TUCSON, Ariz. - A pair of priests arrested in November for trespassing on Fort Huachuca are determined to make a court case out of what they contend is torture being taught at the Southern Arizona Army post.
"We're going to put torture on trial," the Rev. Louis Vitale and the Rev. Steve Kelly told nearly 80 people Friday in the sanctuary of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson.
But Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, the senior officer on the post and the one who leads the Intelligence Center, denies torture techniques are part of any instruction.
The training on the post is "Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œcompletely consistent with applicable law and policy, to include Sen. (John) McCain's s amendment, the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005," Fast said.
The act, which the Arizona Republican specifically ensured forbade torture, "requires that no person in the custody or under the effective control of the Department of Defense facility shall be subject to any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by and listed in the U.S. Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation," she said.
In September, the Army released another field manual specifically geared to human intelligence collector operations, which also directed "that no person in the custody of or under the control of DOD (Department of Defense), regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, in accordance with and as defined in U.S. law."
But Kelly said what is happening inside the wire at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the main detainee complex for suspected terrorists, is taught on the fort and includes using physical and mental torture techniques.
Vitale said a female rancher who said she has property that abuts the fort "knows torture is taught." He did not name the woman, who purportedly spoke at a support meeting for the two priests last week.
The two men - Vitale a Franciscan and Kelly a Jesuit - are seeking moral, financial and physical support before, during and after their trial, which is tentatively scheduled in the Tucson federal courthouse on June 6.
On Nov. 19, the priests performed an act of civil disobedience by walking on to the fort through the post's Main Gate area as part of what has become an annual protest of intelligence training. The event is linked to a larger protest that takes place at Fort Benning, Ga., every year. The School of the Americas is located at Fort Benning, and the school has been accused of teaching torture methods to Latin American militaries.
The two men, both who have served time in federal lockups for anti-military protests, wanted to deliver a letter to Fast and be allowed to speak to students at the Intelligence Center.
As they did in November, they wore priestly garments of their orders on Friday - Vitale in a brown cassock of Franciscan friars and Kelly in black shoes, pants and shirt, with a small white collar at his neck.
As they walked across the street on to fort property in November, they were initially approached by a man in civilian clothes who did not identify himself and they continued on, they said.
Kelly said as more people from the fort approached at one point, he followed Vitale, who knelt and began to pray.
The pair were eventually taken to a facility on post and charged with trespassing. They were released on their own recognizance that day.
Vitale and Kelly were the first ever to be arrested for trespassing on the post as part of the annual protest near the Main Gate.
As the two men went toward the fort, supporters yelled out encouragement while members of a counterprotest shouted disparaging comments.
In 2001, the name of the Fort Benning school was changed to Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. However, the priests still call the facility School of the Americas, something they constantly did at the Tucson meeting, because they do not believe there has been any change in the instructional course at the Georgia installation.
Appearance seen differently
On Feb. 13, the priests and their supporters once again went to the fort for what the priests said was an arraignment, but post officials said was an initial appearance.
Kelly said they were taken to a building where the post courtroom is located and eventually were escorted - down into the basement - into a room with a flickering light.
Post spokeswoman Tanja Linton said the initial hearing was "held in a well-lit room in Greely Hall" because there were so many supporters with the priests they could not fit in the courtroom.
The hearing was held in a nearby conference room, she added.
Vitale's impression of the building was that it is ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œthe intelligence headquarters for the United States and the spy headquarters for the world, where every phone call made by a soldier to a family member is monitored.
Linton said that description is not true. Greely Hall is primarily used for the headquarters of the Army Network Enterprise Technology Command, along with other organizations, she said. NETCOM is the Army's premier communications organization.
Kelly said many people will not accept the fact the U.S. government, through its military and other agencies, practices torture. And, he said, the conflict of whether torture is right is something American citizens have a hard time grasping.
A Christian congregation was polled, "and the majority said torture is acceptable," Kelly said.
The problem is the government is convincing people that in today's world any way to extract information is allowable, he said.
Vitale said his own sister, whom he described as a gentle person who would not hurt a flea, also believes in some cases of excessive force, such as torture, can be used.
According to a recent Pentagon report, a large number of soldiers and Marines serving in Iraq also believe torture should be used if it will save the lives of their buddies.
Soldier rallying point
Both men used the death of Alyssa Peterson, an Army specialist from Flagstaff, as a rally point for their anti-torture crusade. Her suicide was the act of a woman who could not bear the responsibility of being an interrogator in Iraq, they said.
"The Army put her in a program that taught her how to torture," Vitale said.
According to a March 11 article in The Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff, the 27-year-old Peterson killed herself in Tel Afar, Iraq, on Sept. 15, 2003. The article about the soldier's death was based on an investigative report the newspaper obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Peterson had a hard time separating being an interrogator from who she was as an individual, according to the article.
The soldier apparently had a lot of empathy for Iraqi detainees, so much so she was reprimanded and reassigned after just two days as an interrogator, the newspaper article stated.
She reportedly was concerned detainees did not have showers in the cage "where they were held" or other accommodations, did not like being required to be nice to one person and harsh to another and was particularly upset when only three of 43 detainees questioned were found worthy of additional attention, the newspaper said the investigating document stated.
One of the sworn statements from a fellow soldier about the number of detainees held said: "he was angry with the fact that we treated them all as guilty initially and only backed off when their innocence was proven," the Daily Sun reported.
In the article, Peterson was described as driven, intelligent and warm. It was noted she had a talent for learning languages. After graduating from Northern Arizona University, she enlisted in the Army and attended the Defense Language Institute, which is in California, where she learned Arabic.
Then-Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus approved the investigation report, the newspaper sated. Today, he is the four-star general in command of all Iraqi operations.
The priests contest the reports by the Army that torture is not taught, stating the main reason for Peterson's self-inflicted death was she had to torture as part of her job, which she learned while attending counterintelligence courses on Fort Huachuca, which is one of the many classes taught on the post.
Fast not commander
The two men also claim that Fast, who when she served in Iraq, commanded the prison at Abu Ghraib, the scene of detainee abuse.
The post's spokeswoman said this is not true. Linton said the general served as the director of intelligence for the Multi-Nation Force-Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"She did not command Abu Ghraib prison. The facility was commanded by Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, and interrogation operations were commanded by Col. Thomas Pappas," Linton said.
Pappas was the commander of an intelligence brigade and has been punished, as has Karpinski, according to news reports.
The detainee abuse was committed by military police, medical and intelligence soldiers, most of whom have been punished, news reports state.
Fast has been the subject of a number of investigations and has not been charged. When she returned from Iraq, she was supposed to assume command of the Intelligence Center and the fort, but that was delayed a number of months until the last investigation was completed. She will leave command in late June, heading to a lateral assignment at the Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Va.
Linton said any allegation that Fast supports torture is untrue.
"Throughout her 30-plus years in the Army, Maj. Gen. Fast has adhered to all applicable laws and policies and has lived the Army values," Linton said, adding, "She has never condoned torture."
Torture training ground
On the other hand, the priests are not convinced the post is not the initial torture training ground for the Army.
To them, 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds at Fort Huachuca are being turned into torturers.
Vitale and Kelly are among those who do not accept the government's non-torture claim.
The question they are facing will be answered by a federal judge, if they can create a trial within their trial.
And, they believe, it is equally important for Arizonans that it has taken awhile for the anti-torture community to recognize that initial training in dehumanizing a soldier starts in the state.
"It starts here in your back yard," Vitale told the audience. "It starts at Fort Huachuca."
For Fast, there is no hiding how training is done on the post.
Training on the fort is transparent, she said, emphasizing that under lawful polices "which forbids torture" American and other lives are being saved.
"We have hosted several media days for the media to view our training, and also supported numerous individual requests from international, national and regional media. Additionally, several congressional officials have visited and observed our training," Fast said.
herald/Review senior reporter Bill Hess can be reached at 515-4615 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
© 2007 Wick Communications.