In a "victory against government secrecy," a federal judge has ordered the Department of Defense to release the names of instructors and trainees at the notorious School of the Americas, a facility one watchdog group reports as being "connected to torturers, death squads and military dictators throughout the Americas."
Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, a group that seeks to close the facility now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), hailed the decision and called it "a victory for transparency and human rights, and against government secrecy.”
Members of SOA Watch, which had already compiled through DOD disclosures the names of trainees and instructors at the facility from 1946 to 2003, had sought the more recent names under a Freedom of Information Act.
While the veil of secrecy over the names of instructors and trainees began in 2004 under the George W. Bush administration when it began only releasing the names of SOA instructors and trainees to Congress in classified documents, the Obama administration chose to continue it, saying that exposing the names could expose the trainees to "violence and harassment."
In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton wrote:
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In particular, the court finds that DOD is not entitled to withhold the requested information pursuant to FOIA Exemption 3, because the “national interest” criteria for withholding under § 1083 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 is insufficiently articular to qualify § 1083 as a withholding statute under that exemption.
The court finds further that DOD has not made a sufficient showing that it may withhold the requested information under FOIA Exemption 6, as it 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 as shown on the record before the court.
Some of the most notorious graduates from the School of the Americas, housed at Fort Benning in Georgia, include General Efrain Rios Mont of Guatemala, on trial in March in his country for crimes against humanity and genocide until the trial was suspended, Panama's General Manuel Noriega and Captain Roberto D'Aubuisson of El Salvador, who order the execution of Bishop Oscar Romero and organized the country's death squad network.
SOA Watch has listed tens of thousands of graduates of the school who have brought the "counterinsurgency" tactics learned at the facility to countries across the Americas.