Pentagon university scrutinized for hires related to human rights abuses – report

Colombian soldiers  (Reuters / Javier Casella / Defense Ministry-Press Office Handout via Reuters)
A university funded by the US Defense Department has again been accused of hiring former foreign security officials who have links to human rights offenses, according to a new report, a possible violation of a federal law that outlawed such associations.

According to reporting by the Center for Public Integrity, Sen. Patrick Leahy has requested an explanation from the Pentagon for the National Defense University's hiring of the former chief of the Colombian armed forces, Carlos Alberto Ospina Ovalle.

Ospina has been linked by several human rights organizations -- including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among other groups -- to the 1997 pro-government militia massacre of El Aro, a northern Colombian village. Allegedly, the Ospina-led 4th Brigade looked the other way during the ransacking of the town, where many were brutally murdered, homes destroyed, and hundreds of cattle stolen.

In 2001, the Colombian attorney general cleared Ospina, but a 2006 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found “the participation and acquiescence” of the Colombian army in the paramilitary actions that occurred at El Aro.

READ MORE: Activists put ‘School of Assassins’ on trial

Ospina taught at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at National Defense University (NDU) from 2006 to 2014.

The accusations aimed at Ospina have led to informal charges that NDU does not vet hires that may have been involved in human rights abuses.

“Reports that NDU hired foreign military officers with histories of involvement in human rights abuses, including torture and extra-judicial killings of civilians, are stunning, and they are repulsive,” Sen. Leahy said in a statement to the Center for Public Integrity.

Sen. Leahy is the namesake for the 2008-implemented Leahy Law, which prohibits the the US Departments of Defense and State to provide "assistance" “to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”

“I have sought, and have yet to receive, an explanation from the Defense Department,” said Leahy. “We need to know whether any such individuals remain at NDU or in the United States, and what guidance is in place to ensure that this does not happen again.”

Senator Patrick Leahy (Reuters / Jonathan Ernst)

Several officials told the Center that the NDU has not interpreted the Leahy Law as applicable to its hirees, and thus has not submitted potential candidates to the State Dept. for review. They said this policy is now under review by the Defense Dept.

A Pentagon spokesman would not comment to the Center on the story, but said department officials were preparing a response.

State Department officials believe the accusations levied against Ospina are credible, multiple sources told the Center.

The department investigated Ospina’s ties once Leahy spoke up about him, a senior government official told the Center, adding that the department is concerned about Ospina’s hiring and the protocol used to review prospective instructors at NDU.

The anonymous official said it appears that “there are cases that slip through the cracks” because NDU is not “plugged into a daily conversation” regarding human rights.

Ospina told the Center that he had not known of the El Aro massacre until after it happened.

“The FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] wore the same uniforms as the army, so people would assume that they were the army,” he said, adding that his unit was too small to adequately patrol the large area they were charged with overseeing.

The Center for Public Integrity included another alleged human-rights violator, Garcia Covarrubias, who taught at NDU from 2001 to 2013. Covarrubias was accused of working for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s secret police at a base where prisoners were allegedly murdered.

Both Covarrubias and Ospina are graduates of the School of the Americas, a US military school for Latin American military personnel. The school was shuttered in 2000 following longtime criticism that it had trained torture tactics to high-level officials, including Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega. It reopened in 2001 at Fort Benning in Georgia under the name Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.