Thank you for contacting me regarding the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, Georgia. I appreciate hearing from you and having the benefit of your views.
The Institute, known originally as the School of the Americas, was founded in 1946 to promote civilian control over the armed forces in emerging Latin American democracies. The Institute's central purpose is to teach military officers that the role of the armed forces in a democracy is to safeguard the property, lives, and rights of its citizens. Training at the Institute is identical to instruction given to American soldiers, except that the courses are given in Spanish and include additional lessons emphasizing respect for civil authority, democratic values, and human rights. While critics charge that the Institute has had no positive effect on promoting democracy in Latin America, the fact remains that the number of military dictatorships in the region has dwindled from twenty in 1946 to only one today -- Fidel Castro's Cuba.
While the overwhelming majority of the Institute's graduates have gone on to make important contributions in bringing democracy to their native countries, some of the past graduates of the School of the Americas have been linked to secret military "death squads" in El Salvador and other nations. These individuals have perpetrated the murders of innocent civilians and undermined democratic elections. Military leaders who operate death squads are the antithesis of the mission that the Institute fosters, and these individuals, once identified, should be permanently barred from participation in any U.S. training and assistance program.
During consideration of S. 2549, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001, section 1204, a provision that would repeal the statute authorizing the continued operation of the School of the Americas. In its place, S. 2549 authorized the Secretary of the Defense to operate the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The Institute was authorized to provide professional education and training to military, law enforcement and civilian personnel of the Western Hemisphere in areas such as leadership development, counter drug operations, peace support operations and disaster relief skills to members of Latin American military forces.
Section 1204 of this bill further requires a minimum of eight hours of instruction related to human rights, the rule of law, due process, civilian control of the military and the role of the military in a democratic society. In addition, this bill creates a board of visitors, composed of four members of Congress, six members from academia, the religious community and human rights groups, to review the Institute's curricula and instruction. Finally, section 1204 establish appropriate guidelines for the Institute and the educational focus for its students.
As you may be aware, Representative James McGovern of Massachusetts has introduced H.R. 1258, a bill that calls for the closing of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. In addition, this bill would also prohibit any training or education facility from being established with in the Department of Defense for Latin American military personnel for ten months.
As I am not a member of the House, I will not have an opportunity to vote on the bill in its current form. Should H.R. 1258 be approved by the House and presented to the full Senate for consideration, I will be sure to keep your views in mind.
Thank you again for sharing your concerns with me. If I can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me again.
United States Senate