National Security

Published — January 17, 2017 Updated — January 18, 2017 at 11:48 am ET

Military trainees at defense universities later committed serious human rights abuses

Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo took courses at military bases in Virginia, Arizona and Georgia before leading a coup against Mali's democratic government. Rebecca Blackwell/AP

Foreign officers who attended top Pentagon schools were later accused of rape, murder, genocide, and coups, according to State Department reports

This article was co-published with the Daily Beast.


The Defense Department trained at least 17 high-ranking foreigners at some of its top schools who were later convicted or accused of criminal and human rights abuses in their own countries, according to a series of little-noticed, annual State Department reports to Congress.

Those singled out in the disclosures included five foreign generals, an admiral, a senior intelligence official, a foreign police inspector, and other military service members from a total of 13 countries, several of which endured war or coups.

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Several officers committed crimes within a few years of their training. Others committed crimes more than a decade later. Many of the officers were described in the reports as leaders or participants in high-profile scandals and conflicts in their countries — including extrajudicial killings in Colombia, torture during Nepal’s conflict against Maoists, and murder during a Bolivian internal conflict, according to the State Department reports.

A senior Congolese military officer who attended a year-long program at the U.S. Defense Institute of International Legal Studies, in 2007, for example, was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department last September for participation in “violent intimidation” of opposition political candidates, including death threats that prompted some of the candidates to withdraw.

The Defense Department’s training was partly intended to instill democratic values and respect for human rights, but at least 13 of the 17 were subsequently arrested or charged in their home countries for crimes such as genocide, murder, and rape, said the reports, one of which was labeled as “Sensitive but Unclassified.” Others named in the reports were accused of torture or murder by civil and criminal courts, human rights lawyers, or government investigators, but continue to work in their official capacity.

Among the Pentagon- and military-run schools they attended, from 1985 to 2010, were the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, the U.S. Army Engineer School in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and others.

Independent analysts, lawyers, and human rights experts say the actual number of U.S. foreign military trainees who committed human rights abuses and other crimes is almost certainly higher than 17, in part because the State Department reports to Congress — required under obscure language inserted into a military assistance bill in 2002 that may soon be removed — only encompass one of the more than fifty U.S. training and defense assistance programs.

At least 33 other foreign military officers who received U.S. military and police training later committed human rights abuses, according to a separate tally by researchers at the nonprofit Center for International Policy, who based their tabulation on U.S. and foreign press accounts of incidents of violence or abuse involving foreign government officials.

Several of those on the Center’s list — including Amadou Sanogo, a former captain in Mali’s army— notoriously led coups against their governments a few years after attending the U.S. institutions.

The reports to Congress account for a “very small universe” of all those trained, said Daniel Mahanty, who directed the Office of Security and Human Rights within the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from January 2014 to September 2015. Mahanty said that he did not know the actual number of human rights abusers trained by the United States, because no effort has been attempted to monitor systematically the behavior of the military’s graduates.

Multiple agencies with little accountability

The reports to Congress specifically delineate those participants in the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program tagged in the State Department’s annual human rights reporting effort as having problematic behavior. As the main program that brings foreigners to the United States to attend U.S. military schools at Washington’s expense, IMET is now offered to select military and police officers in more than 120 countries worldwide. A much larger portion of the military’s foreign trainees is instructed in their own countries or at regional foreign centers.

Under a provision of the defense funding bill for fiscal year 2017 that Congress approved and Obama signed in December, the Trump administration will be required to certify that future security assistance “includes a comprehensive curriculum on human rights and the law of armed conflict.” But it does not specify what this should consist of.

The IMET training costs more than $100 million annually and in 2014 trained roughly 4,000 foreign military officers, amounting to 7 percent of the more than 56,000 foreign officers trained by the Defense Department yearly.

The IMET program, in turn, is part of a larger U.S. government effort to build up foreign police and military forces at a total cost of $250 billion since the September 2001 terror attacks. That larger effort is managed by roughly 46 government offices with little coordination and weak oversight, according to multiple critics. While the work is mostly funded by the Pentagon, the State Department is supposed to lead it, and to vet potential trainees.

“These dysfunctions include shortcomings in personnel and bureaucratic structure … a mismatch in planning cultures and budgeting timelines; a lack of policy prioritization and coherence [and] insufficient clarity, transparency, and monitoring and evaluation,” according to the Open Society Foundation’s Rose Jackson, who served as chief of staff in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 2013 until last April and recently completed a comprehensive study of the issue.

The IMET program was started in 1976 to foster closer relations with foreign militaries, but one of its three stated goals is to teach foreign military officers “basic issues involving internationally recognized human rights,” according to the Foreign Assistance Act.

That goal has been sketchily met, experts say. Most of the IMET courses concern war strategy, technical skills and management, and the participants read military history and are taught how to react in a crisis. The Defense Department says that human rights topics are woven into these courses. At the defense International Studies institute in Newport, Rhode Island, the naval school in Monterey, and the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Georgia, for instance, IMET students take courses on international law, military ethics, and civil-military relations as part of yearlong master’s degree programs.

At most of the other service colleges, however, the officers instead participate in field trips to American cities, courthouses and nonprofit organizations meant only generally to expose the IMET students to American values, according to the State Department’s annual “Foreign Military Training” report and interviews with independent experts and international program directors at Defense Department service colleges.

While most of the 17 officers listed in the State Department disclosures took courses on command and strategy, the reports list only one as having completed a rule of law course.

Their experience was typical, not unusual, according to researchers at the Security Assistance Monitor, a unit of the Center for International Policy that tracks U.S. spending related to foreign militaries. In an analysis completed last year based on public reports, the unit concluded that only 11.7 percent of IMET-funded students in 2014 took courses focused on human rights or the rule of law.

A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Patrick L. Evans, said in an email to CPI that the department “is committed to providing comprehensive training” to foreign personnel on military budgeting, civilian control mechanisms, military justice systems, and following codes of conduct that meet international human rights standards.

But Shannon Green, a former senior director for global engagement at the National Security Council during the Obama administration who now directs the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “the human rights training component is merely a check the box exercise.” She said she formed this conclusion after interviewing Pentagon officials about how to improve U.S. security assistance.

Colby Goodman, who directs the Security Assistance Monitor and oversaw its IMET research, said the U.S. military should not only give human rights a higher priority but take a broad view of how to instill it. Its courses, he said, should emphasize the importance of combating corruption and creating robust oversight mechanisms, while tailoring training to specific human rights gaps in countries where the officers are serving.

“The human rights training component is merely a check the box exercise.”

Shannon Green, former senior director for global engagement at the National Security Council

Convict regrets not getting human rights training

Charles Bowry, a former lance corporal in the Saint Kitts and Nevis defense force, said in a jailhouse telephone interview that he did not take a human rights course when he was in the United States at the U.S. Army Engineer School in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in 2010. Instead, he participated in field trips — to Washington, D.C., and an Amish village — meant to satisfy that requirement.

Reached at Her Majesty’s Prison in Basseterre, where he’s serving a 16-year sentence for raping a 16-year-old girl, he said he would have liked to take human rights courses to learn more about “the culture and the rights” in the United States, because “knowledge is power.” Bowry, who was sentenced for the rape incident along with another U.S.-trained lance corporal, Jamal Phillip, complained that his conviction was a “political setup” but did not explain.

Even those who got more focused training have had stumbles. According to the State Department’s report to Congress in 2011, John Numbi, an advisor to Democratic Republic of the Congo President Joseph Kabila, completed a year-long training in 2007 at the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies, whose leaders say it focuses on rule of law, governance, and human rights studies. Three years later, Congolese authorities suspended Numbi from his post as head of police, after a human rights activist, Floribert Chebeya, was murdered the same night he was supposed to meet Numbi.

In this January 2010 photo, human rights activist Floribert Chebeya Bahizire speaks during a seminar in Kinshasa, Congo. (Marcel Shomba Okoka/AP)

Numbi has denied any wrongdoing and hasn’t been charged in the case, but lawyers representing the victims filed an appeal after a related trial of a few police officers, in which they called for his trial too. “Almost 80 local and international human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also expressed serious concerns about the credibility and independence of the investigation and [police officers’] trial,” according to the State Department’s 2011 human rights report on the Congo. The government there has denounced the sanctions against Numbi imposed last year by the Treasury Department as grotesque violations of international law.

Paul Lambert, an assistant dean at Georgetown University who organized international student programs for the National Defense University from 2008 to 2015, said that training high-ranking foreign officers helps establish friendships and opportunities for future cooperation with foreign militaries and defense ministries. Lambert said in a phone interview that in 2012, when he surveyed IMET students after their training, he found that they were more critical of their home countries’ human rights records, while holding more positive views of the United States.

“It certainly changed the way they were thinking and opened their eyes about the U.S.,” Lambert said. But he added that the trainees are often cut off from the United States when they graduate and security partnerships are often under-utilized. Asked about students who went on to commit human rights abuses, Lambert said, “We’ve trained 8,000 people. There’s bound to be a few bad apples.” He said he understood the concern but considered it a “rare” occurrence.

Green, the former NSC official, said however that a “desire for strong security partnerships” often conflicts with the protection of human rights. U.S. security interests, she said, often override other considerations, and the United States ends up training militaries in countries with bad human rights records.

Civilians look on as soldiers loyal to junta chief Capt. Amadou Sanogo load trucks with supplies including halal military rations, a cot, and a mattress, outside the parachutists camp after taking control in fighting against anti-junta forces, in Bamako, Mali, Tuesday, May 1, 2012. (Harouna Traore/AP)

“I tried to put all the things I learned into practice”

Amadou Sanogo, who five years ago as an army captain led a coup against Mali’s democratic government that helped open the door to the growth of radical Islamists there, took courses at a Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, and at Army bases in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and Fort Benning, Georgia. He was jailed in 2013 by a new government, and his trial on charges of complicity in assassinations that occurred during the coup began in November and will resume sometime later this year.

Sanogo, who was promoted to general and remained Mali’s strongman for more than a year after the coup, said in a 2013 interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel that he had “saved the country” from its “sick” government. When asked what he learned in the United States while training there, Sanogo replied: “America is great country with a fantastic army. I tried to put all the things I learned there into practice here.”

In 2010, the United States trained 1,620 officers from Mali under multiple security assistance programs at a total cost of more than $5 million; during the past decade, it spent over $1 billion on military and development projects there. After the coup in 2013, Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said in a Washington speech that the military had not spent enough time teaching Mali’s soldiers “values, ethics, and military ethos.”

Jose Zamora Induta, another of the 17 officers accused of abuses, trained with the U.S. Coast Guard in 2001 and 2002 and went on to run Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces after political violence in 2009. Induta became head of Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces after the murder of then-President João Bernardo Vieira and the armed forces’ then-Chief of Staff Tagme Na Waie.

According to the State Department Human Rights Report for 2009, Induta said initially that the president had “ordered the killing of Na Waie [but] Induta subsequently denied any connection between the killings.” After Induta took over the armed forces, a lawyer who criticized Induta publicly “reportedly was beaten and tortured for four days,” according to the report.

The next month, in April 2009, Marcia Bernicat, then-U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau wrote in a cable leaked by Wikileaks that Induta had embraced “illegal and brutish tactics” and had either “contempt for rule of law and human rights or … lack of effective command and control over his troops.”

Induta was ousted as chief of staff in 2010. Guinea-Bissau continued to receive IMET funding until 2012, when the armed forces successfully ousted the president in a coup d’état. His lawyer did not return several phone calls.

Colombian Captain Ruben Blanco, who a State Department report said took a cadet orientation course at the School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, in 1994, was arrested in 2004 and accused along with others by the Colombian prosecutor general of associating with paramilitary groups that committed political killings, including of labor leaders, according to the report.

A separate State Department report in Aug. 2005 called the evidence in the case “credible.” The present status of the complaint is unclear.

According to the State Department reports and court records, former Bolivian army Gen. Roberto Claros Flores, a 1987 graduate of the U.S. Air Command and Staff College in Alabama, and former Adm. Luis Aranda, a Marine commander who completed a year of IMET training in 1987, were convicted in 2011 of crimes including genocide, stemming from their role in policing actions taken during Bolivia’s “gas war,” a confrontation in October 2003 between miners and indigenous protestors and the Bolivian government.

Claros remains imprisoned. Bjorn Arp, a lawyer who represents Claros, said in a telephone interview that the evidence in Bolivia used to convict Claros was not “credible” and called accusations against him “curious” and politically-motivated. Aranda could not be reached.

The annual State Department reports disclosing the names of human rights abusers that had received U.S. training under the IMET program would be eliminated under separate legislation proposed last year by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, and by Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat. Congressional aides who asked not to be quoted by name said the legislation’s aim is to alleviate administrative burdens imposed on the executive branch.

National security managing editor R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this article. Lauren Chadwick is a Scoville Fellow at the Center for Public Integrity.

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