News & Politics

Bush Nominates "Dirty Tricks" Diplomat to UN

Remember Honduras, the refuge for the Contras during the undeclared, illegal war in Latin America? Twenty years later, one of the conflict's main U.S. players, John Negroponte, has a key position in the new Bush administration.
Remember Honduras, the refuge for the Contras during the undeclared, illegal war in Latin America? Twenty years later, one of the conflict's main U.S. players, John Negroponte, has a key position in the new Bush administration.

During the Reagan era, the Honduran military -- trained and equipped by the CIA -- murdered, kidnapped and tortured suspected subversives. Hiding these atrocities from Congress and the American public was Negroponte, then the U.S. ambassador to Honduras. He and then-vice president George H. W. Bush also schemed to give millions of dollars to the Honduran government to encourage it to increase aid to the Contras.

Now President George W. Bush has chosen Negroponte as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bush has stated that Negroponte will be a "key member" of the administration's foreign policy team.

"The declassified record on Ambassador Negroponte's role in Honduras is a shocking one," says Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archives in Washington and a top authority on covert U.S. involvement in Latin America. "His activities in support of the illicit Contra war operations, and disregard for repression by the Honduran military run directly counter to the purposes and principles of the United Nations."

Nor is Negroponte's shady past limited to his 1981-85 tour of duty in Honduras. That past is solidly on the record thanks to two years of digging by Baltimore Sun investigative reporters Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson, from 1994-95. But no similar investigation has yet been made of his role as political officer in Saigon from 1964 to 1968. During those years he worked closely with Henry Kissinger, who has been exposed as having sabotaged the 1968 Paris peace negotiations. As a result, in the following four years until the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, 20,763 Americans, 109,230 South Vietnamese, and 496,260 North Vietnamese servicemen lost their lives.

After their defeat by the Sandinistas in 1979, top officers of Somoza's National Guard fled to Miami where they began immediately to plot their return. When Reagan was inaugurated as president in 1981, he ordered the CIA to give every possible support in arms and training to the flying squads - soon to be known as the Contras -- that were organizing along the Honduran border for a guerrilla war against the new Nicaraguan government.

To turn Honduras into a springboard and refuge for the Contras required the support of the Honduran government, one notorious for its violations of human rights. It also required that the U.S. Congress and public remain in the dark about these violations. In essence, the main job qualification for the U.S. ambasssador to Honduras was the ability to lie well.

Jack Binns, a Carter appointee, did not fit the bill. Shortly after Reagan's inauguration, he sent a classified cable to the State Department expressing his concern "at increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations of political and criminal targets." He was immediately told not to send reports of human rights abuses through ordinary channels, even classified ones. He should use only "the back channel." Within months he was fired and Negroponte took over.

Meanwhile, the CIA was training and equipping special Honduran forces known as Battalion 316 who quickly came to be feared the most by opponents of the regime. The CIA chose the Argentine military, already notorious for torture and disappearances during Argentina's dirty war, to do the training. Cohn and Thompson described the results in their series in the Sun: "They used shock and suffocation devices in interrogations. Prisoners were often kept naked and, when no longer useful, killed and buried in unmarked graves."

The U.S. Administration knew what was going on. "We were concerned about the violations of human rights [there]," Thomas O. Enders, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, later admitted, "but we had no choice but to use the Argentines. There were not many people with counterinsurgency experience. How many who were Spanish-speaking?"

Within a few years, Battalion 316 kidnapped, tortured, and executed hundreds of suspected subversives. The CIA and the U.S. Embassy, nevertheless, continued their support and collaboration. No mention of the abuses appeared in the Embassy's annual human rights reports.

It was essential to exclude the truth because that report went to Congress for review. If it had told the truth, it would have made it difficult or impossible for the Administration to obtain the funds needed to continue the Reagan program. The Foreign Assistance Act prohibits military aid to any government that "engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights."

Negroponte, of course, knew what was going on. Various Honduran officials actually appealed to him on behalf of victims of their own government's violence. One Honduran intelligence chief, outraged by what was happening, publicly denounced Battalion 316. Relatives of the victims demonstrated in the streets and appealed to U.S. officials. The Honduran press was full of reports about military abuses, including hundreds of newspaper articles in 1982 alone.

Rick Chidester, then a junior political officer in the embassy in Tegucigalpa, told the Sun that he compiled substantial evidence of abuses by the Honduran military in 1982. "I had allegations about vans coming up to police cells and taking out people they (the Honduran military) didn't want...and shooting them. I had allegations that...torture was being used." He was ordered to omit this information. And the next year the State Department was able to assert in its report to Congress that "there are no political prisoners in Honduras."

Efrain Diaz Arrivillaga, then a delegate in the Honduran Congress, told the Sun that he complained to Negroponte on numerous occasions about the Honduran military's human rights abuses but got no satisfaction. "You and others," Negroponte would say, "what you are proposing is to let communism take over this country and this region."

Dr. Leo Valladares, who as Honduran Human Rights Commissioner spent years investigating the human rights violations of the 1980s, issued a long report in 1993 in which he implicated the U.S. government in the Honduran government's campaign of violence and torture. He has more than once mentioned Negroponte by name. "He knew all about the human rights violations, and he did nothing to stop them. He was more interested in politics than in human rights violations."

The U.S. government, Valladares has also said, has never satisfactorily fulfilled promises made by the Clinton administration to furnish him with important information regarding abuses committed against Hondurans during the period of Negroponte's ambassadorship. Many of the documents provided, he said, have been so blacked out by censors as to be of little help.

In 1983, the CIA came up with a scheme that would soon involve Negroponte as a major actor in a conspiracy by President Reagan and his top associates in blatant violation of U.S. law. The Agency prepared and distributed to psychological warfare units of the Contras a manual -- in Spanish -- on "Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare." It recommended, among other things, the hiring of criminals to carry out some of the dirty work of the Contras. It talked about "neutralizing" Sandinista officials in a context that clearly meant assassinating them.

The Associated Press broke the story of the manual, with its cover depicting the blue-and-white of the Nicaraguan flag. The New York Times followed with a headline that read: "CIA Primer Tells Nicaraguan Rebels How to Kill."

Congress was appalled. This was a clear contravention of the presidential directive that stated that "no person employed by or acting on behalf of the U.S. government shall engage in or conspire to engage in assassinations." In the fall of 1984 Congress imposed a freeze on aid to the Contras. By that time an estimated $80 million had been authorized by Congress and spent on the Secret War.

The Reagan Administration quickly decided to circumvent the ban by using money from arms illegally sold to Iran, a subterfuge in which Negroponte was deeply involved. He met some half-dozen times with Oliver North who was coordinating Contra support for the White House. Documents in the possession of Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel charged with investigating the Iran-Contra affair, show that Negroponte's embassy had contact with a private U.S. mercenary group several months before the Reagan administration denied having any involvement with it.

Negroponte and then-Vice President George Bush next took the lead in promoting yet another scheme, hatched by the National Security Council, to circumvent the law by giving millions of dollars to the Honduran government on the understanding that that it would increase its aid to the Contras. They delivered a letter from Reagan to Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordoba, asking him "to support those who struggle for freedom and democracy." They also told him that Washington was close to releasing $35 million in frozen economic assistance to Honduras.

Negroponte has denied, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that he offered a quid pro quo to the Honduran government in return for aid to the Contras. That denial is contrary to what he reported to the State Department in a 1985 cable in which he described a discussion he had with a Honduran general. "It would be a tricky matter," he told the general, "to explicitly increase Honduran aid levels or compensate them for their continued support for the anti-Sandinistas"; but "we might be able to justify increased levels in terms of broader strategic interests that our two countries had in common."

Negroponte by his own admissions thus emerges as one of the principal figures in carrying out a U.S. policy that was declared in violation of international covenants by the International Court of Justice at the Hague in 1986. His role in the suffering and death of thousands of Nicaraguans at the hands of the U.S.-trained and funded Contras is solidly documented. So is his role in the tragic militarization of Honduras. The conclusion is clear: He is shockingly unqualified for the post of ambassador to the international body that was founded to end conflicts and promote international law and human rights.
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