On Monday, Oct. 5th, the UW Center for Human Rights (UW CHR) and the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University (IDHUCA) announced a lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The lawsuit was filed Friday, Oct. 2nd, for the agency’s failure to supply Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents after the university submitted a request on Dec. 15th, 2013.
According to the complaint filed by UW CHR, “The United States provided approximately $5 billion in aid to El Salvador during its Civil War and advised the Salvadoran military on counterinsurgency tactics.”
Due to the United States’ involvement in the conflict in El Salvador, the FOIA documents contain information that may lead to unanswered questions and justice for the survivors of the massacre.
Under FOIA, an individual can submit a request for records to government agencies. The agency responds to the request with one of the three answers: (1) the agency has the records and releases them; (2) there are no records and the agency informs the inquirer; (3) the agency has the records but prohibits the release due to the documents being exempt from disclosure under one of the FOIA’s nine statutory exemptions.
The university’s request to release the U.S. government documents contains information concerning human rights violations committed during the Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992), which includes multiple open criminal complaints in El Salvador filed against the politician Sigifredo Ochoa Perez, who held the position as commanding officer in military operations. Details of the 1981 Santa Cruz Massacre—an armed conflict in El Salvador involving an estimated 1200 soldiers who invaded the rural northern province of Cabanas—are included in the documents as well. The invasion resulted in the death of many fleeing civilians who were under Perez’s command.
The CIA responded to the request on Dec. 30th, 2013, citing the national security exemption that they could “neither confirm nor deny” the records existed.
In 1970, a fourth response to requests submitted was included under FOIA: refusing to “neither confirm nor deny” the records exist. This method, known as the “Glomar response,” engenders difficulties for the inquirer due to the deprivation of information requested.
In response to the agency’s reply, the university filed a lawsuit indicting the CIA for its failure to vindicate the legal obligations under FOIA.
According to a public relations release on the UW website, “The UW CHR cites some 20 previously declassified CIA documents relating to Ochoa Perez.”
The center also “challenges the CIA’s denial of records relating to UCLA Professor Philippe Bourgois,” a 1981 Stanford graduate student who led a field study and survived the Santa Cruz massacre.
Participants, human rights experts, and survivors of the massacre gathered during a conference entitled “Access to Information as a Human Right” on Monday, Oct. 5th, at UW School of Law in Seattle to discuss their concerns surrounding the rejection of documents.
Dina Cabrera, a survivor of the November 1981 massacre, hid for three weeks while five months pregnant as soldiers sought out and killed any civilians found. At that time the town was under attack by government soldiers.
Although the war ended two decades ago, the team continues to search for answers, justice, and closure for the victims.