A federal judge for the Northern District of California has ruled the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning must release the names of students and instructors at the former School of the Americas.
In an April 22 ruling, Judge Phyllis Hamilton said the Department of Defense has not shown that students or instructors uniformly have an expectation of privacy.
Kent Spriggs, one of the lawyers for plaintiffs Judith Liteky and Theresa Cameranesi, said the decision moves the School of the Americas Watch a step closer to getting information as it did before 2004. Both plaintiffs are part of a San Francisco Research Group of the SOA Watch that matched names from previously released information with human rights reports from the U.S. Government and other groups.
Spriggs said the next decision is left to the Department of Defense. "They have the right to appeal," Spriggs said. "If they don't appeal and it stands as it is, WHINSEC will have to go back to the way things were in 2004 when they consistently disclosed names and countries of students and instructors that came from Latin America," he said.
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An appeal would go to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, Spriggs said.
Liteky, who gathered at the Fort Benning gate in 2010 for the annual protest to close the institute, said she's hopeful after the ruling.
"We don't know the final outcome, but this to me is an affirmation of the Freedom of Information Act, which I think is very important for informed citizens," said Liteky.
Liteky wasn't arrested at the protest, but her husband Charlie Liteky was taken into custody in 1990 and 1999 and served time in federal prison.
Before becoming an activist, he served in the U.S. Army as a chaplain during the Vietnam War and was the recipient of the Medal of Honor, the military's highest decoration.
Since it was formed in 1990, the SOA Watch has raised awareness of the institute after the 1989 slayings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and 16-year-old daughter in El Salvador. Some soldiers trained at the Army post were implicated in the murders.
In 2000, the School of the Americas closed at Fort Benning and reopened in January 2001 under a new name and new curriculum, training eligible military, law enforcement and civilian personnel from the Western Hemisphere.
Releasing the names of students and instructors dates from 1994 to 2004. During that time, SOA compiled a database with some 60,000 names covering a period from 1946 to 2004 when the practice was stopped. Using information already available, the nonprofit group documented five cases in which individuals were allowed to attend the institute with an existing human rights record. That information was presented to U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern. Releasing of names stopped shortly after the report was presented to McGovern, the plaintiffs asserted in the court documents.
The government defended its actions to stop releasing information with a statement from Lee Rials, a public affairs spokesman for the institute. Rials said there are risks associated with releasing the names of students, instructors and guest instructors.
The judge said the government failed to provide examples.
"The fact that defendants cite safety reasons, but fail to provide any example that is relevant to WHINSEC, leads the court to conclude that DOD has no examples," Hamilton wrote. "The court finds that defendants' showing is not sufficient to apply a blanket exemption."
The institute is expected to train 1,500 to 1,800 students from the Western Hemisphere this year.