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Senate Intelligence Committee Confirmation hearings
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John Negroponte assured the Senate Intelligence Committee that he will demand objective analysis and will tell "truth to power" as the first director of national intelligence, but his record in government suggests a willingness to ignore or to spin evidence that presents political problems.
Negroponte's tolerance of "politicization" was reflected in a backchannel cable that he sent to Washington while serving as U.S. ambassador to Honduras in 1983. In pressing complaints from Honduran leaders who were upset with American criticism, Negroponte cited dialogue from William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."
Cassius tells Brutus, "You love me not." Brutus replies, "I do not like your faults." Cassius then says, "A friendly eye could never see such faults."
During his four years in Honduras, Negroponte often cast "a friendly eye" at the Honduran government, insisting that he was unaware of evidence of "death squad" operations that eliminated hundreds of political dissidents. He also turned a blind eye to the military's role in making Honduras a way station for drug traffickers.
U.S. government documents, recently released under the Freedom of Information Act, suggest that Negroponte was so committed to his mission of making Honduras a base for Nicaraguan contra rebels that he routinely ignored troubling evidence about the Honduran government. At the time, the Reagan administration also had no interest in hearing critical information about key allies, like Honduras.
According to the documents, Negroponte's predecessor in Honduras, Jack R. Binns, informed Washington about possible "death squad" activity involving Honduran strongman, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez, but Negroponte took almost the opposite approach. He denigrated allegations of "death squad" abuses and hailed Alvarez for his "dedication to democracy." [Washington Post, April 12, 2005.]
In later congressional testimony, Negroponte continued to defend the Honduran military against these "death squad" charges. Responding to questions about one notorious unit, known as Battalion 316, Negroponte said, "I have never seen any convincing substantiation that they were involved in death squad-type activities."
But while Negroponte stuck to his story, international investigations were establishing that Binns was right and Negroponte was wrong. In 1987, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights concluded that "a practice of disappearances carried out or tolerated by Honduran officials existed between 1981-84."
Documents from the State Department and CIA also showed that some U.S.-trained Honduran military units were implicated in "death squad" operations, employing counter-terrorist tactics, such as torture, rape and assassinations against people suspected of supporting leftist guerrillas in El Salvador or leftist movements in Honduras.
"The picture that emerges in analyzing this new information is a troubling one," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., in September 2001 when Negroponte was facing confirmation to be Bush's ambassador to the United Nations.
"Given what we know about the extent and nature of Honduran human rights abuses, to say that Mr. Negroponte was less than forthcoming in his responses to my questions is being generous," Dodd said.
"I was also troubled by Ambassador Negroponte's unwillingness to admit that -- as a consequence of other U.S. policy priorities -- the U.S. Embassy, by acts of omissions, end[ed] up shading the truth about the extent and nature of ongoing human rights abuses in the 1980s," Dodd said. [See the Congressional Record, Sept. 14, 2001]
However, by the time George W. Bush named Negroponte to be ambassador to Iraq in 2004, Dodd and other Democrats had stopped asking tough questions about the past. The U.S. press corps also treated concerns about Negroponte's role in the Central American bloodshed as old news.
One of the few publications still reporting on these controversies was the National Catholic Reporter, which had covered the right-wing persecution of Catholic clergy in Central America during the 1980s.
In an April 2004 article, the magazine recalled a statement from Society of Helpers Sister Laetitia Bordes, who had gone to Honduras and approached Negroponte about the "disappearances" of 32 women who had fled rightist death squads in El Salvador after the assassination of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.
After reaching Honduras, these women, including one who had been Romero's secretary, "were forcibly taken from their living quarters in Tegucigalpa, pushed into a van and disappeared," Sister Laetitia Bordes said. "John Negroponte listened to us as we exposed the facts. ... 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." [National Catholic Reporter, April 24, 2004]
During the early 1980s, the Honduran military also was implicated in cocaine smuggling as South American traffickers used the cover of the Nicaraguan contra war to ship drugs to the United States.
Yet, even as that trafficking was increasing, the Reagan administration chose to look the other way rather than bring unfavorable attention to the contras, whose war against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government was seen as an important Cold War operation.
The CIA had "one overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government," CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz reported in a 1998 report. "[CIA officers] were determined that the various difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective implementation of the contra program." [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]
Just as Honduras was emerging as a major transshipment point for cocaine to the United States in the 1980s, the Reagan administration closed down a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa. The strange decision attracted the critical attention of a Senate investigation several years later.
"Elements of the Honduran military were involved ... in the protection of drug traffickers from 1980 on," according a Senate Foreign Relations investigative report, issued in 1989 by a subcommittee headed by Sen. John Kerry. "These activities were reported to appropriate U.S. government officials throughout the period.
"Instead of moving decisively to close down the drug trafficking by stepping up the DEA presence in the country and using the foreign assistance the United States was extending to the Hondurans as a lever, the United States closed the DEA office in Tegucigalpa and appears to have ignored the issue."
Because this evidence of contra-drug trafficking was swept under the rug, the CIA analysts back in Langley, Virginia, put out inaccurate analyses about the severity of the problem.
According to the 1998 investigation by Inspector General Hitz, CIA analysts complained that the contra-drug evidence was hidden from them, leading to an erroneous conclusion in the mid-1980s that "only a handful of contras might have been involved in drug trafficking." Hitz's investigation concluded that more than 50 contras and contra-related entities were implicated in the drug trade.
It's still unclear what role Negroponte played in the decision to shut down the DEA office in Honduras during his time as U.S. ambassador from 1981 to 1985, but it's hard to imagine that a step of that significance could have occurred without at least the acquiescence of the ambassador.
Yet, instead of grilling Negroponte about his past during his April 12 confirmation hearing to be the first DNI, the Senate Intelligence Committee largely accepted his assurances that he is now committed to presenting warts-and-all intelligence to the policymakers in Washington.
"Truth to power is crucial," Negroponte told Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland. "We've got to ensure the objectivity and the integrity of our intelligence analyses."
But John Negroponte's record has not been one of presenting the hard truth when that's not what the president wants to hear. In Honduras -- and during his stint at the United Nations as a point man for the Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction case -- he presided over the dissemination of famously false information.
As his nomination to oversee the U.S. intelligence system sails through Congress, the unanswered question remains whether Negroponte can be taken at his word that he will apply a cold eye to the evidence and call it like it is -- or whether he will cast the "friendly eye" that sees no faults.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at www.secrecyandprivilege.com It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
Copyright © 2005 The Consortium for Independent News
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