A federal district court has ruled that the Obama administration must declassify records with the names of individuals trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the U.S. Army School of the Americas or SOA.
Famously known as the “School of Assassins,” the school trained members of foreign armed forces who later went on to participate in some of the bloodiest and most repressive regimes in contemporary Latin America. During El Salvador’s civil war, the most heinous violations of human rights were committed by SOA graduates, who organized death squads and planned the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1980) and participated in the El Mozote Massacre (1980), where more than 800 civilians were murdered. SOA graduates made up the majority of the Chilean officers who overthrew Allende in favor of Pinochet in Chile. And in Argentina, General Roberto Viola was among the many SOA graduates that participated in the dirty war—he was convicted of murder, kidnapping and torture in 1985.
Though SOA changed its name and instituted reforms in 2001, its graduates have continued to be involved in anti-democratic activity and egregious human rights abuses. Case in point: Honduras. Four of the six generals linked to the coup against democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya were trained at the WHINSEC in recent years, including top General Romeo Vásquez. SOA graduates have been the subject of CEPR’s ongoing coverage of violence and impunity in Honduras; we wrote about soldiers that shot and killed a 15-year-old boy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, which included among their number at least one soldier trained at the WHINSEC.
Thanks in large parts to the grassroots campaign against the school organized by SOA Watch, a number of Latin American countries have stopped sending troops to WHINSEC. The first country to pull out was Venezuela in 2004, followed by Argentina and Uruguay in 2006. Other countries that stopped sending troops include Bolivia, Ecuador and most recently Nicaragua. However, Honduras and other Central American countries – including Costa Rica – continue to send police and military personnel to the school. The Bayonet reports that for the “Cadet Leadership Development Course” that began October of 2012, there were 64 Honduran Army cadets in attendance, representing the largest share from a single country. One cadet was quoted saying that the course was “useful in the future during joint operations.” As readers of the Americas Blog are aware, a joint U.S./Honduras counternarcotics operation last May resulted in the killing of four indigenous villagers with no apparent ties to drug trafficking.
Starting in 2004, the U.S. government decided to classify the names of foreign trainees at WHINSEC, according to court documents. The case for having these records released to the public centers around the idea that “the analysis and review of the human rights records of SOA and WHINSEC graduates provided by SOA Watch, and other nonprofits such Amnesty International, based on the prior disclosures, has been utilized by members of Congress seeking to make decisions about the school and other foreign policies.” Keeping such information secret prevents the public from identifying which human rights abusers have received U.S. training, according to SOA Watch and other groups.
This latest court decision has noted that the Department of Defense improperly withheld information that should have been made available upon a request through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. Here are some highlights from the ruling:
The court finds that defendants have not established that the WHINSEC students and instructors have a substantial privacy interest in their names and military units – in particular the international students and instructors. Given that there is no evidence that any student or instructor at WHINSEC was promised that his/her participation in the program would be kept confidential; the fact that prior to 2004, the DOD routinely provided this same type of information in response to FOIA requests, without objection; the fact that § 1083 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 provided for disclosure of the names of WHINSEC students and instructors in FY 2009 and 2010; and the fact that the identities of faculty and students at WHINSEC is not routinely kept secret or confidential by WHINSEC, the court finds that DOD has not met its burden of showing that the names and military units of WHINSEC students and instructors are protected by a substantial privacy interest. [...]
With regard to the public interest, plaintiffs have shown that there has been extensive media coverage, editorials, and scholarly works that have flowed from the prior public disclosure of the names, military units, and other information about SOC and WHINSEC personnel. This use of the information is indicative of the public interest in disclosure and in knowing what the government is up to. When balanced against the relatively weak showing of privacy, the interest of U.S. citizens is at least as strong.
To read the full decision click here.