Univ. Research Center Sues DOD For El Salvador Records

By Emilie Ruscoe | July 26, 2023, 8:54 PM EDT ·

The University of Washington's Center for Human Rights has sued the U.S. Department of Defense in Seattle federal court, alleging the Defense Intelligence Agency has withheld records regarding human rights violations that took place amid armed conflict in El Salvador in the 1980s and early 1990s.

In a suit filed Monday, the center, the university and the center's director Angelina Godoy took aim at the Defense Department with claims it violated the Freedom of Information Act, stonewalling the center's researchers as they sought documents potentially containing revelatory information about certain "atrocities" that took place during the El Salvadoran conflict.

The center said in its complaint that its work "focuses on, among other things, the rights of all persons to security against violence," noting that for more than a decade, certain researchers there have worked with families of those who died or disappeared in El Salvador during the conflict, as well as others who survived state-sponsored massacres and torture.

In its suit, the center said that the U.S. government has been "a next-best alternative source" for records about the conflict, since the Salvadoran government won't open its archives or declassify information about the conflict, and "as a result of the U.S. support and training of the Salvadoran military during this period, many relevant documents remain in U.S. government possession."

The center cited a May FOIA request it submitted to the Defense Department seeking certain "Central America Joint Intelligence Team" records that span from 1983 to 1992, describing the requested records as about 50 boxes of hard copy documents that were noted, in certain records, to be slated for disposal this year.

The suit cites June conversations between Godoy, the center's director, and Anthony Kenon, a worker in the DIA's Information Management and Compliance Office, who allegedly told Godoy that the scope of the records request was so great it had the potential to "bring the entire office to a standstill," and suggested "Ms. Godoy's child would be in college before it was complete" if the office attempted to respond to the FOIA request as originally submitted.

The center "is appreciative of the support that Mr. Kenon has provided," the suit states, citing certain assistance the information management worker offered. "But it is obvious that the DIA will not timely act consistent with FOIA without action by this court."

The center seeks a declaration the DIA violated federal freedom of information laws, an order prohibiting the agency from destroying the requested documents, a court-ordered document production schedule and a waiver of all fees for the document request, since the "records sought are in furtherance of scholarly research and in the public interest."

Representatives for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington is represented by Verónica Muriel Carrioni and Thomas R. Burke of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.

Counsel information for the defendants wasn't immediately available.

The case is the University of Washington et al. v. Defense Intelligence Agency et al., case number 2:23-cv-01107, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

--Editing by Scott Russell.

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