John Negroponte: A Tradition of DeceitThu Feb 17, 2005 14:12126.96.36.199
John Negroponte: A Tradition of Deceit
On Sept. 14, 2001, just three days after the terrorist attacks on the United States, the U.S. Senate quickly confirmed John D. Negroponte as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Anxious to fill this important post in a time of international crisis, senators approved the nomination despite concerns about Negroponte’s human rights record during his term as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. An increasing body of evidence supports allegations that Negroponte condoned or covered up egregious human rights violations committed by Honduran security forces.
On May 7, 2004, a sense of urgency again took hold of the Senate when it confirmed Negroponte to the post of U.S. ambassador to Iraq, just 17 days after President Bush announced the nomination. Although it was undeniably important to have an embassy team in place well in advance of the June 30 handover of power to an Iraqi governing body, the Senate neglected to reexamine the questionable human rights record of the man they approved to oversee Iraq’s transition to democracy.
During Negroponte’s tenure in Honduras, the United States was using the country as a base of operations for the Contra war in Nicaragua and the larger war against Communism in Central America. In the name of “national security,” Honduran security forces — including members of the CIA-trained military intelligence Battalion 3-16 — were committing serious human rights abuses against civilians who were supposed subversives. These violations of international law included kidnapping, torture and murder.
The Honduran press published hundreds of stories of illegal detentions and abductions, Honduran citizens and human rights groups sought help from the justice system to locate missing persons, and families of the disappeared and at least one Honduran politician made direct requests for Negroponte's assistance. Nevertheless, the ambassador consistently denied — both to Congress and in the international press — that officially sanctioned abuses were taking place.
The failure to report these violations undermined one of the embassy’s critical obligations: to inform Congress of events that might bear on foreign aid and policy decision making. Federal law requires the State Department to provide annual reports to Congress on human rights practices in countries receiving U.S. foreign assistance, and the State Department relies on U.S. embassies to provide the bulk of the information for these reports. Yet Negroponte and other high-level embassy officials reportedly encouraged their underlings to refrain from reporting on rights abuses.
Rick Chidester, a junior embassy official in Honduras, told The Baltimore Sun that he was directed by his superiors to omit from his 1982 human rights report information he had gathered on military abductions and torture. (He later said the Sun had misquoted him.) The resulting sanitized State Department report contains inaccurate statements such as: "Student, worker, peasant and other interest groups have full freedom to organize and hold frequent public demonstrations without interference. ... Trade unions are not hindered by the government." In fact, it was these groups that had been targeted as so-called subversives and were suffering the brunt of abuses.
A declassified 1997 CIA inspector general’s report gives further evidence of efforts within the embassy to suppress information. In reference to the case of the Rev. James Carney, the report cites one source, whose name is blacked out, as explaining that there was “no further reporting on the prisoner executions [because] the event had been reported previously and there was concern on the part of Negroponte that over-emphasis would create an unwarranted human rights problem for Honduras.” According to the same report, Negroponte’s “concerns” were enough to prompt the suspension of further investigations into the executions.
Because the Foreign Assistance Act prohibits military aid to any government that "engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” these omissions influenced determinations of U.S. policy and assistance levels. The absence of information on disappearances and torture in the 1982 and later human rights reports cleared the way for increases in military aid, which shot up astronomically — from $4 million to $77 million — during Negroponte's ambassadorship. That increase in funding was vital to the U.S. effort to support the Contras and overthrow the Sandinsta government of Nicaragua.
President Bush announced his intention to nominate Negroponte to the U.N. post in March 2001 and formally submitted his name for consideration in May. Subsequent to Negroponte’s previous appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for the review of his nomination as ambassador to the Philippines in 1993, substantial information regarding the U.S. policy and role in Honduras in the 1980s was released into the public record. In 1995 The Baltimore Sun published a series of articles about human rights abuses committed by the Honduran military with the knowledge of the U.S. government, and this prompted the CIA to conduct an internal review of its activities during that period.
In light of these and other reports, which raised questions about Negroponte’s role in Honduras, Democratic members of the Senate committee sought further government information before considering his U.N. nomination. Because of delays in obtaining requested information from the executive branch and the CIA, the nomination hearing was postponed until September. Senators also reviewed documents from the State and Defense departments.
During the nomination hearing, which took place on Sept. 13, Senators of the Foreign Relations Committee asked Negroponte if the embassy failed to fully report the human rights violations that were taking place or provided “misleading reporting.” Negroponte replied that hard information was hard to come by and that he had “no large-scale reporting and evidence and information to the extent of these — of such violations as might have occurred.” He defended his claim, made in a 1982 letter to the Economist magazine, that “it is simply untrue to state that death squads have made their appearance in Honduras” and reasserted, “I didn’t see any such activities.” He also challenged the veracity of some of the sources cited in CIA reports that were used as evidence that he suppressed or misreported information on human rights abuses.
In contrast, Negroponte’s predecessor in Honduras, Jack R. Binns, was well aware that state-sponsored abuses were taking place and reported his concerns to Washington. In June 1981, Binns sent a cable to Washington stating, “I am deeply concerned at increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations of political and criminal targets, which clearly indicate GOH [government of Honduras] repression has built up a head of steam much faster than we had anticipated.” A briefing book that the embassy staff prepared for Negroponte prior to his arrival in November 1981 stated that the “GOH security forces have begun to resort to extralegal tactics — disappearances and, apparently, physical eliminations — to control a perceived subversive threat.”
These reports surely warranted the attention of the new ambassador. Furthermore, during Negroponte’s first full year in office, Honduran newspapers published over 300 stories on military abuses, and in August 1982 ousted Honduran intelligence chief Leonidas Torres Arias held a press conference in Mexico claiming there was an active “death squad” headed by Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martínez, a man with whom Negroponte was in regular, close contact.
At the 2001 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who along with Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) voted against the ambassador’s nomination, pressed the ambassador on his silence in the face of evidence of serious rights violations. “I just can't understand why you were not more outspoken, why you were not more public, and, even today, why you seem unwilling to acknowledge the fact that, indeed, the state was involved,” Wellstone said. “It was widespread. People were murdered."
Negroponte responded by citing a 1983 op-ed article he wrote for the Los Angeles Times and speeches he gave during that period as proof that he did speak out on the issue. Yet his op-ed piece merely refers to human rights as a "soft spot in Honduras' otherwise positive political record," and asserts that “there is no indication that the infrequent human-rights violations that do occur are part of deliberate government policy.” Negroponte also claimed he “did a lot in the area of quiet diplomacy.” He said he expressed concern over rights abuses to Honduran government officials, including the president and military commanders, and urged them to correct what he described as “deficiencies” in the country’s law-enforcement system.
The ambassador also downplayed meetings he held with leaders of the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s after Congress had passed the Boland Amendment, which banned aid to the Contras. He claimed that he met only with "civilian" leaders of this paramilitary group "to show interest in their situation." Negroponte also held several meetings with Oliver North, the National Security Agency official at the center of the secret deals to provide funding to the Contras through the illegal sale of arms to Iran.
Three weeks before President Bush announced his intention to nominate Negroponte as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the State Department revoked the visa of former Battalion 3-16 commander Luis Alonso Discua Elvir . Discua had been living in the United States since 1996, officially serving as Honduras’ deputy representative to the United Nations. However, he had not been fulfilling the duties of his post, thereby violating the terms of his diplomatic visa. Some State Department officials marveled at the unprecedented speed of Discua’s removal, leading some observers to believe that the timing of his forced departure was not coincidental. /Two other former Battalion 3-16 members, José Barrera Martínez and Juan Angel Hernández Lara, were deported from Canada and the United States, respectively, earlier in the year.
In contrast to the Senate hearings for Negroponte’s confirmation as U.N. ambassador, senators voting on his nomination to the Iraq post raised few questions about his record in Honduras. Many senators expressed approval of his service in the U.N. position and a desire to not rehash past issues. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted unanimously to approve the nomination, and when it moved to the full Senate, it was passed on a voice vote rather than given full debate on the Senate floor. Only three senators — Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), Richard Durbin (D.-Ill.), and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) — voted against confirming the nomination. Sen. Harkin alone spoke out against Negroponte’s confirmation, citing his “callous disregard for human rights abuses through his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Honduras.”
Negroponte was the senior President Bush’s ambassador to Mexico from 1989 to 1993, where he was involved in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations. His confirmation to that post, coming on the heels of the Oliver North trial, stalled when some senators questioned his role in the Iran-Contra affair. However, by the end of his tenure in Mexico, he had received considerable praise for his work from Democrats and Republicans alike.
In 1993 the Senate unanimously confirmed his nomination by President Clinton to fill the post of ambassador to the Philippines. It was during his tenure in the Philippines that questions regarding his human rights record in Honduras came to light; he initially refused comment to the press but later defended his actions. In 1997, he reportedly was in line for appointment as ambassador to Greece, but retired from diplomatic service to take a job in the private sector with the McGraw-Hill Companies. The Greece ambassador appointment process would have required a Senate hearing that undoubtedly would have delved into his past in Honduras.
A U.S. foreign service officer since 1960, Negroponte also acted as liaison officer for the Vietnam peace talks (1968-1969), assistant to Henry Kissinger and chief of the Vietnam office of the National Security Council staff (1970-1973), counselor for political affairs in Ecuador (1973-1974), consul general to Greece (1975-1977), assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries affairs (1977-1979); deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs (1980-1981), assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs (1985-1987), and deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs (1987-1989). In the late 1990s he helped negotiate the controversial U.S. military exit from Panama.
Critics say Negroponte is the wrong person for the job in Iraq. He doesn’t speak Arabic and or have a background in Middle East or Islamic countries, but he does have a history of turning a blind eye to allegations of serious human rights abuses. And in light of the Iraq prison abuse scandal, many are concerned about the message the Bush administration is sending — to enemies and allies alike — by installing Negroponte in this position, where he will oversee one of the largest U.S. embassies and possibly the largest CIA station in the world. If U.S.-sanctioned abuses in Iraq continue, will Negroponte attempt to suppress that information for fear of creating “an unwarranted human rights problem,” as he did in Honduras?
During the recent nomination hearing, Sen. Harkin said: “We need someone in Iraq who has a sterling record, an unassailable record in terms of his or her support for fundamental human rights and for the rule of law, someone who has no blot on their career record of having been involved in the kind of abuses that have come to light recently in Iraq under our military jurisdiction. After the terrible revelations of the abuses under our watch at the prison at Abu Ghraib … I believe nominating Ambassador Negroponte to this vital post would send entirely the wrong message.”
For more information
Letter to the Editor. John Negroponte. The Economist, 1982.
“An Exquisite Danger; John Negroponte's Record in Honduras Does not Inspire Confidence About His Appointment as US Ambassador to Iraq.” Duncan Campbell. The Guardian/UK; June 2, 2004.
"The Full Negroponte; From top to bottom, John Negroponte is the wrong ambassador to Iraq." Matthew Yglesias. The American Prospect Online; Apr 18, 2004.
“Congress Ignores 'Dirty War' Past of New Iraq Envoy.” Jim Lobe. Inter Press Service; April 30, 2004.
“Contra Aide.” Sarah Wildman. The New Republic; March 8, 2001.
“A carefully crafted deception.” The Baltimore Sun; June 18, 1995.
“Former envoy to Honduras says he did what he could.” The Baltimore Sun; December 15, 1995.
”Bush’s UN Pick Faces Battle Over Contra Role.” Los Angeles Times; March 25, 2001.
”Bush Nominates ‘Dirty Tricks’ Diplomat to UN.” San Antonio Current; April 17, 2001.
“What Did Negroponte Hide and When Did He Hide It?” Los Angeles Times; April 19, 2001.
“Negroponte Takes Up Post as Chief U.S. Envoy at U.N.” Washington File, United Nations; Sept. 19, 2001.
“Honduras: Former Battalion 3-16 members conveniently removed from scene.” Central America/Mexico Report; April 2001.
“New ripples in an evil story.” Laeitia Bordes; July 2001. (Commentary on Negroponte’s U.N. ambassadorship nomination by a nun who attempted to seek information on disappearances from Negroponte in 1982.)
"Update: The Panama Canal Base Negotiations." Adam Isacson and Susan Peacock. From Center for International Policy. Oct. 30, 1996.
The United States in Honduras, 1980-1981: An Ambassador’s Memoir.” Jack R. Binns. McFarland & Co., 2000.
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