U.S. Court Denies Access to Records of Violence in Guatemala

Thursday, May 21, 2009
Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt with Ronald Reagan, 1983

Chief Judge David B. Sentelle, and two other judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia have ruled that the government does not have to release records relating to the violence that a group of individuals or their loved ones suffered in Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s, a period during which the U.S. government supported the Guatemalan military dictatorship while it engaged in lethal acts against its own citizens. The decision came on May 8 after more than a year of deliberations.

The documents sought by the petitioners included records relating to incidents of violence in Guatemala, such as a fatal plane crash in 1976, the abduction and disappearance of family members in 1981, and the 1983 murder of the father of one of the petitioners. During this period, the Guatemalan army was responsible for ninety-three percent of the massacres that destroyed 626 villages, killed or disappeared more than 200,000 people, displaced 1.5 million, and forced more than 150,000 people to seek refuge in Mexico and other countries.
Despite the plaintiff’s arguments that they where entitled to the documents and that the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not adequately explain why the records should be withheld, the court ruled that the documents are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act Exemptions 1 and 3. Exemption 1 protects national security and foreign policy issues, while Exemption 3 covers records “specifically exempted from disclosure by statute.” According to these exemptions, government agencies can not only deny access to the content of protected government records, but also the fact of their existence or nonexistence; a practice commonly referred to as the “Glomar response.” The CIA argued that it was “logical to conclude that the need to assure confidentiality to a foreign source includes neither confirming nor denying the existence of records even decades after the death of the foreign national.”
-Ednar Segura
Meredith Larson, ET AL., v. Department of State, ET AL (United States Court of Appeals, D.C.) (PDF)


Leave a comment