Two Davis Wright Tremaine clients were recently granted summary judgment in an important case seeking release of records from the military training school formerly known as the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA).
Working pro bono on behalf of plaintiffs Theresa Cameranesi and Judith Liteky, DWT attorneys Duffy Carolan and Jeff Glasser have been seeking access to the names of those who train and teach at the school, which is presently housed at Fort Benning, Ga.
The school trains military leaders from countries throughout the Western Hemisphere in combat and various counter-insurgency techniques. Eleven Latin American military dictators—including Manuel Noriega of Panama, Hugo Banzer of Bolivia, and General Rios Montt of Guatemala—attended the school, which has long been subject to public criticism for its connection to gross human rights abuses throughout the Americas. SOA briefly closed—and changed its name—in 2000, after unsuccessful efforts by Congress to limit its funding. It’s now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation (or WHINSEC, pronounced WIN-sec).
From 1994 to 2004, the school routinely released the names, course, rank, country of origin, and dates attended for every soldier and instructor at the school—going back to its founding in 1946—upon request under the Freedom of Information Act. SOA Watch, a non-profit advocacy organization that seeks to close the school, compiled the data, and through other publicly available information, such as U.S. State Department reports, helped bring to light hundreds of cases where SOA alumni have been implicated in human rights abuses, including the formation of death squads.
The SOA Watch database, containing over 60,000 names, has been utilized by members of Congress seeking to make decisions about the school and other foreign policies. The data has also been relevant to the analysis of whether and to what effect the government is vetting individual officers and noncommissioned officers prior to admitting them to the school and monitoring military units for human rights certification.
Following the creation of WHINSEC, the U.S. Department of Defense continued to release the names and military unit information to SOA Watch. Many members of Congress expressed their view to SOA Watch that until a student at WHINSEC could be tied to human rights violations, they were inclined to support the new school. In response, researchers with SOA Watch took the names of WHINSEC graduates and instructors previously disclosed by the Pentagon and matched those names with human rights reports prepared by the State Department and others. The group’s findings, which documented five cases where individuals were allowed to attend WHINSEC despite existing human rights records, were presented to the office of U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).
Soon after this report, the Pentagon reversed its longstanding practice of releasing the names of WHINSEC attendees.
On February 6, 2012, Cameranesi and Liteky, both members of a San Francisco research group that is part of SOA Watch, sued the Defense Department and the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (which responded to the FOIA request). The suit, filed in the Northern District of California, seeks access to the names, military units, and other attendee information of the students and instructors of WHINSEC from 2005-2010.
On cross-motions for summary judgment, the military claimed that the information it previously routinely disclosed under FOIA was exempt under FOIA Exemption 6 governing “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
In granting summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton ruled that, under Exemption 6, the government had not made a sufficient showing that “the privacy interests advanced were substantial, and had not shown through admissible evidence that the release of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy, in light of the strong public interest in access to this information as shown on the record before the court.”
The District Court order is currently on appeal in the Ninth Circuit.