Washington Notebook

April 14, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 14

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent



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Negroponte and senators lacking curiosity

By Joe Feuerherd

John Negroponte, the president's nominee to be the first director of national intelligence, told a Senate committee April 12 that he believes "in calling things the way I see them."

Don't buy it, say his many critics, pointing to his four-year tenure as U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s. They say he's a see-no-evil kind of guy.

As the nation's top spymaster, it will be Negroponte's job to ferret out the terrorists who aim to do us harm, to uncover the plots concocted by surreptitious operatives. It's important work, requiring bureaucratic skill (there are more than a dozen U.S. intelligence agencies that fall under the newly established office), considerable guile and the ability to make judgments based on frequently fuzzy data.

Negroponte, however, couldn't find evidence of government- and military-engineered human rights abuses in Honduras during his time there. He's a most incurious man.

The background: In the late 1970s and '80s, Honduras' right-wing government feared the spread of left-wing ideology represented by their neighbors, Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua. Following Ronald Reagan's 1980 election, the United States mounted a not-so-covert effort to quash left-wing insurgencies in El Salvador, Argentina, Guatemala and to topple the Sandinistas, who came to power in 1979 following the toppling of the U.S.-backed Somoza regime.

It being the Cold War, the United States was prepared, eager even, to make nice with all manner of ugly customers to combat the Marxist threat to the Western Hemisphere. Our enemy's enemy was our friend.

Honduras -- the hemispheric base from which these wars were launched -- was key to the strategy. Negroponte, a career foreign service officer, became U.S. ambassador to Tegucigalpa in 1981. State Department documents obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act - 392 memos and cables from Negroponte to his Washington superiors - make clear that the ambassador had many worries during his tenure. Among them: subverting regional peace efforts promoted by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and finding ways to fund the Nicaraguan contras after Congress cut-off support. No mention, none, about human rights in the host country.

In June 1995, following a 14-month investigation, The Baltimore Sun reported that hundreds of allegedly left-wing Hondurans were "tortured and killed in the 1980s by a secret army unit trained and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency. The intelligence unit, known as Battalion 316, used shock and suffocation devices in interrogations. Prisoners often were kept naked and, when no longer useful, were killed and buried in unmarked graves." Continued The Sun, "Newly declassified documents and other sources show that the CIA and the U.S. Embassy knew of numerous crimes, including murder and torture, committed by Battalion 316, yet continued to collaborate closely with its leaders."

Negroponte faced some tough questioning about his role in Honduran human rights abuses in 2001, when George W. Bush appointed him U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He denied any knowledge of atrocities or any wrongdoing in the anti-Sandinista war.

But since then, in two subsequent appointment hearings -- last year when Negroponte was named U.S. ambassador to Iraq and now as national intelligence director nominee -- the Senate has expressed about as much curiosity about Negroponte's role in Honduras as Negroponte did about what was happening in Honduras during his watch.

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A year ago, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Negroponte faced no queries about his role in Honduras. Even liberal stalwarts such as Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Chris Dodd, D-Conn., didn't raise a question. Boxer said she has "got past" problems she previously had with Negroponte's record.

A year later, and only hours after The Washington Post revealed the latest treasure trove of documents concerning Negroponte's Honduran service, only one member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, raised the issue. Among those Democratic senators who apparently have "got past" whatever problems they might have had with Negroponte are Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia, Carl Levin, Michigan, Dianne Feinstein, California, Evan Bayh, Indiana, Barbara Mikulski, Maryland, and Jon Corzine, New Jersey.

"Whatever actions I carried out, whatever courses of action I recommended in Honduras, were always entirely consistent with applicable law at the time," Negroponte told the committee.

Always entirely consistent with applicable law at the time.

Ponder that from another viewpoint.

I'm the father of three teenagers.

"You didn't use the car to take your friends to the mall?" I asked.

The response: "Whatever actions I carried out were always entirely consistent with applicable parental guidelines at the time."

Why would anyone question that?

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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