Pentagon Must ID Lat Am Soldier Trainees for Human Rights Group

SOA Watch shows list of blacked out names.
SOA Watch shows list of blacked out names.

The Pentagon cannot withhold the names of teachers, trainers and students who attend a controversial U.S. military training school for Latin American soldiers and police that opponents say is linked to torturers and death squads.

U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton Tuesday rejected Department of Defense efforts to use exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act to withhold information it had released freely until 2004. The school, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, was formerly known as School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

“The court finds DOD is not entitled to withhold the requested information” based on “national interest” criteria for withholding information sought under the FOIA, Hamilton wrote.

Opposition to to the U.S. Army’s SOA grew in 1990 in response to the 1989 killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter in El Salvador, Hamilton said. It later came to light that a majority of the people implicated in the murders were soldiers who had been trained at SOA, the opinion states.

The group, SOA Watch, began to compile a database with the names, rank, country of origin and dates of school attendance for every soldier and instructor at SOA/WHINSEC from 1946 to 2003, based on information routinely released by the Department of Defense, according to the court. This database of over 60,000 names was based largely on historic information the DOD began releasing in 1994.

SOA Watch contends the school bolstered military dictatorships in Central and South America by training them how to kill, torture and otherwise suppress citizens, Hamilton wrote.

The DOD originally withheld the names based on the FOIA exemption for personnel or medical files. But after an administrative challenge by SOA Watch, the government added a claim that “national interest” law allowed DOD to exempt disclosure under FOIA.

Hamilton rejected the broad national interest claim, “primarily because it does not provide any specific criteria for withholding information.”

The strong presumption under FOIA “is that information is to be disclosed, and it is the burden of the federal agency to justify withholding information,” she wrote.

She also rejected the medical and personnel information secrecy claim. “The information that plaintiffs seek is not medical or detailed personnel information regarding the students and instructors at WHINSEC,” she pointed out. SOA Watch does not want files, but rather a list of names of the students and instructors, she said.

The government asserted that release of names may increase the threat to Latin American military and law enforcement personnel from drug trafficking groups and pointed to attacks on security personnel in Mexico and Colombia.

Hamilton found the strong public interest in access to the information outweighed the claims to privacy.

She also said the DOD failed to show release of the names “would constitute a clearly unwaranted invasion of personal privacy, in light of the strong public interest in access to this information as shown on the record before the court.”

Reform Attempts

Congress imposed more restrictions on the school in 2000, changed its name to WHINSEC, and created a 14-member “Board of Visitors” to provide oversight from Congress, the military and representatives of human rights groups.

After SOA Watch allegedly linked names in the database to human rights abuses and presented it to Rep. Jim McGovern, (D-Mass.), in 2004, the DOD backtracked on its longstanding practice of releasing names.

Both sides are ordered to submit a status statement by May 20, if the decision does not resolve the issue. Her order does not include an order that DOD immediately release the names.

SOA Watch called the decision a “major victory” and called the public release of names essential to Congressional decisionmaking on foreign military training.

Case: Cameranesi v. U.S. Dept. of Defense, No. C12-0595

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