CIA Sued for Withholding Records on U.S. Trained El Salvadoran Colonel

Latin America and the Caribbean
Central America
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has allegedly withheld records about a ranking Salvadoran military officer implicated in civilian massacres during the 1980s Salvadoran Civil War, according a recent lawsuit by the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights (UWCHR).
According to UWCHR Director Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, the center is seeking additional information on El Salvador’s Civil War to help to survivors in El Salvador. "We want more access to truth, which is what survivors deserve. Many survivors are still seeking justice, so any additional information could be very useful," Snodgrass Godoy told the Security Assistance Monitor.

The lawsuit alleges that the CIA repeatedly withheld records sought since 2013 under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) related to the retired Salvadoran Army Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez. The suit, filed on October 2 in the U.S. District Court, claims that the CIA violated FOIA by denying three separate requests and two appeals made on UWCHR’s behalf.

Col. Ochoa Pérez is currently under criminal investigation in El Salvador for his involvement in massacres against leftist guerrillas and civilians during the civil war, including the 1981 Santa Cruz massacre in Cabañas state. The war, which pitted guerrillas against the military, elites and landed oligarchy over control of the country, claimed an estimated 75,000 lives. The United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador has said thousands of extrajudicial killing and torture cases have gone unpunished.

In the case of the Santa Cruz massacre, University of Washington’s Unfinished Sentences report estimates that 1,200 Salvadoran soldiers carried out cleansing operations and aerial bombardments that indiscriminately targeted and killed unarmed civilians. A declassified State Department notification identifies Col. Ochoa Pérez as the Commander in Cabañas from August 1, 1981 to January 6, 1983.

Soon after these cleansing operations, Col. Ochoa Pérez received training at the Inter-American Defense College from 1983 to 1984 while he was a military attaché in the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington, DC. The colonel quickly became a favorite of U.S. military personnel for his aptitude in learning U.S. counterinsurgency strategies. Col. John Waghlestein, head of the U.S. Military Advisory Group (MILGROUP), said in a 1987 interview, “One of the things we tried to do, we kind of jokingly say we’d like to do, is clone Ochoa because he was so effective.”

After his stint at the Salvadoran Embassy, Col. Ochoa Pérez returned to El Salvador to command military operations in the state of Chalatenango, a guerilla hotspot, in February 1986. He remained a controversial figure within the Salvadoran government, and served as a deputy in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly from 2012 to 2015. ''Many people in the party didn't want Ochoa to come back, but the US insisted,'' said a high level advisor to former Salvadoran President José Napoleon Duarte in a 1984 interview with Christian Science Monitor.

After pressure from the United Nations Truth Commission and the U.S. Congress, former U.S. President Bill Clinton issued executive orders in 1993 and 1994 to declassify 12,000 records regarding human rights matters in El Salvador from the CIA, State and Defense Department, among other federal agencies. In a Youtube video posted the same day the lawsuit against the CIA was filed, Snodgrass Godoy explained that the UNCHR had amassed numerous documents related to Col. Ochoa Pérez from these declassified CIA records featured in the agency’s website and the Library of Congress.

“The CIA’s denial of our request is not credible,” UWCHR’s lead FOIA researcher Mina Manuchehri said in an article. “The CIA has previously declassified 20 documents relating to Ochoa. Why didn’t they at least give us copies of those same documents? There can be no national security concerns about documents that have already been made public.” Manuchehri, a third-year law student at UW, is a co-plaintiff on the suit against the CIA.

Prior to the suit, the CIA had responded to UWCHR’s multiple requests for more information by saying, “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request.” Currently, the 1984 CIA Information Act exempts the agency from FOIA search, review, publication or disclosure of operational files, such as those that contain intelligence or counterintelligence operations information. The agency decides what is considered an operational category, and is required to review FOIA-exempt categories every 10 years.

However, Snodgrass Godoy told SAM that such exemption does not apply in this case, since the CIA would be denying access to documents that are already in the public domain, excusing itself under natural security concerns. “The State Department gave us access to documents, but the CIA did not. They [CIA] didn’t even acknowledge the existence of these documents.”

While UWCHR’s lawsuit appears to be a difficult one to win, it has already attracted renewed publicity to the U.S. government’s role in the Salvadoran Civil War. The case also raises the importance of providing more transparency on a problematic U.S. involvement in El Salvador. “We wouldn’t have started the lawsuit if we weren’t optimists. There’s significant public interest in this case. If the judge sees that, the CIA would be obliged to release them,” Snodgrass Godoy said.

Access to Information as a Human Right: UWCHR v. CIA