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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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A U.S. naval instructor speaks to students attending the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

In recent years, the Pentagon has kept the public from finding out the names of Latin American security forces being trained at an army base in Georgia. And it wants to keep it that way.

From 1994-2004, the U.S. military, in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, disclosed the nationalities of the security forces it was training at the school. But soon after the feisty activists from School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) shed light on how the U.S. was training known human rights abusers from Latin America in 2004, the Department of Defense stopped telling the public who was attending the institution. It was a bid to keep the public from finding out whether the U.S. continued to facilitate human rights abuses in Latin America through that training, which would be a violation of U.S. law.

Now, the military is doubling down on that position and is embroiled in a court battle with SOAW over the disclosure of names of trainees at what is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). (In 2001, after bad publicity was heaped on the institution, the school’s name was changed from School of the Americas to WHINSEC.)

Although a district court judge in California ruled that the DOD had to release the names, the court battle continues. The Obama administration still has not released the names, and is likely to appeal the judge’s decision, which could send the case to a higher court. The administration has already filed a “notice of appeal” to the judge’s decision but the district court proceedings are not yet over. Some outstanding issues—like the full scope of the DOD’s disclosure—remain unresolved, but the plaintiffs got most of what they wanted from the judge. And the district court’s order represented a major win for transparency advocates, as the judge rejected the government’s assertion that releasing the names of trainees would harm the U.S. “national interest,” a claim that usually wins the day.

The court dispute between SOAW and the Department of Defense is the activist group’s latest salvo in their effort to shine a light on the Georgia school, which has been responsible for training the perpetrators of a wide range of Latin American human rights abuses, from genocide in Guatemala to the killing of Jesuit priests in El Salvador. And the refusal of the military to release the names is yet another example of the Obama administration’s penchant for secrecy.

“The soldiers who are being trained at the SOA/WHINSEC are doing the bidding [of] the Pentagon. Their purpose is not to promote human rights,” said Hendrik Voss, a national organizer with SOAW. “Their purpose is to preserve U.S. domination, and to keep Latin America open for U.S. business. The reason why the Pentagon is keeping the names of the graduates secret is that they want to prevent the truth about their actions being made public. Making the names public and exposing the activities of SOA/ WHINSEC graduates is one step towards shutting down the school for good.”

SOAW has been agitating for the school’s closure since 1990 by protesting (and getting themselves arrested and sentenced to a year in a federal penitentiary), lobbying legislators and going through the courts.

From prior disclosures, SOAW has created a public database detailing the names, courses, rank, countries of origin of the people trained at the School of the Americas. Using the database, the group discovered that the U.S. had trained human rights abusers across Latin America. In one example, SOAW matched the names of SOA graduates with human rights abusers cited in a United Nations report on the brutal civil war in El Salvador. And despite the name change in 2001, and reforms the U.S. said it was implementing at the school, SOAW continued to expose the nefarious nature of those the U.S. trains. SOAW’s work has led to congressional votes on whether to close the school. While they haven’t yet been successful, the group has come close; in 2007, for instance, Congress voted to keep the school open, but only by six votes. Another bill to close the school is set to be introduced in Congress in August.

 
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