Skip to main content

Center for Human Rights - Celebrating 15 Years! Students • Partners • Research

A Battle Worth Fighting: UWCHR’s Ongoing CIA Lawsuit

View the collection of declassified US government documents at UW Libraries

October 5, 2016

A message from UWCHR Director, Prof. Angelina Snodgrass Godoy

Dear friends,
Angelina GodoyWith UW’s fall quarter now underway, our offices at the Center for Human Rights are once again abuzz with activity. We’ve spent the past few weeks laying out plans for the year ahead, training our new undergraduate researchers, and welcoming back our seasoned grad students for what we’re confident will be another productive year. We’re also coming on the one year anniversary of the filing of our lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to update you on where things stand.

As you’ll recall, in recent years our researchers have filed hundreds of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests as part of our effort to obtain information about crimes against humanity committed during the armed conflict in El Salvador. Because the United States government provided significant support to the Salvadoran forces, detailed records exist in US files about daily developments during the war, and although some of these files have been declassified, most remain secret even three decades after the war’s end.

While conducting research on the November 1981 massacre of Santa Cruz, we sought access to CIA files on retired Salvadoran military officer Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, who commanded the troops involved. In response to our request, the CIA said that it could “neither confirm nor deny the existence of records,” citing national security concerns. But our own research had already uncovered twenty documents pertaining to Col. Ochoa which the CIA had already made public. At minimum, they could have provided us those documents which were already in the public domain. After multiple attempts to resolve this matter through appeals, and reinitiating our request a second time, we were left with only two options: give up, or sue.

So we sued. In doing so, the University of Washington became the first university in the country to file suit against the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act. Many congratulated us for taking a stand for access to information, even as they warned, “You do know you’re going to lose, right?” And they had a point: the CIA, after all, is not known as a beacon for transparency.

Newly-declassified CIA cables reveal information about military operations linked to human rights abuses in El Salvador.

Newly-declassified CIA cables reveal information about military operations linked to human rights abuses in El Salvador. Read more…

Yet I’m pleased to report that, while our litigation is ongoing, the effort has already paid positive dividends. In March and April, following months of discussions between the CIA’s attorneys and ours, the Agency voluntarily released 85 documents, 73 of which had not been previously declassified. We posted the entire cache of over 400 pages, with an analysis of what’s new, on our website. While the documents in this new collection do not shed new light on the massacre of Santa Cruz, they contain new insights into other abuses, including the 1982 massacre of El Calabozo, among the cases documented by the UN Truth Commission in El Salvador. They also offer a tantalizing glimpse into the detailed reports on daily operations held by US intelligence agencies. The overwhelming majority of documents declassified to date have come from the State Department, so such files have seldom before been seen. Yet during the years of worst abuses, El Salvador was effectively governed by its military, and civilians at the US Embassy were not privy to the most sensitive information.

It’s precisely because the information we have received is so rarely made available, and yet so valuable for human rights purposes, that we’re still fighting the case today. The CIA acknowledges the existence of additional documents regarding Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, which they refuse to provide us; we are currently seeking access to those files.

We got into this legal battle because we’re seeking information relevant to our research on war crimes. In the wake of the Salvadoran Supreme Court’s decision this July to overturn the amnesty law that blocked investigations for the past 23 years, this work is particularly timely for justice efforts. But we also got into this because access to information is, itself, a human right, and government transparency is a cornerstone of democracy. Our partners in El Salvador have told us what a difference it makes to have these documents; even in cases where they confirm what was already known, they corroborate survivor accounts, validating the perspective of people whose suffering has been systematically ignored for decades.

On good days, I find it satisfying, and somehow just, that a new generation of students at our university is using records generated for the purposes of waging a war, now to help heal its wounds; there is an element of redress, however insufficient, in this work. But on other days, I imagine what it could look like if we didn’t have to fight our own government for access to the truth. We have plenty of work to do to help make that world a reality. I invite you to join us and our partners at Our Parents’ Bones in this effort by calling on the U.S. government to issue a broad declassification order on El Salvador.