Students of Military’s “School of the Americas” Successor Can Remain Secret, Appeals Court Rules

Activists protest against the School of the Americas in an undisclosed location on November 23, 2008. (Photo: Kurt Morrow)Activists protest against the School of the Americas in an undisclosed location on November 23, 2008. (Photo: Kurt Morrow)

A federal appellate court in San Francisco ruled that the Pentagon can withhold the names of foreign students who take part in a controversial Latin American military training program.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made the 2-1 ruling late last week, reversing the decision of a district judge who had come down on the side of disclosure.

Litigants had filed a Freedom of Information Act(FOIA) lawsuit in 2011, to force the Department of Defense to reveal the names of students at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) between 2005 and 2010.

Formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA) until the turn of the century, the Ft. Benning, Ga.-based facility has trained a number of known strongmen since the 1980s.

The Pentagon has publicly released the names of trainees between 1994 and 2004, but stopped making the disclosures in 2005. As Judge Sandra Ikuta noted for the majority, US Army lawyers had “determined that international personnel should be accorded the same right to privacy as US personnel.”

Ikuta said that the Pentagon only needed to demonstrate “that disclosure would result in a ‘potential for harassment.'”

She also concluded that “ongoing governmental review of DOD compliance and the absence of a meaningful showing of noncompliance” caused the court to rule with the military.

Judge Paul Watford said, however, writing in dissent, that oversight would be impossible, in the wake of the majority’s decision.

“Without knowing the actual names of those allowed to attend the Institute, the public has no way of independently verifying whether students are properly vetted before enrolling at the Institute, or whether after graduating they engage in human rights abuses in their home countries,” he wrote.

“This fox-guarding-the-henhouse notion is, of course, completely antithetical to FOIA’s core purpose,” Watford added.

The case had been brought by a non-profit called SOA Watch. The group was founded after it was revealed that the school was tied to 19 soldiers in El Salvador who participated in a 1989 massacre.

“That incident was not an anomaly,” Watford noted in his dissent.”SOA graduates were implicated in additional atrocities committed during the civil war in El Salvador, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the execution of four American churchwomen, and the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the village of El Mozote.”

“A Guatemalan colonel who attended SOA was accused of murdering, six months after graduating, an American innkeeper in Guatemala in 1990,” Watford also said.

“Six Peruvian SOA graduates were connected to the killings of nine students and a professor in Peru in 1992,” he added.

The judge also remarked that SOA graduates included: “Salvadoran death-squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson; Bolivian strongman Hugo Banzer Suarez; Panamanian dictator and convicted drug-trafficker Manuel Noriega; Argentine dictators and “dirtywar” culprits Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri.”

SOA, Watford said, also trained “Ecuador’s Guillermo Rodriguez and Peru’s Juan Velasco Alvarado, both of whom toppled democratically elected governments.”

The school was rebranded as WHINSEC in 2001. The move came after Congress nearly shutdown SOA in 1999, amid outrage over its graduates’ abuses. Instead of shuttering SOA, Congress merely imposed reforms on the program in 2000.

The near death-knell for the institute made disclosure of its attendees names all the more compelling, Watson argued.

“Because the Institute remained in operation only after Congress mandated reforms designed to fix the problems that formerly plagued the school, the public has a strong ongoing interest in assessing whether those measures are working,” he said.

In 1997, Congress passed the Leahy Law, which is designed to prevent known human rights abusers from receiving US aid.

After last week’s ruling, SOA Watch said it “will continue to push for the release of the names of the graduates and instructors of the notorious institution, and for its closure.”