National Archives Quietly Pulls School of the Americas Human Rights Evidence Citing Possible “Terrorist Activity”
Research Assistance: Laura Perkins
In August 2012 records of School of the Americas (the U.S. military school that trained notorious Latin American leaders such as Manuel Noriega and Efraín Rios Montt) started disappearing from the shelves of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). These student academic records shed light on U.S. complicity in the training of some of Latin America’s most infamous human rights violators. These specific records are valuable for both academic researchers and legal efforts to bring human rights violators to justice, and their disappearance from NARA’s shelves illuminates the larger chilling problem with NARA’s opaque guidelines for restricting previously accessible documents.
In early August 2012 I accessed documents at NARA that are being used as key evidence in human rights cases relating to School of the Americas graduates. However, when an intern returned to see the same documents in September 2012, she was denied access, and bluntly informed that the information was now “restricted,” despite my having been able to search and copy the records only months before.
Frustrated, I returned to NARA in May 2013 to research the documents myself, and was also denied access to them. While NARA’s removing of documents from its shelves is not news to researchers, NARA staff refusing to be transparent about restriction processes is highly problematic. NARA staff explained to me that when they detect sensitive information in publicly accessible documents, such as “personal privacy concerns” regarding “social security numbers of U.S. military personnel,” it is their policy to immediately remove it from the shelves. Protecting personal privacy and social security numbers is not a problem; the DOD and other agencies routinely and appropriately withhold this information from their disclosures. The problem lies in there being no procedure to re-review the documents for re-release after personal information has been excised – the only way that they can be returned to the shelves, a NARA employee explained to me, is through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a lengthy process. Furthermore, because NARA is not transparent and does not publicize why and when it removes documents, it is impossible to know how many other documents have been quietly pulled from the shelves this way.
Because NARA staff would not explain why the documents were “disappeared,” I was forced to submit a FOIA request for the re-release of the School of the Americas documents. I also submitted a separate FOIA request for internal documents detailing the disappearance of the School of the America files. While the Archive was ultimately successful in securing the documents’ re-release, the internal process for how these specific documents were flagged for restriction is still troublingly unclear. In response to my FOIA request, NARA released a memo simply noting that the documents needed to be restricted because they contain social security numbers of U.S. military personnel. [see document here] Another document released stated “records of concern” were to be re-evaluated because they might “support terrorist activity.” [see document here]
We are left to guess why and how these specific files were flagged for examination in the first place. If the disappearance of the records about the U.S. military’s training of human rights violators was not so concerning, it might seem humorous that NARA cited possible “access to materials that might support terrorist activity” to justify the removal of evidence that the U.S. military trained terrorists.
DOJ Pushes for Continued Secrecy
The case of the “disappeared” School of the Americas documents becomes even more disconcerting considering that the Department of Defense and Department of Justice are fighting to keep secret the names of recent Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC – formerly the School of the Americas) students and graduates. [press release] The Department of Justice’s fight to keep the documents secret continues despite the School of the Americas Watch’s FOIA lawsuit victory, which compelled the Department of Defense to release the names of WHINSEC graduates from 2001 to the present. Because Eric Holder appealed the ruling, these records remain classified.
An upcoming post will examine the “disappeared” School of the Americas documents, providing analysis and examples of the academic records of some of the School’s most notorious graduates.