it’s Christine, me and Joe–arguably the brains behind the operation at the school. All the reading, all the studying, all the preparation and planning–a whole year’s worth–and finally it is time to engage.
He is behind his desk cluttered with DoD stuff, map and photos of the kids. There is a chart on the wall of a timeline of great moments in projections of U.S. power, the Presidents, staff and conflicts noted by flashes, like something from a shooting gallery. I have lost the football, all 13 pounds of documents and books–in my friends’ trunk in Raleigh. So I am switch to automatic and we tape for hours, literally, me hammering the disconnect home over and over, neither one of us yielding an inch.
“Look, you have Otto Reich sitting on your board of visitors. The guy, besides helping the Contras, assisted in the attempted overthrow of Chavez this year. What kind of message is that? Democracy as long as it’s one of our guys? Oh, yeah, I’ll be watching this Brazil thing really carefully.
Shouldn’t we try to regain some legitimacy by going and getting the worst of these mooks–if the countries won’t?”
He starts on a “sovereignty” schtick.
“Look, Joe, we just dusted some maybe-or-maybe-not Al-Qaeda dude with a Predator/Hellfire setup in Yemen. A robot plane flying around a sovereign nation/state zapping cars. Let’s not try to fool one another, OK. You know that the New World Order means a loss of sovereignty.
Let’s just use a bit of consistency here. FARC (a Colombian rebel army) and AUC (a right-wing Colombian paramilitary group) are both on the State Department terrorist list. But every time I open a paper it is FARC-this, FARC-that.
I want him to know that I know that he knows that the situation in Colombia is an insurrection, a belligerent civil affair–not war. FARC are rebels, not soldiers violating a national boundary. “What are we doing in an in-country fight?”
“I reject calling them rebels,” he says. They are drug dealers, murderers, thugs…”
“Joe, Joe, Joe, lets be consistent here. You know as well as I that narcotics are the currency on the ground. FARC has to be in the business at some level. FARC taxes coke growers and takes hostages for cash. But who commits the majority of extra-judicial killings? AUC. Who actually processes and ships product? AUC dudes, some of whom you trained. Human rights violations are way up in Colombia. Go and talk to the human rights observers who have been deported from Colombia like I have. Are you going to let another El Salvador happen on your new watch? Go get ’em, Justice, you guys–someone. Just don’t try to juke me, man.”
“It’s not our job. Besides, (he mentions two mal hombres) are living Miami. We couldn’t get them if we wanted, if we could. They are being protected by the State Department. Now back to the other point–I want to see one shred of evidence that specifically ties what students might have learned here that made them go out and commit a crime. We’re all about peace and fostering freedom and democracy.”
We had hit the wall. This is like the cigarette companies demanding proof that they caused cancer. Joe just looks at me, hands outstretched. “This is it,” he says. “This is where we see things differently.”
There is no way that I can get this smart, apparently principled man to climb out of his insular world and connect what this country and its policies does to the poor of the world. Or else they just think it is OK. Sheesh. How can smart, “objective” people not see that our lifestyle is going to destroy the planet’s sustainability, especially when we export it to the world?
We’re riding the crest of the oil thing, 30 or so years at present rate of consumption, and the best idea we can come up with are ever-larger, menacing, armored SUVs, and I can’t even catch a city bus in Raleigh on Sunday. Incredible.
And, like at the end of last year, he waits until the end. Then he drops the bomb.
“We’re going to negotiate in good faith the best we can with the various countries to preserve and extend our strategic national interests [and we all know what that means] to obtain what we as a country need.”
“And if that fails?”
“We’ll go and get it.”
And I know what that meant. We all know it, but when some calm rational person is talking about what amounts to international extortion at best and pillage at worst, it just seems surreal.
It is time to cut and run–Christine and I have run the clock out as far as we can. We have 10 minutes to catch the shuttle.
I am with this woman I have only known for 20 hours for another hour and a half in a Ford van heading north. At Hartsfield, we get dumped at the Delta counter, I give her a hug and she is gone.
And once again, I am in a city I don’t know, no idea where I am, how I am getting back to Raleigh, no resources — nothing. Perfect.
I sat outside the terminal in the gathering November evening. I smoke my last Marlboro, half out of my skull with what has been laid out in front of me. I guess the next stop is the State Department in January — what are you people thinking.
So I’m sitting there, the hamsters really spinning–strategic this, pipeline that–and lo, what should come into my field of vision, but a chrome yellow, fresh out of the box, 2003 Hummer H2 — not a “real” HUMVEE (itself a cumbersome beast with a numerous maintenance problems) but the new “friendly” one, smaller, built on a GM Yukon platform. A three-ton sheep in wolf’s clothing.
My first reaction was to assess my immediate surroundings and attack with whatever blunt objects at hand. I looked around for an Atlanta Constitution rack, something.
It is no good — there were so many cameras and cell phones and cops around I wouldn’t have made it 10 feet. So I hot-box the rest of my butt and just glowered at the thing, spitting for effect while the driver sits yakking on the cell phone and altering my immediate environmental envelope. Pee-yew.
I find MARTA overhead and within 20 minutes am at the Greyhound at Gannet, afraid to look in my wallet.
“Where are you going, sir?”
“You’d better hurry, that bus is loading at gate one now.”
“How much.” I cringe.
“Fifty nine dollars.”
I had sixty-three.