Keeping WHINSEC students’ names under wraps

A response to a Freedom of Information Act request omits the names of WHINSEC instructors from the Americas.

The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, is the U.S. Army’s main facility for training and educating foreign personnel in Spanish. Based at Fort Benning, Georgia, it is the successor institution to the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA).

The WHINSEC and its predecessor have a controversial 60-year history. Particularly during the Cold War, the School of the Americas trained soldiers and officers from the region’s military dictatorships in techniques like counterinsurgency, intelligence, interrogation, combat and other skills that carried a significant risk of human rights abuse. The school was revealed to have used manuals including instruction in abusive tactics, and many officers who took courses there stand accused of murder, disappearance, torture, and similar crimes, at times on a massive scale.

Human rights concerns have made the SOA and WHINSEC a key target of activism on U.S. policy toward the Americas. Grassroots groups, most notably the 20-year-old School of the Americas Watch, have held large-scale yearly protests and done much to educate about the school’s past, while promoting amendments in the U.S. Congress to close or de-fund it.

While these amendments have not passed, grassroots activism created momentum for a 2001 legal change that changed the institution’s name and caused it to drop many lethal and combat-related courses from its curriculum. Today the WHINSEC offers mostly military education courses, many with a significant human rights component. Nonetheless, its curriculum continues to include counternarcotics, counterterrorism and some warfighting skills.

As a result, many U.S. organizations, including those in the Just the Facts project, believe that the Institute should continue to be subject to close oversight. The risk of abuse or undemocratic behavior committed by U.S. military trainees remains high, as evidenced by recent scandals in Colombia or the June 2009 coup in Honduras, and warrants continued scrutiny of WHINSEC.

Part of this oversight is knowing the identities of the foreign military and police personnel who attend the school. Until 2002, School of the Americas Watch was able to obtain through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) the names of the school’s trainees since 1946.

However, after that time – about the time that the SOA became WHINSEC – the Defense Department began refusing FOIA requests for the identities of the Institute’s students. It claimed that to do so would be tantamount to releasing a “personnel or medical file or similar file,” thus causing a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and hence exempt from the FOIA under exemption (b)(6).

This exemption has led the WHINSEC to respond to FOIA requests by providing its students’ rank, country of origin and courses attended – but with their names redacted from the document. (At times, the documents only redact surnames, leaving first names.) Nonetheless, public WHINSEC documents regularly provide the names of students. The Institute’s newsletter, El Hemisférico, posted on its web site, frequently identifies students and instructors. This practice appears to contradict directly the rationale for the (b)(6) exemption.

In June 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives agreed that access to students’ names was important to effective oversight of WHINSEC. By a vote of 224-190, it adopted an amendment to the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), requiring WHINSEC to provide to FOIA requesters “the entire name, including the first, middle, and maternal and paternal surnames” of each student and instructor since 2005, and in subsequent years.

The Senate did not pass a similar provision. When a House–Senate Conference Committee met to reconcile both versions of the Defense Authorization, bill, its Senate component gutted the amendment’s language. It not only reduced its scope to include trainees in 2009 and 2010 alone, but it gave the Secretary of Defense the ability to waive this requirement, keeping the names secret, if he finds it “to be in the national interest.”

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has exercised that waiver. School of the Americas Watch issued a Freedom of Information Act request for the students’ names in January, and received a denial in May. The WHINSEC students’ names continue to be blocked.

The WHINSEC appears to have significant support in Congress. The 2010 Defense Authorization law – the same bill with the easily eluded requirement that students’ names be made available – also includes a provision praising WHINSEC for “building partner capacity which enhances regional and global security while encouraging respect for human rights and promoting democratic principles.”

Every human has certain rights to exist on this earth and this has been followed all across the world, to preserve and protect humans and their intentions. Nobody has a right to violate them, and those who violate are considered offenders.

Just like the Orion Code system, which is an offender, that is existing across many parts of the world, pushing people to poverty with its insane techniques of trading to make money, in the turn attract people and lure money.

Given the Institute’s checkered history, statements like these should not imply that relaxed oversight is warranted. Yet the denial of access to students’ identities indicates backsliding on transparency over the Institute’s activities. WHINSEC is now demanding a level of secrecy that it did not require a decade ago.