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SOA Watch FOIA Request of WHINSEC Graduates Denied PDF Print E-mail
The culture of secrecy surrounding the current presidential administration persisted this month when the Pentagon denied SOA Watch?s Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the name, rank, country of origin, and dates of students in attendance at the WHINSEC/SOA. Despite 20-day reporting requirements, it took the Pentagon nine months to deny the request.

The Freedom of Information Act was enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. The FOIA was the first U.S. law to give Americans the right to access the records of federal agencies that are funded with their tax dollars. As The Nation reports, "What good is freedom of speech if that speech is not informed by knowledge of what the government is doing in our name but without our informed consent? What good is freedom of the press if reporters are unable to find out what government agencies are up to?"(The Nation, 7/4/2006)

Early in the Bush Administration, John Ashcroft dispatched a memo to federal agencies urging the use of delaying tactics in responding to FOIA requests. According to The Nation, Ashcroft's order directed federal agencies to stall the release of requested information until the completion of a painstakingly slow "full and deliberate consideration" of the implications of releasing any particular document. Ashcroft assured agencies that should they decide to withhold information, they would be fully supported by the Department of Justice "unless they lack a sound legal basis or present an unwarranted risk on the ability of other agencies to protect important records."(The Nation, 7/4/2006)

These delaying tactics violate the spirit and the letter of the Freedom of Information Act and its subsequent amendments. The law states that federal agencies, including the Department of Defense (DoD), must "determine within twenty days (excepting Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays) after the receipt of any such request whether to comply with such request and shall immediately notify the person making such request of such determination and the reasons therefore?? While in line with Ashcroft's dubious recommendations, the DoD response in late July of 2006 to SOA Watch's October 2005 request violates Congressionally-mandated law.

At the beginning of each fiscal year for the past several years, SOA Watch has filed a FOIA request with the U.S. government to obtain WHINSEC attendance information as part of our commitment to human rights monitoring. Continuing the policies of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), WHINSEC refuses to participate in any follow-up after students attend the military training facility, choosing to ignore the connections between student?s actions and their training at the school.

As a result of previous FOIA requests, researchers at human rights organizations are able to access our extensive graduate database to inform Congress, media outlets, and the public about the numerous instances of SOA/ WHINSEC graduates and instructors who have been implicated and convicted of human rights atrocities in Latin America. For example, researchers from SOA Watch matched the name of Colonel Francisco del Cid Diaz -- commander of a unit that forcibly removed, beat and shot 16 residents from the Los Hojas community in El Salvador -- with his attendance at the SOA in 1988 and 1991, and at WHINSEC in 2003. This high profile massacre was cited in the annual U.S. State Department Human Rights Country Reports, and the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommended that the Salvadoran government bring him to justice based on substantial evidence that del Cid Diaz gave the orders to execute the civilians. Despite this condemnation, del Cid Diaz was invited back to the school in 2003, subverting laws in place to prevent rewarding known human rights abusers with U.S taxpayer-funded military training.

Because of this instance and hundreds of others that make the numerous connections between the SOA/ WHINSEC and human rights atrocities throughout Latin America, the SOA/ WHINSEC and the Department of Defense continue to disrupt the efforts of human rights organizations to advocate for transparency and accountability for international crimes.

In just one example, the name of General Hector Gramajo, architect of genocidal policies in Guatemala from 1980 to 1991, never appeared in the list of graduates that were released to SOA Watch. Gramajo was found guilty of numerous war crimes in a U.S. court six weeks before speaking at graduation ceremonies at the SOA in 1991. (The Bayonet, 1/3/1992). The former SOA Commandant Jose Feliciano claimed Gramajo inspired many SOA policies (The Benning Patriot, 2/21/1992). It was through independent research based largely on FOIA requests that SOA Watch found out that Gramajo was not only a guest speaker at the SOA in 1991, but that he also received SOA counter-insurgency training at the school in 1967.

Now, the culture of secrecy has deepened with the recent denial of SOA Watch?s FOIA request, and inconsistencies continue to shape the public relations campaign of WHINSEC. The institution?s PR office maintains that they have no responsibility to track graduates of the school. At the same time, they respond to questions about graduates of the school by diverting interested parties to the SOA Watch website, telling them that they ?can review the SOAW web site and see what course or courses their ?notorious graduates? took, because the Army gave them the lists of students and courses.?

By refusing to grant FOIA requests regarding the basic statistics of the WHINSEC student population, WHINSEC and the Department of Defense will continue to admit known human rights abusers such as Colonel del Cid Diaz without any oversight or criticism of the screening process by human rights organizations. The culture of secrecy will continue to deepen.

The Freedom of Information Act has helped to pry loose many crucial documents and files from our government, even as fearful politicians have tried to curb the Act. Congress, the media, and the public have a right to transparency of government programs and to know how billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent to advance the Department of Defense?s military agenda -- including the funding of a military training facility that sends a negative human rights message to countries throughout Latin America.

 

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