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 Washington Notebook

April 28, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 16

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"You've certainly had a distinguished career … in hotspots around the globe."

Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island,
speaking to John Negroponte during hearings to confirm Negroponte as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq


The hearing "was a caricature of the advise and consent function. … This is a man with a deeply flawed history who was directly involved in people dying as a result of his decisions."

Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
commenting on the confirmation hearing and the nominee.


Senate rolls over for Negroponte; Prayer breakfast brings 'faithful Catholics' together

By Joe Feuerherd

John Negroponte, slated to become the first U.S. ambassador to Iraq in more than a decade, faced some tough questions at his April 27 Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing.

Except they didn't come from any senators.

Midway through the hearing a man in the audience stood up.

"Ask him about Battalion 3-16," he shouted. "Ask him about the death squads in Honduras that he supported." Capitol police escorted the agitator out of the hearing room. The man, Andrés Thomas Conteris, Latin America program director for Nonviolence International, was detained briefly and then released.

"I apologize for the interruption," committee chairman Richard Lugar (R-ID) told Negroponte, though his contrition seemed misplaced. Lugar and his colleagues had been nothing if not polite.

What a difference three years, and a war in Iraq, makes.

In 2001, Negroponte's nomination to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was delayed, and nearly derailed, over questions about his role as the Reagan Administration's ambassador to Honduras in the mid-1980s.

Critics charge that as ambassador to that small (6.5 million population) country, Negroponte was the on-the-ground implementer of the Reagan-era wars in Central America, most notably the transnational campaigns to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

Honduras during Negroponte's 1981-1985 watch, say those critics, was less of a diplomatic outpost than a staging area for regional war.

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Here's how Society of Helpers Sister Laetitia Bordes, writing in July 2001, described a meeting with Negroponte.

I had gone to Honduras on a fact-finding delegation. We were looking for answers. Thirty-two women had fled the death squads of El Salvador after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 to take refuge in Honduras. One of them had been Romero's secretary. Some months after their arrival, these women were forcibly taken from their living quarters in Tegucigalpa, pushed into a van and disappeared. Our delegation was in Honduras to find out what had happened to these women.

John Negroponte listened to us as we exposed the facts. There had been eyewitnesses to the capture and we were well read on the documentation that previous delegations had gathered. Negroponte denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of these women. He insisted that the U.S. embassy did not interfere in the affairs of the Honduran government and it would be to our advantage to discuss the matter with the latter.

Years later, the Baltimore Sun would reveal that Negroponte apparently knew more than he was letting on. In fact, charge his many critics, the ambassador oversaw an exponential increase in military aid to the Honduran army, deceptively downplayed human rights violations, and played a key role in supporting the activities of Battalion 3-16, a CIA-backed Honduran-based regional counterinsurgency unit subsequently found to be among the cruelest of the cruel.

At his 2001 hearing to be U.N. ambassador, Negroponte denied any knowledge of atrocities or any wrongdoing in the anti-Sandinista war.

That record was brought up only in passing at the most recent hearing.

Connecticut's Christopher Dodd, a Democrat, said his past differences with Negroponte "stem largely from a lack of candor about what the U.S. was and wasn't doing in Central America in the conflict at that time." Still, said Dodd, "I intend to support and strongly support this nomination when it comes to a vote in this committee, and later on the Senate floor."

Liberal stalwart Barbara Boxer (D-CA) was equally conciliatory. Through their work together over the past three years on the issue of "child soldiers and other matters," Boxer said she has "got past" problems she previously had with Negroponte's record in Honduras. "I'm supporting you strongly on this," said Boxer.

Maverick Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island played a conventional role. "You've certainly had a distinguished career … in hotspots around the globe," he gushed.

Democratic ranking member Joe Biden (D-DE) praised Negroponte as someone who has been "a skilled diplomat for over 40 years."

Council on Hemispheric Affairs director Larry Birns told NCR that the hearing "was a caricature of the advise and consent function."

Said Birns: "This is a man with a deeply flawed history who was directly involved in people dying as a result of his decisions. For there to be near collective amnesia on this issue really represents a low moment in public rectitude in this country."

It was, said Birns, "a disgraceful performance."


April 28 was a day for Washington Catholics, particularly those of a conservative political bent, to celebrate their faith. The occasion was the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, an event its sponsors hope to make an annual occurrence.

It was fitting that Cardinal Avery Dulles -- son of Dwight Eisenhower's secretary of state -- was the principal celebrant at the opening mass and keynote speaker at the breakfast, which drew more than 1,000 attendees.

No political bombs were dropped and there was no Kerry-bashing from the podium. It was clear, however, that this crowd was not one to buy the distinctions between personal faith and public policy that Kerry invokes when questioned about his Catholicism.

The steering committee that put the event together includes Bill Saunders of the Family Research Council, Joseph Cella, president of the Ave Maria Fund, a political action committee supported by Domino's Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, and Austin Ruse, president of Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.

"Sometimes," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told the gathering, "we are tempted to hide our faith or separate it from what we do." Thompson said he was "proud to be a Catholic" and encouraged the audience to "live our faith in all that we do."

But the difficulty of living the faith in the compromising world of politics and government was evident with the appearance of Catholic pro-life hero Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA).

Pennsylvania political observers give Santorum credit (or blame) for pushing the state's senior senator, Arlen Specter, over the electoral finish line in the April 27 Republican primary. Specter defeated long-shot pro-life congressman Patrick Toomey by just two percentage points.

One government lawyer at the breakfast saw Santorum's support for Specter (he campaigned aggressively for Specter and appeared in a campaign commercial) as a betrayal. "I'd like to ask him why he backed Specter" said the disillusioned pro-lifer.

But the crowd, either unaware or forgiving that pragmatism trumped principle, gave Santorum a standing ovation.

"The greatest power the devil has," Santorum said, "is lies." Those "lies," said Santorum, allow "the greatest country in the world" to be a "land so blessed" and yet "soulless, vacuous and empty of His spirit."

Rep. Bart Stupak, a pro-life Democrat from Michigan, provided a bi-partisan aura to the event. In what appeared to be a veiled reference to Republican attacks on John Kerry, Stupak argued against a "bomb thrower" mentality exemplified by such television programs as Hardball and Crossfire. "In our current society it is so easy to judge and condemn," he told the crowd.

The scholarly Dulles, meanwhile, offered no condemnations, but a few judgments. "Our civilization seems to be gravitating toward hedonism and moral chaos," said Dulles. Authentic freedom, he said, is more than a life or society free of constraints. Rather, he said, it is the result of "choices made responsibly with a view toward goodness and truth."

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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