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School of the Americas Update

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Last November, approximately 600 protesters were arrested at Fort Benning, Georgia, the site of the U.S. Army’s notorious training school for Latin American soldiers. Called School of the Americas, some of its graduates include General Manuel Noriega, the 19 Salvadorans accused of murdering six Jesuit priests in 1989, and General Raoul Cédras, the head of the Haitian coup that ousted elected leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Protesters call the base the School of the Assassins and are demanding that it be closed. Authorities are dealing with demonstrators harshly. The trial of five protesters began this week in a Columbus, Georgia, courtroom, and they are expected to receive anywhere from one to five years in prison. Yesterday Vice President Al Gore visited the base and received a surprising welcome.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Last November, more than 600 protesters were arrested at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, the U.S. Army’s notorious training institute for foreign militaries in Latin America. Some of its graduates include the 19 Salvadorans accused of murdering six Jesuit priests in 1989 in El Salvador, and General Raoul Cédras, the head of the Haitian coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Protesters call the base the School of the Assassins and are demanding it be closed.

Authorities are dealing with demonstrators harshly. The trial of five protesters began this week in a Columbus, Georgia, courtroom, and they’re expected to receive anywhere between one and five years. Still, this hasn’t deterred any protesters. When people protest on the base for the first time, they get a ban order from the base for a year, which escalates to a five-year ban.

Yesterday, Vice President Al Gore visited the base and received a surprising welcome. Among those who were there were Charles Liteky, a former U.S. Army chaplain who won the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. He gave up that Medal of Honor during the U.S. support of the Contras. And also Jennifer Harbury was there. She is a lawyer and activist who’s Guatemalan husband, the most senior Mayan comandante, was murdered by graduates of the School of the Americas on the CIA’s payroll.

We go now to the area right around Fort Benning, Georgia, where Jennifer Harbury and Charles Liteky are standing by to tell us about their exchanges with Vice President Gore and the military police at the Fort Benning base yesterday when Gore arrived.

Jennifer Harbury, tell us what happened.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Yes. Well, I went to the airport because I had been meeting with the different people who were on trial for the demonstration last fall at the School of the Americas here in Fort Benning. And we heard that morning that Vice President Gore would be arriving at the airport. So, since they were just picking the jury at that point, I went out to Fort Benning to Lawson Air Force Base and joined the crowd. It was open to the public. Anybody could go there and greet Vice President Gore that wished to. So I went right up to the front cordon line, and Mr. Gore did, you know, come by to shake hands and talk to everybody.

And I said, “Mr. Gore, Mr. Gore, do you remember me? I’m the one that was on a hunger strike. My husband was tortured to death in Guatemala. I have five people now that I know of who were directly involved in his torture and murder, and those people are School of the Americas graduates.” And he said, “Yes, I remember you. You were on [inaudible] last year, right? Or a couple years ago.” And I said, “That’s right.” Then he said, “Yes, I’ll take your message back to Washington.”

AMY GOODMAN: He is Washington.

JENNIFER HARBURY: A number of military people, as soon as Mr. Gore left, came up and said, “Ma’am, come with us,” in a very happy manner, at which point they started to take me away, when a little old lady broke loose from the crowd and threw her arms around my neck and started crying that she had seen 60 Minutes and wished me the best. And then they were very agitated and suggested that I come with them right away. And they took me over to the provost office, and I’ve been invited to never return. But I explained to them that I would have to return, of course, since the School of the Americas is very directly linked to my husband’s torture and assassination, and since I don’t wish for more of those people to be created.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that Vice President Gore said he’ll bring your message to Washington, considering he is Washington.

JENNIFER HARBURY: That’s correct. I’m not sure how much good it did, but I did my best, and I will continue to try to support the School of the Americas Watch, because it’s very clear exactly what kind of person this school is turning out. By the way, these names that I’ve gotten, apart from Alpirez, who incidentally also appears on a corrupt officers list of the DEA — in other words, he’s a drug runner, as well — a number of the names that I’m turning up are part of an elite death squad called the Commando, which is from a high-level G-2, or Army Intelligence, unit within the Guatemalan army. And apparently, they coordinate very closely with, quote-unquote, “Uncle Sam” just a few blocks down the street from the United States Embassy.

So we have literally School of the Americas graduates engaging in corrupt activities, torture and assassination, and also coordinating very closely with the United States government, in fact, several times a week, all of which leads me to believe that the million-dollar question of why we are fighting to keep open the School of the Americas, despite its having a blue-ribbon medal in producing the hemisphere’s worst terrorists — why would we want to keep it open? I believe the answer is that it must be the place where the CIA molds, selects and recruits its future contacts and liaisons to do their dirty work. That is what I believe the School of the Americas is about.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Harbury, for people who aren’t familiar with your husband’s case, if you could run through it very quickly, so that we can understand how Colonel Alpirez and others, as you said, who were trained at School of the Americas fit in to his death?

JENNIFER HARBURY: Yes. My husband was a Mayan villager who was captured during the 35-year war. He was a prisoner of war. But the army literally faked his death. They wanted his information, and they knew that they would have to torture him to get it. And they didn’t want to deal with international outcry about the Geneva Conventions or human rights law, so they literally faked his death and held him for nearly — for more than a year in secret military detention centers where he was severely tortured. From the CIA documents I’ve received, I know that he was very severely tortured for more than a year. He was drugged repeatedly by army physicians. He was kept in a full body cast to prevent any possibility of escape and was eventually executed with no trial.

From what the three versions are that I have of his death, one is that he was beaten to death and buried beneath the Las Cabañas military base together with 500 to 2,000 other death squad victims. The second version is that he was taken away by helicopter and thrown into the ocean. I have a Defense Department document which says that, in fact, there were helicopters nightly at the Retalhuleu military base for a long time. They would pick up people who died during, quote-unquote, “interrogation” — read that “torture” — or who did not die during interrogation — in other words, were still alive — and would throw them into the sea to erase any evidence of the tortures they were committing. The third version is that he was dismembered and scattered across the sugar cane fields so that I would never be able to identify him.

This is the work of graduates of the School of the Americas. I think enough said. If this is simply one typical case out of millions in this hemisphere, add to that the murder of Archbishop Romero, the assassination of four nuns and the killings of the Jesuits and the abuses in Panama under such people as Noriega, what possible excuse do we have to keep this school open?

AMY GOODMAN: And then to the latest information you have, which you’re just getting now under Freedom of Information Act requests because you’re suing the U.S. government?

JENNIFER HARBURY: Yes, that’s correct. I have a number of lawsuits going against different U.S. agencies to force them to give me my files. And I’m continuing to get more and more testimony from live eyewitnesses who are more and more daring to come forward now that the war is over. I have a separate lawsuit for civil rights violations against close to 30 individual officials in the U.S. government, including those from the embassy, from the State Department, from the National Security Council and from the CIA.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are you getting this information? Why is the government allowing this information out? Because it would only fuel your case against them that these various Guatemalan military officials were trained at School of the Americas, were on the CIA payroll, etc.

JENNIFER HARBURY: I think that they have very little choice at this point. The FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act, requires them to give me as many documents — as most of these documents as they can. And they have heavily blacked out certain sections. And I get them in dribs and drabs over a period of years, thousands of sheets of paper apart. And I think that, to some extent, they don’t think that I’ll be able to remember all of this or read through every sentence of every single document and put the dots together. But I can. And they are also not expecting for people to come forward and tell me the real names of officials as I have been told by eyewitnesses.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was Vice President Gore at the School of the Americas, at Fort Benning?

JENNIFER HARBURY: I think that’s a very good question. Why was he there? He was also visiting, you know, different institutions nearby for a little bit. But he was clearly here to visit with the School of the Americas. And I hope that it made him stop and think twice to have to look me in the face and remember that my husband was murdered by graduates of this very institution and that I’m one out of perhaps a million cases in Latin America with the same suffering involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jennifer Harbury, I want to thank you very much for joining us this morning. And I know standing next to you at the School of the Americas Watch office is Charlie Liteky, who also was escorted off the base today.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Right in front of me, escorted off the base. Here we go.

CHARLES LITEKY: Hello, Amy. This is Charlie Liteky. How are you doing?

AMY GOODMAN: Very good. And I want to thank you for joining us. We’ve just been speaking with Jennifer Harbury, who got a chance to confront Vice President Gore today at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. You, too, were there, despite the fact that you have a lifelong ban from entering the Fort Benning base.

CHARLES LITEKY: That’s true, right. And I was fully aware of that, of course. And I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get onto the landing site there where he was supposed to come in, because there were checkpoints, and I was afraid somebody might recognize me. And after I was — I did get through the checkpoint, because they didn’t take IDs. And they just checked you for metal, things like that. So I got through that OK.

But then, when I was standing out there, I guess I must have looked like some kind of an unsavory character or something, and they gradually sided up next to me and tried to get some information from me. And I just said, you know, I was here to present the vice president with a letter from concerned citizens. And at first they didn’t realize that I had a ban and bar letter, so they let me alone for a little while.

Then they — I think when they checked it out after looking at my name, they came back and told me that I was violating the law, and was I aware of that. And I said, “Oh, yes, I was.” But I did want to make the statement. So, they said, “Well” — you know, a couple of soldiers and a Secret Service man came up, too, and started to escort me out. Well, at that point, I just — again, to invite all of the people around me to — who were there to welcome Gore, to just listen for a minute. I had something important to say. And so then I went on to talk about education, the kind of education that was going on right on the post there, educating young men in the fine art of torturing people. And this was going on right here on this base. And so, at the very moment, as we are standing here talking, five people are in downtown Columbus courthouse being tried for their witness to the truth. And so, at that point, they were moving me along. And I didn’t resist, but I was able to make the movements slow enough so that I could keep talking. Of course, the whole purpose of all of this is to try to put out the word relative to what’s going on at the School of the Americas.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Liteky, can you explain how you ended up getting the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam?

CHARLES LITEKY: Yes. Very briefly, I happened to be on a patrol one day. I accompanied a patrol of men to check out a mortar site about, oh, maybe about 40 miles northeast of Saigon.

AMY GOODMAN: You were a chaplain?

CHARLES LITEKY: I was a chaplain, a Catholic chaplain, at that time. And then, I used to make a habit of going out with the men whenever I could. That wasn’t my primary function, but it helped me to realize what they were going through and helped me to deal with their fears when they would come in for counseling and stuff like that, if I knew exactly what they were experiencing. And indeed, it was very frightening.

And then, the one particular day, we ran into a whole battalion. You only got about 30 men in a platoon, running into a whole battalion of people. We didn’t know there were that many at that time, and our men were just being cut down, you know, right and left in front of — right in front of me. So, like any human being would, I — I wasn’t in a combat, direct combat, position, so I just started to help them and pull them out. And that went on for several hours, and then we got some reinforcements. And the VC, or Viet Cong, who — they were mainly NVA. They started to begin to tear us up still. But we ended up the day with 25 people dead and 80 people wounded. Well, that was quite a bit for, you know, a little infantry battalion like ours. And we weren’t there primarily to do heavy work. We were just going out — we would just go out on what they call search-and-destroy missions. And most of the time we just encountered VC, the local guerrillas, maybe two or three of them, you know. But we ran into the North Vietnamese Army, which was staging for the Tet Offensive at that time, because this was in December of 1967.

And so, anyway, for my participation in that, the company commander, who happened to be there, wrote me up for this particular award, and it was given to me after about another year. And at the time, I thought that was, you know, pretty great. I was very proud of that. And also, you know, it was a very prestigious award. It brought with it a financial pension, $200 a month for the rest of my life, medical benefits and airplane travel and all that kind of stuff.

But I kept it for up until the time of the Contra war in Nicaragua and also what we were doing in El Salvador in the early '80s. When I realized that, went down there and saw for myself what our government was doing to the poor there, I just was incensed, and I felt that I wanted to renounce that medal. And I began to realize more what Vietnam was all about and what we had done to the people there. So, my whole metamorphosis from the time I was a gung-ho chaplain in Vietnam to a person who is trying to nonviolently work for peace and justice was very gradual. And I sympathize with a lot of people who get frustrated because changes don't happen more rapidly than they do. But I look at my own change, and it didn’t happen. You know, it depends on how much baggage you’re carrying when you — and how much acculturation you’ve had in your life. And I had plenty of it, because I was raised in a military family.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Liteky, we have to break for a minute for stations to identify themselves. Charlie Liteky, a former U.S. Army chaplain who won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam. Also, we’ve spoken with Jennifer Harbury, lawyer and activist whose Guatemalan husband was murdered by graduates of the School of the Americas on the CIA’s payroll. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Charlie Liteky and then, after that, author Sandra Cisneros. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! The Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Charles Liteky, who was arrested yesterday at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. He is a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery during the Vietnam War. He’s a former U.S. Army chaplain. He was there yesterday because Vice President Al Gore visited the School of the Americas, and he was there to give out leaflets despite the fact he has a lifelong ban that has been issued against him by the U.S. government. He and Jennifer Harbury got onto the base and were able to make their statements. They’re in Georgia because this week a trial is going on in Columbus, Georgia, of five of 600 people who protested the School of the Americas calling for its closing. This trial is taking place in Columbus, Georgia, and we’ll bring you more information on the trial as it goes on. But right now, Charlie Liteky, you were just describing your transformation as a gung-ho Vietnam vet, a former U.S. Army chaplain, and how you completely renounced what it was that you believed in, although it did take you some time. Can you explain some more?

CHARLES LITEKY: I’ve come to the realization that what we’re involved in now is a war against the poor all over the world. We want the Third World to remain third, no matter what we do. And we’re going to crush revolutions of poor people, communist or otherwise, that are going to try to better their way of life. And so, we are in a war against the poor. And it’s an undeclared war, as most of our wars in the Third World have been. And so, you know, the American public, of course, is not aware of that, and I’m sure most people would not even think that that’s present. But we see what’s happening to the poor here, and we see the way our government is treating the poor right here in this country, and it’s getting worse and worse. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Are you still a priest?

CHARLES LITEKY: No, I’m not. I’m not a priest. In the Catholic Church, you stay a priest forever. But I don’t belong to the Catholic Church anymore. I don’t belong to any organized religion. I have created a god for myself, after trying to — you know, to figure this whole thing out, because I don’t like the gods that are worshiped by organized religion, because they permit their people to kill one another. And I just — I can’t abide by that. I think people are very comfortable in these churches, where they go every Sunday and they experience the warmth of one another and hear the lovely words of Jesus, but then don’t go out and don’t open their eyes and hearts to suffering people, and who are not willing to go out and take a risk to change things.

But the beautiful thing about the School of the Americas is that it is — what they are doing is out in the open now with the publication and release of the torture manuals. That’s there, the lies that the school has been involved in over the years. And so it is a visible symbol of the war against the poor. And it’s not only going on here. It’s going on at Fort Bragg. It’s going on at every school, every Army school where low-intensity conflict is taught, because part and parcel of low-intensity conflict is what they call psychological warfare. And inclusive in psychological warfare is the use of terror. And so, you know, this is what we do. This is what the tax money of the U.S. citizens is going toward — not exclusively, of course, but —

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been put in jail as a result of your protests at School of the Americas?

CHARLES LITEKY: Yes. I was — I did a protest down here in 1990, the year — on the anniversary of the Jesuits. They were killed on November 16th of 1989. And in 1990, Father Roy Bourgeois asked that some of us come down here and fast. And out of that fast would come some discernment if we wanted to go on and do civil disobedience. Well, at that time, then Roy and myself, after the fast was over — it went for 35 days on water only. We ended up, I think, with about 10 people participating. But we decided we wanted to do more.

So, it was still close enough in terms of time to the actual murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador and the mother and child, and so we decided that we would bring the blood from Central America back to the School of the Americas. And there was a priest from whom we had gotten some soil that was mixed with the blood that was taken from under the body of one of the murdered priests there, and we mixed that with our own blood and blood from people all over the States. And it was real blood. There was no — that was at a time when using blood was not all that sensitive. And then, so we went right into the School of the Americas, invited the press to come along. And they came along and took pictures, and we just went into the lobby and upstairs and on the outside and poured and threw about a gallon and a half of blood. And it really was terrible later when we saw the pictures, because it was all done in about — oh, about three minutes at the most. Then we came outside and laid down, took the posture of the murdered Jesuits. And we were — after about 10 minutes, they came and took us away.

And out of that came a felony charge — it was my first felony charge — and six months in a minimum security for my brother and myself, and 14 months for Father Roy Bourgeois. And so, that was — I guess that was the first action that put me in jail for any length of time. And since then, I’ve been involved in a lot of different actions. A tremendous amount of denial around this whole issue of what our government is doing with the taxpayers’ money. In fact, we do have secret government, and any halfway observant person has got to know that. But secret government and democracy really don’t go together. So, for me, it’s just become a struggle, a lifelong struggle, and a way of life.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Liteky, I want to thank you very much for joining us, a powerful story that you’ve told today.

CHARLES LITEKY: It’s been a pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for joining us, and we’ll continue to cover the trial of those who have protested the School of the Americas and are facing one to five years, at trial in Columbus, Georgia, as well as the activities and protests of people like you and Jennifer Harbury, who go onto the Fort Benning base time and time again.

CHARLES LITEKY: Well, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Liteky, a former U.S. Army chaplain who won the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.

You’re listening to Democracy Now! By the way, tune in tomorrow for a rare interview with former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide about the coup criminals, some of them trained at the School of the Assassins in Fort Benning, Georgia, and the future of Haiti.

JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: And we must know who was paying for the coup, who financed the coup, who was involved in that coup, because it’s a matter of thousand and thousand of people who were killed.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s tomorrow on Democracy Now!

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