Policy undercuts accountability

One of the most oft-stated principles of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the U.S. Army School of the Americas, is that it has nothing to hide.

Perhaps the Fort Benning-based institute doesn’t have anything to hide, but somebody in government does. Our government, that is -- not one of the guest nations for whose enlightenment we supposedly exemplify principles of democracy and civilian authority over the military.

Until last year, public disclosure of the name, rank, home country and curriculum of every graduate and instructor was a given. Then that disclosure was summarily suspended in Washington, and a Freedom of Information request filed in 2006 by SOA Watch and other human rights advocacy organizations was rejected.

The ostensible rationale for the decision — which institute public affairs officer Lee Rials confirmed "came from higher up on the chain of command" — makes little or no sense: A Pentagon spokesman said public release of graduates’ names could expose them to danger in their home countries. That’s a curious reason for secrecy, especially after years of public disclosure and given the fact that these graduates and instructors were already officers whose identities were widely known.

Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, said he wasn’t even aware that the policy had been changed: "Their names should be made available . . . I understand that it wasn't (the institute’s) decision to withhold the names, but that of the Department of Defense. Either way, it was not a good policy."

When as staunch a political defender of the school as Bishop says secrecy about its graduates is a bad idea, somebody in Washington needs to listen.

This policy bears all the marks of a bureaucratic instinct for covering up even when there’s nothing to cover. It’s a default position of secrecy in a government whose default position is supposed to be public accountability.

It was just last year that the Western Hemisphere Institute came within a razor-thin six votes of losing its funding. Just last Sunday, the House overwhelmingly passed a defense spending bill that included a provision requiring the school to resume disclosing its rolls. It has not yet passed the Senate, but it will be an unpleasant surprise if it doesn’t.

The Western Hemisphere Institute -- we say it again, hardly for the first or the last time -- is a valuable component of U.S. policy. But as such, it is an institution funded by American taxpayers who have both a legal and moral right to know what goes on there.

Government secrecy about it can only undercut the school’s claims to integrity and transparency, and provide fodder for those who insist that the past sins of past graduates are not a thing of the past at all.

-- Dusty Nix, for the editorial board