Woerner Report on El Salvador

25 March 1993

During the past two weeks, you have no doubt seen front-page news coverage of the extraordinary report by the United Nations' Truth Commission on El Salvador, which names names both of army officers and guerrilla leaders and assigns them individual responsibility for the most outrageous human rights violations in that country over the past decade. In the early stages of their work, Truth Commission researchers spent weeks in the Archive's reading room going through our extensive collection of declassified documents on El Salvador. The U.N. Library even purchased a copy of our El Salvador guide and index volumes for the Truth Commission staff in New York; as a result, the Truth Commission's 24-page chronology of the violence contains 13 footnotes to the Archive's work.

Similar footnotes have shown up in the news coverage -- most prominently, in the lengthy front-page New York Times story on Sunday, March 21, headlined "How U.S. Actions Helped Hide Salvador Human Rights Abuses," by Clifford Krauss, which concludes that the Reagan Administration was well aware of the Salvadoran armed forces' gross violations of human rights at the same time that the administration was dramatically increasing U.S. aid to that military. A seminal U.S. strategy document cited by Mr. Krauss is our document of the month: A November 1981 Pentagon report signed by then-Brig. Gen. Fred F. Woerner, whose team of American military advisers had attempted to design a winning strategy for the Salvadoran military.

Various journalists, including Archive founding fathers Ray Bonner and Scott Armstrong had filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the Woerner Report as early as 1983, but were flatly denied. The Washington Post, in fact, lost a FOIA lawsuit to get the document, even after enlisting then-U.S. Senator Ed Zorinsky (D-Nebraska), who had seen the classified version, to sign an affidavit that release would not damage U.S. national security, only embarrass the Salvadorans.

In a testament to persistence, Archive analyst Kate Doyle finally won the declassification of the document in January 1993, after a year-long FOIA appeals process to which now-retired Gen. Fred Woerner lent his support. (One suspects that the imminence of the Truth Commission report may have played a role in the Pentagon's decision to declassify the document.) We have included here the two-page executive summary of the report, and three pages that describe the Salvadoran military's "institutional tolerance" for human rights abusers.

Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that more than 30% of the Woerner Report remains classified (we have included two pages of the more egregious censorship). U.S. officials say they have repeatedly and directly expressed -- to the Salvadoran military -- the kinds of criticisms still censored in the public Woerner Report; yet the American public is still not allowed to know. What the censorship accomplishes now is simply to prevent full accountability for U.S. policymakers, and to erode public trust in our own democratic system.

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    Last Change: July 29 1996 / by Reza Rafie/ rafie@seas.gwu.edu