Court overrules disclosure of US ‘school of assassins’ graduates names

A U.S. Army Ranger shows skills during a demonstration at Ranger school graduation at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia August 21, 2015. © Tami Chappell
A US court of appeals ruled that the Pentagon does not have to disclose the names of people who were trained in counterinsurgency at the School of the Americas, an institution that lists some of Latin America’s worst dictators among its graduates.

In a divided 2-1 decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned a 2014 decision by the Northern District Court of California, which said the US public had a right to know who the US Army trains at a facility located at Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia. The DoD appealed the decision.

Originally called School of the Americas, it was founded in 1946 and trained Latin American troops in anti-communist counterinsurgency. The school was rebranded as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in the early 2000s. Critics say people involved in torture, extrajudicial killings, and other violations of human rights got their training at the facility funded by US taxpayer money, with some labeling it School of Assassins.

The graduates of the school include Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, a CIA asset who was eventually ousted by the US in 1989; Roberto d’Aubuisson, a convicted drug trafficker and leader of the Salvadoran death squads suspected of torturing and killing thousands of civilians; Efrain Rios Montt, Guatemalan military dictator who stands accused of ordering the genocide of indigenous peoples.

Instruction manuals for the school released by the Pentagon in 1996 included references to torturing and executing insurgents.

The Pentagon argued that disclosure of the names would put graduates at risk of retaliation by terrorist groups. It also said that WHINSEC has courses (mandated by federal law) on human rights which are required for all students, and that it screens out members of Latin American military units with records of abuses.

Dissenting Judge Paul Watford said in his opinion that the school has a “checkered history” and that relying on the government’s word that the school does its best to prevent abuses was a “fox-guarding-the-henhouse notion.”

He also questioned the safety argument, saying there was no evidence that any of the 60,000 SOA graduates who were identified in the past had been targeted with harassment or violence based on their attendance.

The names of SOA graduates for the years 1946-2003 had been released earlier, but the George W. Bush administration put a stop to disclosures citing the rising terrorist threat after the 9/11 attacks.

School of the Americas Watch, an organization monitoring graduates of the school for possible human rights abuses, took the Pentagon to court to have names for the years 2004-2010 published under a Freedom of Information request.