Army Must ID Benning School Instructors, Students

Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commander of Fort Benning, Ga., speaks with students at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas.
Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commander of Fort Benning, Ga., speaks with students at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas.

OAKLAND, Calif. - The Department of Defense must disclose the names of individuals who studied and taught during the past eight years at a Georgia school that trains foreign military and police officers, a federal judge in California has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in Oakland rejected the federal government's argument that identifying trainees and teachers at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation would violate their privacy and potentially compromise their safety, saying such concerns were outweighed by "the strong public interest in access to this information."

Hamilton's ruling, issued Monday, came in a lawsuit brought by two San Francisco members of SOA Watch, a group that has protested for more than two decades outside the training school based at Fort Benning and worked to implicate its graduates in human rights abuses in El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala and other Latin American countries.

Until 2000, the school was called the School of the Americas and operated by the U.S. Army.

"This use of the information is indicative of the public interest in disclosure and in knowing what the government is up to," the judge wrote. "When balanced against the relatively weak showing of privacy, the interest of U.S. citizens is at least as strong."

For a decade, from 1994 until 2004, the Pentagon did release the names, home countries and military units of people who attended or taught at the school since its 1946 founding.

SOA Watch used the information to reveal that school graduates included military dictators such as General Rios Montt of Guatemala, Manuel Noriega of Panama and Bolivia's Hugo Banzer. The group also alleged that 19 Salvadoran soldiers and officers involved in the 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter had been trained at the School of the Americas.

Disclosure of the information ended during the administration of President George W. Bush. The Obama administration also has refused to provide it in response to Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by SOA Watch.

A 2010 defense bill included a provision requiring release of information for 2009 and 2010, but the language allowed the secretary of defense to not comply if he determined it was in the interest of national security.

The Department of Justice, which represented the Defense Department in the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. The administration could appeal Hamilton's decision.

In court documents, government lawyers argued that providing the names, home countries and occupations of students and instructors could expose them to terrorist threats, as well as make Latin American officers who have been involved in curbing drug trafficking targets for reprisals. The lawyers also said Congress had access to the school's attendance records and that the State Department could screen out potential trainees with records of past abuses through the visa process.

Hamilton said the administration had failed to show that any former students had been harmed by the pre-2004 practice of releasing the names or that teachers and trainees had been promised anonymity since then.

In a statement, SOA Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois called the ruling "a victory for transparency and human rights, and against government secrecy."

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