Victory in Congress for Disclosure on Military Training

FOIAblackout#1Thanks to the efforts and hard work of many people in defense of human rights, the culture of secrecy and lack of accountability surrounding Defense Department policies suffered a blow May 22 when the U.S. House of Representatives approved the McGovern-Sestak-Bishop (GA) amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2009. The amendment forces the public release of names, rank, country of origin, courses and dates of attendance of graduates and instructors at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas. The amendment was approved by a vote of 220-189.

Shortly after the House action, Ecuador’s new defense minister, Javier Ponce, announced that Ecuador will not seek military training for its soldiers in the United States. “I am absolutely against continuing that kind of training,” he said. WHINSEC, especially, “has been a fundamental means to control the military policies of the region’s countries,” he added. Instead, Ecuador will seek military training through the newly-created South American Defense Council promoted by Brazil – without US participation.

The amendment requiring the release of WHINSEC graduate names now must be approved by the Senate to become law. School of the Americas Watch has set up a Post-Vote Action page for tips, on-line letters and contact information to contact Senate offices about the amendment.

In recent years, WHINSEC has denied information that in the past has been vital in identifying the perpetrators of massacres, assassinations, and other human rights abuses committed in Latin America. But WHINSEC is not the only institution that refuses to release the names of soldiers receiving military training from the United States. Randolph AFB in Texas, Naval Postgraduate Academy in California, Fort Rucker in Alabama train hundreds of Colombian soldiers and officers each year, but denied Freedom of Information Act requests by the Fellowship of Reconciliation for the names of Colombian officers and soldiers who received military training there. Other schools stated they had no records for the foreign soldiers trained at their institutions.

The access to information regarding students and instructors attending US military courses will allow human rights organizations to continue to monitor training programs and identify those graduates and instructors who have violated human rights or taken part in criminal activities in their home countries. For example, recent disclosures indicate that 200 Mexican security forces trained at Fort Benning in Georgia later joined drug trafficking syndicates that have committed killings on both sides of the US-Mexico border – using their training against the same forces the United States is supporting. Information is power, and the more information we have, the better tools we have for stopping US militarism in Latin America and the illegal and destructive abuses committed by unaccountable armed forces.

The approval of this amendment will now lead us to face a new challenge to insure that WHINSEC also be held accountable by the U.S. Senate. In the coming weeks we will continue to keep you updated so we can work together towards another victory.