This November marks the ten-year anniversary of the Pentagon’s George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, which is based in the small resort town of Garmisch, Germany. The Defense Department describes the Marshall Center as an important part of American efforts to reform former Soviet-bloc nations by teaching the principles of democracy to military leaders of the new Eastern European governments. A few years ago, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen hailed the center and its “international reputation for excellence.”
For its many critics, though, the Marshall Center enjoys a reputation for other things: administrators who squander taxpayer money and punish whistleblowers; professors who live high on the hog thanks to taxpayer subsidies; and third-rate, hard-drinking students who do virtually no academic work. “Euphemisms abound,” says Daniel Nelson, a former scholar-in-residence at the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency who until recently taught at the school. “I’m called a professor, but I’m a discussion leader at best. What we call ‘students’ are actually invitees and what we call ‘courses’ are really the equivalent of vacations.”
The larger problem at the Marshall Center is the manner in which the Pentagon has protected the school, despite having full knowledge of its troubled record. The cover-up seems to be motivated by a number of factors: The top brass have been outspoken supporters of the center, thus putting their prestige on the line and making critics of lesser rank think twice about rocking the boat; employment at the school provides a wonderful sinecure for high-ranking military retirees; and the center has insured support by putting important Pentagon officials on rubber-stamp advisory boards whose membership perks include annual sojourns to Garmisch for wining and dining.
The result has been a near blackout of critical reporting about the Marshall Center. Hence, while the Defense Department’s Inspector General (IG) has launched several investigations of the school, the Pentagon has aggressively and successfully covered up most problems, even killing a piece that was set to run on NBC Nightly News. One member of the center’s PR arsenal is Vice President Dick Cheney, who created the school in 1992 when he was serving as Defense Secretary in the first Bush Administration. Cheney later offered support for Alvin Bernstein, the center’s first director, who was forced out after committing flagrant abuses.
Located near the Austrian border and about seventy-five miles southwest of Munich, Garmisch is an affluent, picture-perfect gingerbread town in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and deep blue lakes. Garmisch’s narrow streets are lined with shops that sell homemade chocolate truffles, bars that serve ice-cold German beer and pricey stores that offer imported designer clothing. Retired US Air Force Col. John Lieberherr, a former commandant of the NATO School at Oberammergau, Germany, who is familiar with the Marshall Center’s origins, says this choice setting was a major attraction for school planners. “The Army was thinking of closing down operations in Garmisch after the [Berlin] wall came down,” he recalled. “One of the driving factors in creating the school was the idea that ‘We need to come up with something to keep us here.'”