Last week, after more than two years of discussions, the University of Washington settled its 2015 Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the UWCHR against the CIA. As reported by The Seattle Times, the UWCHR’s lawsuit resulted in the declassification of 139 documents regarding Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, a former Salvadoran Army officer implicated in human rights violations, including the 1981 Santa Cruz massacre and the 1982 El Calabozo massacre. We are pleased with this outcome, and are continuing our work to further struggles for truth, justice, and accountability through access to information.
New Documents, New Information
The documents obtained through this lawsuit have already been useful for justice purposes. One CIA cable released as a result of UWCHR’s lawsuit was cited by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of El Salvador in a 2017 ruling ordering a new investigation of the forced disappearance of children during an August 1982 military operation in the department of San Vicente. The cable credits the “planning and leadership” of then-Lieutenant Colonel Ochoa Pérez for the success of a large-scale counterinsurgency operation, which is infamous for the massacre of hundreds of fleeing civilians at El Calabozo.
Some of the documents released through this lawsuit, including those from the CIA’s operational files—its most closely-guarded collections—had never before been released. Others had been declassified pursuant to earlier requests, but were now released with fewer redactions. As part of our commitment to the right to truth, the UWCHR shares all the declassified documents we obtain with the general public, free of charge. To access these records, visit the UW Libraries collection.
Building the Case
The lawsuit against the CIA was the result of years of preparation, starting with the UWCHR’s first FOIA requests in 2012. Since then, our undergraduate and graduate student researchers have filed more than 500 requests to a wide range of federal and state agencies. In every case, our information requests are based on the strategic priorities of our partners on the front lines of human rights struggles at home and abroad.
In the case of the UWCHR’s Unfinished Sentences project, those partners include organizations, communities, and individuals working for justice for crimes against humanity committed during the armed conflict in El Salvador. In 2015, the Unfinished Sentences project published “God Alone Was With Us,” a short documentary and accompanying report detailing a November 1981 “cleansing” operation commanded by Ochoa Pérez. Survivors of the operation joined the UWCHR in Seattle in October, 2015, for the announcement of the Center’s lawsuit against the CIA.
The University of Washington and the UWCHR’s lawsuit followed the CIA’s refusal to release any documents on Ochoa Pérez, alleging that to do so would threaten U.S. national security. However, UWCHR researchers identified 20 previously-declassified CIA documents including information about Ochoa. The CIA’s failure to release even these documents showed the agency was not complying with its legal obligations under the FOIA, and eventually gave rise to the lawsuit.
Ongoing Work for Access to Information
Last year, the UWCHR filed a new FOIA lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense and two of its subagencies seeking documents about three separate wartime atrocities in El Salvador; that lawsuit remains pending. Meanwhile, UWCHR continues our day-to-day work to bring about greater understanding of the human rights abuses committed during the armed conflict in El Salvador. Our team continues to file and monitor FOIA requests to the CIA and other agencies, to share the documents we obtain with partner organizations, and to contribute to evolving dialogues about truth, justice, and reparations for survivors of crimes against humanity.
Since 2016, the UWCHR has broadened its freedom of information research to include its new “Human Rights at Home” project. Through a focus on immigrant rights in Washington state, researchers are using both the federal FOIA and state public records laws to examine the human rights implications of federal immigration enforcement. Working with partners including grassroots immigrant-led organizations and legal advocacy groups, our researchers have helped shed light on issues including Border Patrol checks on buses; collaboration between local police and ICE; and apparent retaliation by ICE against immigrant rights advocates in our community.
No state funds are employed in the UWCHR’s litigation efforts. The work is made possible by the generous support of private donors, including especially the Puffin Foundation, and pro bono representation provided by Thomas Burke of Davis Wright Tremaine.