SOA Watch Takes the U.S. Government to Court
On February 5, 2012, SOA Watch activists filed an administrative appeal in federal court to force the release of the names of graduates and instructors of the School of the Americas (SOA/ WHINSEC).
The Pentagon continues to shroud its infamous School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) in secrecy, but calls for transparency and accountability are getting louder.
After the renaming of the institution in 2001, the school claimed that human rights abusers would no longer be admitted for training. Researchers, however, soon exposed several cases of known human rights abusers attending WHINSEC—despite claims that the “new” school was committed to human rights.
With this new critical information, SOA Watch published a briefing paper in 2004 detailing information about human rights abusers attending the renamed institution, along with other points that made the case for the closing of WHINSEC. The organization shared this research with Congressional decision-makers. (Find the briefing paper at SOAW.org/briefing.)
In light of these condemning facts, the Pentagon was forced to respond. Instead of addressing concerns about WHINSEC continuing to train known human rights abusers and hiring instructors who were involved in criminal activity, however, in 2005 the Department of Defense simply stopped publicly releasing information about WHINSEC students and instructors.
Up to that point, SOA Watch volunteers and staff had compiled the names, course, rank, country of origin, and dates attended for every soldier and instructor at the SOA/ WHINSEC from 1946 to 2003. While continuing to claim that WHINSEC is a transparent institute, the Department of Defense has refused to release student information. The Freedom of Information Act requests made by SOA Watch since FY2005 have all been denied, illustrating WHINSEC’s unwillingness to submit to oversight from the public, whose tax-payer dollars help fund the school.
The human rights community and Members of Congress have taken issue with WHINSEC’s secrecy. The House of Representatives has twice passed amendments to the Defense Authorization bill demanding that the Pentagon release information about WHINSEC students to the public. In 2010, this measure was even signed into law by President Obama. WHINSEC supporters in Congress, however, managed to slip in the caveat that the Secretary of Defense could issue a waiver to ignore the public’s right to know and refuse to release the information, if he “determines it to be in the national interest.”
Predictably, Defense Secretary Robert Gates used the waiver to deny human rights organizations and the public access to the information.
Reports that study the effects of U.S. military training are essential resources for Congress and administration officials making decisions about foreign military training. Despite the value of transparency, openness, and the public’s right to know, the Pentagon has decided to value secrecy instead, presumably to prevent further exposure of the negative impact the SOA/ WHINSEC continues to have throughout the Americas.
In a letter to President Obama in August 2011, 69 members of Congress wrote that the “rejection of public accountability and transparency is a reflection of the overall values and attitudes of the Defense Department and the WHINSEC regarding public debate about the merits of the school.”
In recent years and months, SOA grads have continued to pop up in new stories and eyewitness reports across the region. Six Honduran generals were linked to the 2009 military coup in that country; four of them were trained at the School of the Americas. In 2010, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the U.S. Office on Colombia released their groundbreaking report, “Military Assistance and Human Rights: Colombia, U.S. Accountability, and Global Implications,” which exposes serious problems with the implementation of U.S. foreign military training. According to the report, 30 of 33 Colombian brigade and division commanders who could be identified attended one or more courses at the SOA/ WHINSEC, and their research indicates a direct connection between SOA-trained officers and high levels of extrajudicial executions.
In July 2011, an arrested leader of the Zetas drug cartel in Mexico claimed to have recruited Mexican troops trained at Fort Benning. (The Mexican Secretary of Defense has said that at least one-third of the original members of the Zetas drug cartel were ex-members of the Mexican special forces trained at the School of the Americas.)
SOA graduates are again on the offensive in the Americas. Otto Perez Molina won Guatemala’s presidential elections in November 2011, and in Honduras, “Coup General” Romeo Vásquez Velásquez has announced his plan to run for president in 2013. In El Salvador, President Mauricio Funes named retired General David Munguía Payés, also an SOA graduate, as the country’s new Minister of Public Security and Justice in November 2011. The legacy of the SOA/WHINSEC continues to ravage the Americas.
The research that grassroots investigators and the SOA Watch movement have done only reveals the tip of the iceberg of US militarization of the Americas.
After six years of denied Freedom of Information Act requests, in February of 2012, SOA Watch took the US government to court over its refusal to hand over the names of students and instructors at the SOA/WHINSEC. This is one more strategy to expose the myth of “benevolent” US foreign policy and end US militarization in the hemisphere. We will not stop until they do!
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