Court: US must name military school grads

The Obama administration must release the names of graduates of a controversial training camp for the Latin American military, a federal district court has ruled.

Plaintiffs say releasing the names of attendees at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) at Fort Benning – formerly known as the U.S. Army School of the Americas – will help Congress ensure that U.S. funds aren't used to train human-rights violators. The Defense Department argued that it would violate attendees' privacy and create security and stigma risks.

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The Obama administration “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,” ruled Phyllis Hamilton, U.S. district judge for the Northern District of California.

The ruling drew immediate praise from Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who has fought to close the school.

“The House has twice voted for the names to be restored to public disclosure, as they were for nearly 40 years prior to 2006 when they were inexplicably classified," McGovern told The Hill in a statement. "I continue to believe that the WHINSEC should be shut down. In the meantime, I welcome the Court’s decision and I hope to see the WHINSEC return to genuine transparency immediately with the release of the names of its graduates, faculty and guest instructors.”

The decision was also applauded by the plaintiffs, School of the Americas Watch (SOA), which advocates the camp's closure. The group was formed in 1990 after Salvadoran soldiers trained at the camp killed six Jesuit priests along with their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter.

“The decision by the court," SOA Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois said in a statement, "is [a] victory for transparency and human rights, and against government secrecy.”

The records of attendees from the camp's opening in 1946 until 2003 were released to the SOA, but the information dried up after the group created a searchable database and alerted Congress to hundreds of examples of camp graduates engaging in human-rights abuses. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates later blocked further releases for “national security” reasons.

The School of the Americas was developed into an anti-communist counterinsurgency training program under President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Congress replaced it with the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001, whose stated goals include “promoting democratic values, respect for human rights, and knowledge and understanding of United States customs and traditions.”