WASHINGTON – An Army school in Georgia that trains Latin American military officers would be required to disclose the names of its graduates under legislation newly passed by the House.
The Pentagon has concealed the records since 2005. A human rights group says the secrecy was prompted by revelations in the 1990s that some graduates had later become involved in human rights abuses and criminal activity in their home countries.
"I don't see why taxpayers don't have a right to know who we're training," said Joao Da Silva, a spokesman for School of the Americas Watch, a leading critic of the Army school. "They are being brought here with taxpayers' dollars."
Pentagon spokesman Jeffrey Gordon responded that publicly releasing the graduates' names could expose them to danger in countries with high levels of political violence.
The disclosure provision, backed by Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., was attached to a 2008 spending bill for the Defense Department. The bill passed easily with a 395-13 vote early Sunday morning. It has not yet passed the Senate.
Formerly called the School of the Americas, the Fort Benning program is best known for training Latin American soldiers who fought communist insurgencies in the 1980s and 1990s.
Critics have long charged that the Defense Department teaches abusive and illegal tactics there. Large protests are held annually outside the school near Columbus, Ga.
In the mid-1990s, the Pentagon acknowledged that training manuals previously used at the school recommended bribery, blackmail, threats and torture. In 2001, the school was overhauled and renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Officials say its curriculum now includes a renewed emphasis on human rights.
Supporters say the program, which also offers classes for police officers and U.S. personnel, strengthens U.S. relationships with neighboring countries.
Da Silva said the Army previously released information about its students, allowing School of the Americas Watch and other groups to build a database of its graduates, their home countries and the positions they held. Noting that the school arranges meetings every year with human rights groups and students, he questioned the need to hide their identities.
"It just doesn't make any sense," he said. "The people who come here are either police or military. ... In their home countries, they're not secret."
Critics of the school have repeatedly sought to cut its funding but come up short in Congress, including earlier this year.