In mid-February, The New York Times ran a news story headlined "Intelligence Nominee Comes Under Renewed Scrutiny on Human Rights." That was, alas, not quite true.
John Negroponte, who George W. Bush selected to be the first national directory of intelligence, does have a checkered past that warrants examination. As I and others noted when Bush appointed him UN ambassador in 2001 and then ambassador to Iraq last year, during the time Negroponte was Ronald Reagan's ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, he was the boss of the contra operation. Worse, he ignored serious human rights violations and oversaw an embassy that smothered reporting of abuses committed by the Honduran military, an ally of the Reagan administration in the not-that-secret covert war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. (Click here for details.)
The Times article (of February 19) noted that human rights advocates were now complaining about the Negroponte appointment and accusing him of having covered up human rights abuses. The piece reported that Jack Binns, who had preceded Negroponte as ambassador in Honduras, opposed the nomination because he believed that Negroponte had misled Congress about human rights violations in Honduras and that Negroponte might tailor intelligence to fit the administration's policies. But this "scrutiny" has not extended much beyond the human rights lobby. Hill Democrats have not made a fuss about Negroponte's appointment. Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who in the 1980s was the leading foe of Reagan's actions in Central America, has declared Negroponte a fine fellow and fit for the job. Congressional Democrats have demanded an investigation of Gannongate, but none have pushed for the declassification of a 1997 CIA inspector general's report that concluded Negroponte's embassy had censored reporting on human rights abuses. (About 70 percent of the report is redacted.) And there's been little discussion of Negroponte's suitability for the post on the shouting-head television shows.
In its coverage of the appointment, the Times stuck with the old journalistic convention of he said/she said reporting, noting that some human rights fuddy-duddies were accusing Negroponte of having covered up human rights violations and that Negroponte's supporters were maintaining he's a great guy. That is, the Times was doing nothing to determine if the human rights critics were justified in their opposition to Negroponte. Yet the Times has on its staff one of the experts on Negroponte's tenure in Honduras: a reporter who cowrote a convincing series published by the Baltimore Sun in 1995 that concluded Negroponte's embassy had smothered reporting on human rights abuses. Ginger Thompson and Gary Cohn wrote the pieces, and today Thompson is a correspondent for The New York Times in Mexico City. (Click here for the Sun series.) Has the Times put her on the Negroponte beat? I don't know. But it would be a pity if the newspaper of record did not make use of this resource.
In the meantime, Democrats--and anyone who claims to care about human rights anywhere--ought to see a new documentary called The Ambassador, which was made by Norwegian filmmaker Erling Borgen. In a delightful coincidence, Borgen had decided to make a film about the U.S. ambassador to Iraq that explored his past in Honduras. The film is in Norwegian, but Borgen's small production company sent me one of the first copies of the English version.
The documentary does not disclose new revelations about Negroponte's days as our man in Honduras. But it is powerful indictment, for it presents human rights victims directly speaking about and to Negroponte, who supported a military and a government that killed and disappeared hundreds if not thousands of civilians. Honduran human rights leaders note that the fates of 179 Hondurans who disappeared during the Negroponte years have yet to be determined. In the film, Bertha Oliva, one of those human rights advocates (whose husband was disappeared), says, "I want to use every possible medium to make Negroponte tell hundreds of families of the dead and disappeared in Honduras where they are. He must stop hiding the truth." Noemi Espinoza, who runs a Christian aid organization in Honduras and who worked with refugees in the 1980s, says that Negroponte's embassy falsely accused her of being a subversive. After the Honduran military raided her office in 1982 and detained and tortured two coworkers, she fled to the United States.
The documentary--more than once--shows Negroponte testifying before the Senate in 2001 and saying there was "no substantiation of any systemic human rights violations" in Honduras. The statement seems either a lie or a fantasy, as various Honduran human rights advocates describe the extensive pattern of human rights abuses practiced by the Honduran military when Negroponte was ambassador. At the time, he was working closely with the Honduran military and the United States was training and supporting the now-infamous Battalion 316, which the CIA's IG report linked to death squad activity. In the documentary, former Ambassador Jack Binns recalls that after the Reaganites moved into the State Department in 1981 he was ordered to tone down his reports on human rights abuses--which included cases of disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial assassination--and was fired when he did not. Negroponte replaced him. Negroponte's focus was managing the war against the Sandinistas, and Honduras was providing key bases for the contras. It would have hardly helped the cause to issue critical reports on human rights atrocities committed by the Honduran military. The documentary quotes an unidentified embassy staffmember "close to Negroponte" who says that the embassy's reports were written "as if they were describing the human rights situation in Norway."
The film highlights Zenaida Velasquez, whose brother disappeared in 1981. She has been searching for him ever since. "It's like having a wound that is bleeding," she says. She describes a meeting she and other relatives of the disappeared had with Negroponte: "Negroponte was not making eye contact with us....And of course, denying everything. I just wanted to shout at him, 'Liar!'...He totally denied having any information on human rights violations. But he promised he would investigate and let us know later. Of course, we never heard back from him."
Leo Valladares, the former head of the Honduran Human Rights Commission, tells the filmmakers, "It was a dark era when anyone who was considered suspicious lost all of their rights. They lost the right to an independent court of law. They were abused and tortured. Many were killed." Dr. Juan Almendares, who was the principal of the University of Honduras at the time and a leading critic of US involvement in Central America, claims that Negroponte leaned on the Supreme Court of Honduras to annul his reelection as head of the university and that the court obliged. Gilda Rivera, a student in the early 1980s who protested against the United States, says she was rounded up with five other students and tortured for eight days at a secret torture center. Looking straight into the camera, she says, "Mr. John Dimitri Negroponte, as a victim of human rights violations in Honduras, I ask you, if you have any respect for mankind, to tell what you know, so justice can be served in Honduras. So the victims can finally get peace." Almendares, who now treats past torture victims by bringing them back to the military bases where they were tortured (and which were built with US funds), says, "My message to you, John Dimitri Negroponte, is that you must renounce your position in Iraq and that you confess internationally to all your involvement in war crimes." I can only imagine what Almendares might say about Negroponte's promotion.
The film does not provide new evidence that Negroponte killed human rights reports. But such evidence can already be found in that CIA IG report (even though it has been heavily censored) and in the Baltimore Sun series. The film, though, does make a compelling case that there is no way that Negroponte could have been unaware of the rampant and systemic human rights violations committed by his partners in the contra war. Yet for two decades he has denied he knew anything. This man, then, is either out of touch or not being honest. In either case, his appointment should be thoroughly scrutinized. If Bush wants America to lead a global campaign for freedom and democracy, he should not be entrusting a top post to a fellow who has credibly been accused of ignoring, if not condoning, war crimes.
© 2005 The Nation