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

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.

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.

And in December 2012, the Colombian armed forces promoted a number of generals who had graduated from WHINSEC. A number of those generals had committed human rights abuses after graduating from the school, like the extrajudicial killings of civilians.

With those facts, SOAW has continued to make the case that WHINSEC should be shut down. The group’s battle with the U.S. military and Obama administration to release the names of even more current trainees is crucial to that effort.

And SOAW’s lawyer, Duffy Carolan, says she is looking forward to a higher court battle over the release of the names. Carolan told AlterNet she’s confident SOAW will get what it's asking for.

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