Since the Cold War the school has provided counterinsurgency training to a number of Latin American dictators and death squad members.
A U.S. court has sided with the Pentagon that it does not have to publicly release the names of attendees from the training school, formerly known as the School of the Americas, on Friday.
The infamous military school was a training ground for dictators, death squad members, and torturers, fueling human rights abuses and coups across Latin America, earning it the moniker “the School of the Assassins.”
In a 2-1 ruling, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said that activists from SOA Watch, a group that seeks to close the school, do not have a legal right to force the disclosure of the names and units of foreign personnel trained at what is now referred to as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Judges ruling in favor of the Department of Defense said that publicly releasing the information would violate the privacy of attendees and was not valuable enough to the public and had the potential of putting attendees lives at risk. The DoD also argued that disclosing names would put attendees at risk of being targeted by terrorist organizations.
“There are many groups in foreign countries that would seek to harm those who are publicly associated with the United States military,” said Judge Sandra Ikuta who supported the ruling. Ikuta added that there were adequate screening processes in place to instruct attendees on human rights, and deny enrollment to those previously involved in a “gross violation of human rights.”
Judge Paul Watford, who voted against the ruling, stressed that the military school has “checkered history” of human rights abuses, including torture training, and there was no evidence that graduates had been targeted.
Watford added the ruling relied on the word of the government where “the public has no way of independently verifying if students are properly vetted before enrolling at the Institute, or whether after graduating they engage in human rights abuses in their home countries.”
The school, located in Fort Benning, Georgia, was founded in 1946 to provide “anti-communist counterinsurgency training,” during the Cold War.
According to SOA Watch, the military school “has trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage war against their own people.”
Some of its infamous graduates include a number of Argentine military leaders involved in the country’s “dirty war,” which saw a military dictatorship hunting down and disappearing thousands of left-wing Argentines.
Manuel Noriega, the former military dictator of Panama in the 1980’s also attended the school. Originally backed by the CIA, he was accused of rigging elections and trafficked narcotics.
Guatemalan, Efrain Rios Montt was another military dictator who graduated from the school, who is facing trial for genocide and war crimes.
“SOA Watch will continue to push for the release of the names of the graduates and instructors of the notorious institution, and for its closure,” the group said in a statement.
Court Refuses to Release Names of Students and Instructors of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas)
Pentagon Appealed to Protect Secrecy for Infamous U.S. Military Training School
A divided 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the U.S. Department of Defense and ruled today that human rights activists do not have the right to know the names and military units of foreign security personnel and instructors attending the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), a U.S. military training school located at Fort Benning, Georgia and funded by U.S. taxpayers. In the dissenting opinion, Judge Paul Watford said “Without knowing the actual names of those allowed to attend the Institute, the public has no way of independently verifying if students are properly vetted before enrolling at the Institute, or whether after graduating they engage in human rights abuses in their home countries. As the majority would have it, the public must simply take the government’s word for it that the reform measures mandated by Congress have been effective. This fox-guarding-the-henhouse notion is, of course, completely antithetical to the FOIA’s core purpose.” Read the court ruling here: SOAW.org/judgment2.pdf
In 2014, Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton, of the United States Northern District Court of California, ordered the Department of Defense to release the names of the students and instructors at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas, or SOA), a U.S. military training school for Latin American soldiers that for decades has been connected to torturers, death squads and military dictators throughout the Americas. SOA Watch activists had taken the U.S. government to court over its refusal to release the information, and won. Read the previous ruling by Judge Hamilton here: SOAW.org/judgment
Today’s ruling by the 9th Circuit Court came in response to an appeal by the U.S. Department of Defense.
SOA Watch will continue to push for the release of the names of the graduates and instructors of the notorious institution, and for its closure.
SOA Watch is an independent, grassroots movement that provides citizen oversight of U.S. military training given to Latin American military and police personnel at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of Americas. Through vigils and fasts, demonstrations and nonviolent protest, as well as media, legal and legislative work, the movement works in solidarity with the people of Latin America and the Caribbean for human rights, economic justice, and democracy.
The U.S. Department of Defense has denied Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests by School of the Americas Watch for the names of WHINSEC students and instructors for the years 2004-2010. For the years 1946-2003 the names had always been released when requested. The names are the basis of the SOA Watch database and the means of citizen oversight of the record of SOA/WHINSEC graduates.
Plaintiff Theresa Cameranesi is a member of the School of the Americas Watch Council. She is also a member of the SOA Watch Legislative Working Group and is active in advocating for Congressional investigation of the human rights records of graduates of SOA and WHINSEC. As part of the SOA Watch San Francisco Research Group, she and plaintiff Judith Liteky identified students and instructors at WHINSEC who were admitted for training even though they had been charged with human rights violations.
Plaintiff Judith Liteky, who passed away last month, had been active with School of the Americas Watch since its founding in 1990 in response to the massacre in San Salvador at the University of Central America. On the night of November 16, 1989, a Salvadoran Army patrol entered the University campus and massacred six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Nineteen of the military officers cited for this atrocity had received training at the US Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. Judith was a co-founder of School of the Americas Watch San Francisco.
Plaintiff’s Cameranesi and Liteky received the 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Citizen Award for pressing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Defense to win a precedent-setting ruling that the government may not withhold on national security grounds the names and military unit information of graduates and instructors at the former School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
The SOA Watch plaintiffs are being represented by attorneys Duffy Carolan and Kent Spriggs.
Duffy Carolan is a partner with the San Francisco firm Jassy Vick Carolan. Attorney Carolan has been honored by her peers as San Francisco’s Lawyer of the Year in Litigation – First Amendment cases. She has also received the James Madison Freedom of Information Award, a Bay Area honor given to individuals and organizations who have made significant contributions to the advancement of freedom of expression, particularly freedom of information and open government.
Kent Spriggs is the principal in Spriggs Law Firm, Tallahassee, Florida. Attorney Spriggs has represented individuals in civil rights actions, the majority in class actions. He also works in the field of international human rights, including representing those illegally detained at Guantánamo Bay, and assisted in the analysis of U.S. money used to destabilize sovereign Latin American democracies. He has been a human rights observer in El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, and Chile as well as Palestine and Afghanistan.