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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

DOD’s Foreign Training Records Face Exposure

(CN) - A watchdog that says the United States bolsters dictatorships with a training program for foreign military leaders should get to review enrollment records, a federal judge ruled.

The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), as it has been known since 2001, trains foreign military leaders of this region on U.S. Army doctrine, with courses on intelligence analysis, command and other areas, according to its website.

When the Army opened the school at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1946, it was known as the Latin American Training Center, but it adopted the name School of the Americas (SOA) in 1963. The school's image suffered a blow in 1989 when reports emerged that soldiers who had been trained there were implicated in the killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter in El Salvador.

School of Americas Watch formed as a nonprofit advocacy group in the aftermath of those killings. The group quickly amassed a database containing the names and countries of origin for SOA students and instructors dating back to 1946.

Seeking to have congressman disavow the school, the group studied whether any of the names in its database also appeared in reports describing human rights abuses.

It said the government stopped publicly disclosing information about its students and instructors in 2004, soon after it had sent U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern a report of five cases where WHINSEC trained individuals with existing human rights records.

Theresa Cameranesi and Judith Liteky, two SOA Watch members who formed an adjunct research group in San Francisco, filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act in 2011 for "all documents that contain the names, ranks, branches, countries of origin, lists of courses taken or taught, and/or dates and years in attendance of students, instructors, and guest instructors" at WHINSEC from FY 2005-2010, including "documents known as 'Student List,' 'Instructor List,' and 'Guest Instructor List.'"

In sending some responsive records, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command redacted portions of the record under Exemption 6 of FOIA, which covers "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

The Defense Department denied Cameranesi and Liteky's appeal on the same basis, but also cited Exemption 3, which they claimed authorized them to withhold the information as a "national interest" under the National Defense Authorization Act.

Cameranesi and Liteky then filed suit, and each side moved for summary judgment.

U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton sided with the plaintiffs Monday, saying the Defense Department "is not entitled to withhold the requested information pursuant to FOIA Exemption 3 because the 'national interest' criteria for withholding under Section 1083 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 is insufficiently particular to qualify Section 1083 as a withholding statute under that exemption."

The government's privacy claims also do not meet the standard for Exemption 6 because it "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," according to the ruling.

Hamilton refused, however, to enjoin the agencies from withholding information, finding that the request "is not properly before the court."

"If this order fully adjudicates the issues presented by plaintiffs' FOIA request, the parties shall submit a proposed form of judgment," she wrote. "If it does not, the parties shall submit a status statement setting forth the remaining issues and a proposal for their resolution."

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