CONCORD, N.H. -- Retired General Wesley K. Clark sometimes downplays his Army background, and criticizes the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays. But there is one military institution he vigorously defends: the controversial academy once known as the US Army School of the Americas.
Opposition to the school, which trains military officers from Latin American countries, has long been a cause celebre among some Democrats and liberal activists, who say the academy has trained some of the most notorious criminals of the region and teaches skills that Latin American armies sometimes use against their own citizenry. Supporters of the school point to reforms from the 1990s, and say its courses teach foreign soldiers about democracy and human rights.
But many critics have not wavered in their opposition, and voters on the campaign trail -- in New Hampshire and elsewhere -- have been questioning Clark about his support.
Clark never headed the school but had dealings with it when he led the US Southern Command from 1996 to 1997. He delivered a graduation speech there in 1996 and has praised the school before Congress. George Bruno, the cochairman of Clark's New Hampshire campaign and a former ambassador to Belize, was a paid adviser to the school when it reopened with a new charter in 2001.
Now, on the stump, Clark strongly defends the school, without denying that some graduates have committed atrocities in their home countries.
At a retirement home in Concord this month, one woman told Clark that the school's graduates have been accused of murder. Clark responded that when white-collar criminals are arrested for fraud, nobody faults their alma mater.
"There's been a lot of rotten people who've gone to a lot of rotten schools in the history of the world," Clark said. "And a lot of them went to this school. But a lot of them have gone to Harvard Business School and a lot of other places."
The US Army School of the Americas, created in 1946, has been located since the 1960s in a building at Fort Benning, Ga., and trains 800 to 1,000 Latin American military officers each year, in courses that last from six weeks to one year. Former Panamanian leader General Manuel Noriega is a graduate, along with some of the most notorious criminals of Latin America, critics say. Nineteen graduates also were involved in the killings of seven Jesuit priests and two of their coworkers in El Salvador in 1989.
Allegations against the school intensified in 1996, after the Pentagon declassified a report that said manuals used there in the 1980s advocated fighting insurgents with execution, blackmail, kidnapping, and torture.
In 1997, as commander in chief of the US Southern Command, Clark praised the school before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying its mission had changed since the Cold War days. "This school is the best means available to ensure that the armed forces in Latin America and the armies in Latin America understand US values and adopt those values as their own," Clark said at the time.
But some members of Congress, including Massachusetts' late Representative J. Joseph Moakley and former Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, pressed for legislation to close the school. In 2000, Congress did so. Weeks later, a new school -- the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation -- reoponed in the same building.
The new institute has an oversight board that includes members of Congress and academics, said Lee Rials, a spokesman for the school. He said the law also requires the school to offer human rights training and mandates student trips to see US government in action. The school also offers tours to the public.
But opponents insist the school should be shut down, and they continue to gather thousands for annual protests at Fort Benning, organized by a Washington-based group called SOA Watch. Actor Martin Sheen is among those who have been arrested for trespassing there; nuns and priests are often among the arrested, as well.
US Representative James P. McGovern, a Democrat of Worcester, introduced a bill last March to shut down the school, cosponsored by 102 representatives, including Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri -- both candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination this year. Senator John F. Kerry, another candidate, signed on to a Senate bill to shut down the school, introduced in 1998, according to McGovern's staff.
The school has "become a symbol that represents all of the things we don't want people to think of us in Latin America," said McGovern, who has endorsed Kerry in the presidential race. "It's a stain on our human rights record, and it seems to me that at a time when we're trying to lift up our credibility around the world, especially in the area of human rights, it would be a very powerful statement" to close it.
In New Hamspshire and Wisconsin, Clark has defended the school to questioners. "We are teaching police and military people from Latin America human rights," he said last week in Concord. "And if we didn't bring them in and teach them human rights, they wouldn't be able to learn human rights anywhere."
On the stump, Clark tells critics that Bruno will take them to visit the school, although he sometimes misidentifies Bruno as a board member.
"He's on the board. He'll be happy to take you down there," Clark told the woman who questioned him in Concord. "If you find anything in that curriculum material or anything that's taught there that looks in any way remotely connected with human rights abuse or torture, you let me know, and I promise you, we'll close the School of the Americas when I'm president," he said.
But if "you find nothing wrong [and] you see these officers and noncommissioned officers in there learning about human rights, I'd like you to change your position."