(Note as of 11:30 PM: the amendment passed by a party-line vote of 220-189.)
The House of Representatives meets today to debate the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 5658). There will be debate about an amendment [PDF] that would require the Pentagon to make public, upon request, the names of Latin American military and police personnel who “graduate” from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), the successor to the U.S. Army School of the Americas.
The amendment is being offered by Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), Sanford Bishop (D-Georgia) and Joe Sestak (D-Pennsylvania). There will be 20 minutes of debate.
Knowing the names of graduates would seem to be a basic ingredient for effective oversight of the WHINSEC, an institution that has long been controversial because of the very poor human rights records of many of its graduates. Freedom of Information Act requests for graduates’ names used to be approved routinely, which allowed the grassroots group School of the Americas Watch to construct a database of graduates.
Since 2006, however, these requests have been turned down – or, more insultingly, met with pages and pages of blacked-out names.
We are hearing reports that WHINSEC is defending this sudden opacity – and opposing the McGovern-Bishop-Sestak amendment – by arguing that groups like Colombia’s FARC could use this information to target Colombian military and police officers and their families.
This is a very poor argument for denying such basic information, for a few strong reasons.
1. The FARC doesn’t need a WHINSEC document to get the names of Colombian military officers. Those above the rank of major are easily obtained – these tend to be the commanders of battalions, brigades and other units. To get names of majors and captains (who head battalions, companies and similar units) might require the guerrillas to do a bit more research in local areas, but it is hard to believe that a FARC unit would not know the names of the key authorities at the nearest military or police facility.
Even more quickly, the FARC can simply get a comprehensive directory or database access by infiltrating or corrupting someone in the Defense Ministry, the FiscalÃa, the Procuraduria, the DefensorÃa, the Interior Ministry or a similar agency. Colombia’s military weathered a big scandal last year about a female FARC member who infiltrated her way to the highest ranks of the military. There are likely other “infiltrados” with ready access to lists of Colombian officers.
2. The FARC, as well as other Colombian narcotrafficking organizations that target Colombian security forces, have been around for decades. In all that time, we’ve never heard of either using U.S. trainee lists to select targets.
3. If successful in the case of WHINSEC, this argument can be abused to roll back transparency on all sorts of military programs (recipient unit lists, arms-sale data, priority zones for U.S. assistance). Monitoring the impact of U.S. assistance – especially the human-rights impact – could become nearly impossible.