With Vote to Close the U.S. Army School of the Americas Pending, New Details on Army Spying

As the annual push to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas nears, with a vote expected in Congress the week of June 20th, an underexamined issue remains the extent of government spying on the protest movement SOA Watch. Since the American Civil Liberties Union released declassified FBI files in May 2006, (1) a subsequent ACLU inquiry with the Department of Defense turned up nothing (2)—even though for years, former school instructor Ken LaPlante ran a counterintelligence operation against SOA Watch while working as a subcontractor for the Department of the Army.

LaPlante’s activities—and those of William Willoughby, a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army who says he reported to LaPlante—raise questions about the use of contractors and the infrastructure of the Army to spy on protesters against the School of the Americas, and possible ties to the White House. This comes as the U.S. Senate considers legislation reauthorizing intelligence gathering.

As reported by the New York Times on June 1st, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report that “criticized the intelligence agencies’ ballooning use of contractors.” (3)  Buried in the report accompanying the legislation is an admission that the U.S. government effectively has no oversight over spying, because auditors cannot obtain information from contractors. (4) The new legislation proposes giving auditors this authority as a reform. However, to people with long memories, the Army’s Strategic Communications Campaign Plan for the SOA/WHINSEC—posted here with an analysis (5)—the activities of LaPlante and Willoughby, and the possibility of White House ties raise questions about what the Army has done (in its own words) “to attack the very concerns that lay at the heart of the protest movement.” (6)


On April 23rd, I interviewed William Willoughby, a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army. It was the day before Kevin Tillman and Jessica Lynch—two icons of the U.S. war in Iraq—would testify to Congress about the Army lying about their stories. (7)  Based in Cleveland, Ohio, Willoughby had built up some local notoriety for arguing against critics of the SOA, and he was pissed. “The Army is being portrayed as an institution you can’t trust,” he said. “So much of this protest is a lie. [You] need to have somebody answer.”

“The leadership of the protest does a very good job of what we could call a psychological operation,” he went on. “I know enough about psychological warfare to know that they’ve done an excellent job of it.” A former West Point graduate, psychological officer in Vietnam, and infantry and counterinsurgency instructor at Fort Benning, Georgia, Willoughby said he retired from the Army in 1971 with a disability. Afterwards, he described himself as a fixer who moved from volunteering for the Army, working with Congressional offices to help local students get ROTC scholarships and nominations to West Point, to an increasingly vocal position monitoring and countering the movement to close the School of the Americas.

Since he became a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army in 1994, Willoughby said he sought to arrange meetings or debates between the Commandant of the SOA and protesters, once debated prominent SOA critic Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer himself, and attended Army meetings on the subject in Washington DC. Willoughby described himself as the most active Army civilian aide on this issue—“Other civilian aides are involved in countering the movement against the SOA; it depends on where it may pop up,” he said—and claimed he detailed his activities in regular reports to the Secretary of the Army and ran them through Ken LaPlante.

“I like Ken; we did a lot of things together; he’s moved on,” Willoughby said. “One of them was the Marcy Kaptur trip.” According to Willoughby, when Congresswoman Kaptur voted to close the school, he went to her Toledo office, suggested flying a group of constituents to the SOA/WHINSEC to lobby them, and arranged for the National Guard to fly a group of about 30 people down to Georgia. “What’s fun about being a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army is that I can use resources to set up things like this.”

Willoughby said he worked with LaPlante on “a number of other Congressional trips that I was involved on, calls on Congressional offices and that sort of thing. I had a lot of different contacts with him in the course of things, when things were popping up; he was a regular point of communications. If something popped up in my area, I would call Ken. I don’t know what Ken would do; that kind of information goes into a log, or maybe he would have some advice or suggestion or a thought about what to do or just note the activity.”  

Both as a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army, and as a Board member for the Corporation for the Promotion of Rifle Practice and Firearms Safety—a corporation authorized to sell surplus U.S. Army rifles and ammunition to shooting clubs, with six current or former SOTA aides on its 11-member Board (8)-—Willoughby could build opposition to School of the Americas Watch within Army ranks. Willoughby hastened to add that he considered himself a volunteer, not an agent in LaPlante’s chain of command.

Not everyone remembers Willoughby’s activities so benignly. Christopher Kerr coordinates social justice initiatives in campus ministry at John Carroll University. Kerr says that Willoughby first contacted him in 2003 when Kerr worked at St. Edwards Catholic High School, and that Kerr subsequently hosted a presentation by Willoughby. Moving to John Carroll, Kerr arranged an opportunity for him to debate local SOA Watch activists in 2005. Kerr says that Willoughby wanted to question the school funding students to go to the November protests; Willoughby doesn’t recall ever doing that at any school. Kerr says that at a campus event in October 2006, Willoughby intimidated a guest speaker Walter Mena by naming the courses he took at the School of the Americas and his instructor, and stating that he knew the instructor personally. Mena, who says he took combat training at the SOA in 1983, said he was “surprised” by Willoughby’s confrontation.

Ken LaPlante ran a counterintelligence operation on SOA Watch, co-ordinating an effort that sought to decrease “the number of letters from constituents to Congress criticizing the WHINSEC” (9)  by flooding the press with positive press releases, recruiting activists to turn SOA Watch events into debates to get out Army messaging, recruiting NGOs and universities to participate in its public events, and mobilizing the U.S. Army so that “at least half of the internal Army audience will know about the WHINSEC when surveyed.” (10)

An instructor in combat operations at the SOA from 1980 to 1983, Ken LaPlante said he became the Army’s Chief of Latin-American Political-Military Affairs in 1993. In that role, he said he went to the 1993 and 1994 protests against the SOA, drafted the Army’s analysis of SOA Watch material, and participated in the Interagency Working Group to defend the School of the Americas in 1993-95.

Consisting of “representatives from the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Joint Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, U.S. Southern Command [and Army Training and Doctrine Command], and other agencies,” (11)  LaPlante said the working group “had people who had a vested interest in this army school.” According to the SOA’s official history, the Secretary of the Army ordered the group to disband when the scandal surrounding manuals advocating the use of torture surfaced in the U.S., but the high-level interagency contacts the group established were essential to keep the SOA open. (12)

After working as commander of the U.S. Military Group in Venezuela from 1995-97, then returning to Washington to work as Chief of Intelligence Oversight for the Army Inspector General, LaPlante was hired under a subcontract for the Department of the Army through Core Processes, Inc., now known as BCP International. (13) In December 1999, Core Processes, Inc., received an $18 million contract from the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of the Army, International Affairs, to provide analytical support for examining the Army’s international activities. (14)  As their Senior Policy Adviser and Analyst for Western Hemisphere Affairs, LaPlante said he vetted correspondence for Colonel Marc Morgan. Describing a letter Morgan sent to Amnesty International, LaPlante said, “The letter I do know started out responding as the official designee [for] the President, which Condoleeza Rice is the principal deputy. Colonel Morgan gets every letter sent on this issue that goes to the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Army, and the Chief of Staff of the Army.”

Simultaneously, LaPlante called local schools and activists hosting SOA Watch events, and directed subordinates to do it. Just how many names LaPlante collected, what was done with them, and whether they were reported up through his chain of command is an open question. Gina diNicolo, who worked under LaPlante in 2002, said, “I started calling these places [hosting SOA Watch events] and asking if we could also speak. Normally, people just hang up on me. I really hate making this call; it’s almost like being a telemarketer.”

Jud Weiksnar says that LaPlante first contacted him in 2003 after seeing a posting on the website of St. Bonaventure University’s Franciscan Center for Social Concern describing their visits to protest the SOA. LaPlante wanted to speak on campus, and Weiksnar arranged a debate in response. The following year, when Weiksnar asked LaPlante if his students might attend WHINSEC’s Open House, to his surprise LaPlante asked him to join the school’s oversight Board of Visitors. According to Weiksnar, LaPlante was stuck with one Catholic priest--Denis St. Marie, of the Cleveland area—stepping down from the Board, and the proposed replacement backing out. Weiksnar accepted and attended the Board’s December 2004 meeting, where he says he was told by a Colonel and a Lieutenant Colonel Linda Gould that his nomination had been rejected by the White House.

A 2005 PR Watch article describes the Army’s efforts to recruit “third-party (non-Army) public support” from human rights organizations, universities, and think tanks. Like diNicolo’s cold-calling of activists, PR Watch quotes Adam Isaacson of the Center for International Policy as saying, “They faxed out invites for several years, but they weren’t to anyone’s attention.” (15) PR Watch also noted the Army publicizing as a guest “eminent educator” Russell Ramsey, who in fact was the original project officer for the SOA’s counterinsurgency course.

While PR Watch reported that the WHINSEC had made inroads with NGOs—citing, for instance, that the Georgia-based Carter Center nominated the winner of WHINSEC’s Simon Bolivar award in 2002, hosted visits by WHINSEC students in 2003, and participated in a forum titled “Democracy and Human Rights at WHINSEC” organized by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy in 2005—Phil Wise, the Center’s Vice President of Operations, states, “While members of the Carter Center’s staff have attended various meetings regarding WHINSEC/SOA in the past, we do not have any current or significant ties to the issue.”

What do career U.S. counterinsurgency officers do to a protest movement in the U.S. that seeks to establish U.S. responsibility for torture, massacres, and human rights violations, and to journalists who seek the truth? Are LaPlante and Willoughby’s actions those of rogues shielded by a subcontractor, for which increasing government oversight is the answer? Or are they in keeping with the activities of Otto Reich in the 1980s and his Office of Public Diplomacy--summarized by the National Security Archives as “senior CIA officials with backgrounds in covert operations, as well as military intelligence and psychological operations specialists from the Department of Defense…deeply involved in establishing and participating in a domestic [U.S.] political and propaganda operation” —the activities of the Interagency Working Group to defend the SOA in the 1990s, and the SOA/WHINSEC Strategic Communications Council in this decade?

One thing is certain: LaPlante is now the Deputy Director of the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington DC, working under Richard Downie—the man the Army installed as the Commandant to give the School of the Americas a human rights make-over under a new name, WHINSEC. In that position, LaPlante can influence many more soldiers to do as he has done.  

Aaron Shuman attended the 2002 protests of the School of the Americas as a journalist, participated in the 2004 protests, and did four months in federal prison in 2005.

(1)  “School of the Americas Watch—FBI/JTTF Documents Released,” May 4, 2006. http://www.aclu.org/safefree/spying/25436res200605 04.html

(2)   “Challenging the Pentagon’s Illegal Spying.” http://www.aclu.org/safefree/spyfiles/24010res2006 0201.html
See “DOD Response to ACLU of Georgia,” September 12, 2006.
http://www.aclu.org/safefree/spying/27046lgl200609 12.html

(3)  Scott Shane, “Senate Panel Questions CIA Detentions,” New York Times, June 1, 2007.

(4)  “Intelligence Authorization Act for FY 2007: Report Together with Supplemental and Additional Views to Accompany SB 372,” p19, 31-33, U.S. Senate, 110th Congress, 1st session, report 110-2, printed 1/24/07. Downloadable at http://intelligence.senate.gov

(5)  See “WHINSEC’s Strategic Communications Campaign Plan,” U.S. Army,  http://www.soaw.org/article.php?id=1035

(6)  Joe Leuer, history of the SOA, Adelante 2000, page 23.

(7)  See for instance, “Soldier: ‘Ordered Not to Tell of Tillman’s Death. House Hearing Questions Friendly Fire Tragedy and Rescue of Jessica Lynch,” MSNBC,  April 24, 2007. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18287244/

(8)   For more information on the Corporation for the Promotion of Rifle Practice and Firearms Safety, see http://www.odcmp.com

(9)  Strategic Communications Campaign Plan, p2.

(10) Ibid.

(11)   Adelante, p25.

(12) Adelante, p26.

(13)   See here for BCPI’s extensive list of military customers. http://bcpiltd.com/index.php?action=website-view&a mp;WebSiteID=423&WebPageID=11529

They include the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Office of the Secretary of the Army, Office of the Chief of Staff, Army, Office of the Assistant Secretary of State, International NarcoticsĀ & Law Enforcement, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Manpower & Reserve Affairs, Army Forces Command, Army Materiel Command, Army Training and Doctrine Command, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Defense University, National Guard Bureau, Office of the Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-3, Office of the Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-2, Office of the Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-6, Office of the Chief, Army Reserve, Army Installation Management Command, Navy Installations Command (Fleet and Family Support), Navy Sea Systems Command, Deputy Under Secretary of the Army for International Affairs, Army Recruiting Command, Army Contracting Agency, Army Force Management Support Agency, Office of the Army Chief of Public Affairs, Korean War and WWII Commemorations Committees, Office of the DoD Special Inspector General for Iraq, DoD Project & Contracting Office for Iraq, Army Manpower Analysis Agency, Army Force Management School, Air Force Operations Group, Armed Forces Retirement Home (14)   See here for the Army’s contract with Core Processes, Inc.  http://www.defenselink.mil/contracts/contract.aspx ?contractid=1662

(15)   Diane Farsetta, “The America’s Army Fights Back: The PR Plan for the Pentagon’s ‘Demonstration Village,” 8/24/05. http://www.prwatch.org/node/3936

(16)   “Public Diplomacy and Covert Propaganda: The Declassified Record of Ambassador Otto Juan Reich,” http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB40/.
See link to 9/7/88 report, “State Department and Intelligence Community Involvement in Domestic Activities Related to the Iran/Contra Affair,” U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsaebb/nsaebb40/04302 .pdf

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