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What's the Pentagon Hiding at a Georgia Military Base?

Activists battle the military over its refusal to release the names of trainees at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

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The disclosure of current trainees could boost the next congressional efforts to close the school. SOAW filed a FOIA request in 2011 seeking the names, ranks, branches, countries of origin and more of people trained at WHINSEC from 2005-2010.

The military responded with some responsive records, but the relevant portions detailing the names of those attending were redacted. The Pentagon cited an exemption from FOIA that prohibits the release of “personnel and medical files,” arguing that it would constitute an invasion of privacy. After more back and forth between SOAW and the DOD, the military added another exemption: a prohibition on disclosures that would harm the national interests of the U.S.

After the military continued to refuse to disclose the names, SOAW took them to court. Duffy Carolan, the lawyer representing SOAW in court, called the DOD’s refusal to release the names “really disconcerting. This information...serves to inform members of the public how their tax dollars are spent and whether this [school] is a wise choice to fund.” Carolan added that the information SOAW was seeking is “essential” because it has helped “inform Congress on what’s happening at the school.” The release of names could also help determine whether the Leahy law, which prohibits U.S. funding of foreign military units that are human rights abusers, is being violated.

The judge in the case, Phyllis Hamilton, agreed with Carolan’s argument in an April 2013 ruling. Hamilton’s decision states that the government “has not established that the privacy interests advanced are substantial, and has not shown through admissible evidence that the release of this information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, in light of the strong public interest in access to this information.” Hamilton noted that the government, which claimed that the disclosure of names could harm trainees when they went back home, couldn’t point to a single instance of that happening in the past.

Spokespeople for both the DOD and the Department of Justice refused to comment on the case to AlterNet.

The effort to keep the names of those being trained at WHINSEC secret is in line with other decisions by Obama that seek to keep a tight lid on what the government does. Despite pledging transparency on drone strikes, for instance, the president has not released to the public the justification for conducting them—especially when it comes to the killing of American citizens. And as McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay and Marisa Taylor reported in June, the Obama administration’s “Insider Threat” program directs government employees to keep tabs on their co-workers and make sure that those who leak information to the media are pursued and punished.  

But more importantly, the Obama administration’s efforts to keep the public in the dark about who the U.S. is training in Georgia shows the continued importance of the school to America’s flagging efforts to exert influence over Latin America. WHINSEC, which has operated since 1946, has long had a notorious reputation as a breeding ground for the worst of the worst in Latin America. The school’s graduates include top officials of Chile’s dictatorial Pinochet regime, which presided over the deaths and torture of thousands of people; General Efraín Rios Montt, the Guatemalan strongman recently convicted of genocide (though the verdict was overturned); and Emilio Massera, an Argentine naval officer responsible for the torture of tens of thousands of people.

The most recent and high-profile instance of WHINSEC graduates carrying out human rights abuses occurred in Honduras in 2009, when Manuel Zelaya, who had allied himself with the resurgent left in Latin America, was ousted in a military coup. The officers who overthrew Zelaya were graduates of WHINSEC, and the coup regime went on to kill, detain and torture forces in support of democracy and Zelaya.

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