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2005-02-18

Promoting the 'Ambassador of Torture': Bush Nominates Negroponte for Intel Czar

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As President Bush nominates Ambassador John Negroponte, current U.S. ambassador to Iraq, as the first Director of National Intelligence, we look back at Negroponte’s bloody history in Central America in the 1980s. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush has nominated John Negroponte–the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq–as the country’s first director of national intelligence. Bush made the surprise announcement at a news conference yesterday in Washington.

  • President Bush, news conference, February, 18, 2005.

John Negroponte will have daily access to Bush as his primary intelligence briefer and would have authority over the budgets of the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies. He also will have the authority to order the collection of new intelligence and information sharing between agencies.

Creating the new top intelligence position was a central recommendation of the 9/11 commission. It was included in an intelligence overhaul bill that Bush signed into law in December.

Negroponte has been ambassador to Baghdad for less than a year. Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said he was concerned "about the message we are sending to Iraq and the rest of the world" by removing Negroponte from Baghdad so soon after he took office in June.

Negroponte served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2001 to 2004. But it is his time as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985 that earned him a reputation for supporting widespread human rights abuses and campaigns of terror.

He played a key role in coordinating US covert aid to the Contras who targeted civilians in Nicaragua and shoring up a CIA-backed death squad in Honduras. During Negroponte’s tenure, US military aid to Honduras skyrocketed from 3.9 million dollars to over 77 million. Much of this went to ensure the Honduran army’s loyalty in the battle against popular movements throughout Central America.

The Senate must confirm Negroponte to the new post of national intelligence director. In his confirmation hearings as UN ambassador in (2001) two-thousand-one, he was asked whether he had supported human rights abuses by death squads, which were funded and partly trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. Negroponte testified that he did not believe the abuses were part of a deliberate Honduran government policy. He said, "To this day I do not believe that death squads were operating in Honduras."

  • Peter Kornbluh, author of "The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability." He is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a public-interest documentation center in Washington.
  • Sister Laetitia Bordes, Catholic nun with the Society of Helpers, a Catholic community of women. She is talking to us from San Bruno California.
  • Andrés Thomas Conteris, program director for Latin America and the Caribbean for the human rights group Non-Violence International. He is Co-Producer of "Hidden in Plain Sight" He has promoted human rights throughout Latin America for 25 years.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush has nominated John Negroponte, the current U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, as the country’s first Director of National Intelligence. Bush made the surprise announcement at a news conference yesterday in Washington.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I’m pleased to announce my decision to nominate Ambassador John Negroponte as Director of National Intelligence. The Director’s responsibility is straightforward and demanding. John will make sure that those whose duty it is to defend America have the information we need to make the right decisions. John understands America’s global intelligence needs because he spent the better part of his life in our foreign service and is now serving with distinction in the sensitive post of our nation’s first ambassador to a free Iraq. John’s nomination comes in an historic moment for our intelligence services. In the war against terrorists who target innocent civilians and continue to seek weapons of mass murder, intelligence is our first line of defense. If we’re going to stop the terrorists before they strike, we must insure that our intelligence agencies work as a single, unified enterprise. That’s why I supported and Congress passed reform legislation creating the job of Director of National Intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush speaking in Washington on Thursday. John Negroponte will have daily access to Bush as his primary intelligence briefer. He would have authority over the budgets of the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies. He will also have the authority to order the collection of new intelligence and information sharing between agencies. Creating the new top intelligence position was a central recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. It was included in an intelligence overhaul bill that Bush signed into law in December. Negroponte has been Ambassador to Baghdad for less than a year. Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said he’s concerned, quote, "about the message we’re sending to Iraq and the rest of the world by removing Negroponte from Baghdad so soon after he took office in June." Negroponte served as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. from 2001 to 2004, but it’s his time as Ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985 that earned him a reputation for supporting widespread human rights abuses and campaigns of terror. Negroponte played a key role in coordinating U.S. covert aid to the Contras who targeted civilians in Nicaragua and shored up a C.I.A.-backed death squad in Honduras. During Negroponte’s tenure, U.S. military aid to Honduras skyrocketed from $3.9 million to over $77 million. Much of this went to insure the Honduran army’s loyalty in the battle against popular movements throughout Central America. The Senate must confirm Negroponte to the new post of National Intelligence Director. In his confirmation hearings as U.N. Ambassador in 2001, he was asked whether he had supported human rights abuses by death squads which were funded and partly trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. Negroponte testified he did not believe the abuses were part of a deliberate Honduran government policy. He said, quote, "To this day, I do not believe the death squads were operating in Honduras." To talk about Negroponte’s record as the Ambassador to Honduras, we’re joined by two guests. Sister Laetitia Bordes is a Catholic nun with the Society of Helpers, a Catholic community of women. She’s talking to us from San Bruno, California. And on the line with us from Washington, we’re joined by Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, author of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. Peter Kornbluh, I want to begin with you. Can you lay out John Negroponte’s record in the early 1980s?

PETER KORNBLUH: He was the pro-counsel. He essentially ran Honduras as the Reagan administration changed it from a small Central American country into a territorial battleship, if you will, to fight the Contra war and overthrow the Sandinista government. He was really the head person in charge of this whole operation, which became a massive paramilitary war in the early 1980s.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Battalion 316? What was its role in Honduras, and what did the U.S. government have to do with it?

PETER KORNBLUH: Battalion 316 was the Honduran military special forces elite unit. It certainly became a death squad, contrary to what Negroponte said. He must have been well aware that the C.I.A. was working extremely closely with this particular unit, and the U.S. special forces were providing extraordinary aid to this particular unit. The Human Rights Ombudsman in Honduras, Leo Valladares, did a major investigation of the atrocities of this unit and concluded it was mostly responsible for the murders of up to 184 people, one of them an American priest working in Honduras, Father Carney. And the C.I.A. worked very closely with this unit, both to fight the left in Honduras, and to sustain the Contra war. I should say that we have many declassified documents from the Iran-Contra scandal, which do show Negroponte’s kind of odd role. He stepped out of being U.S. Ambassador and kind of put on the hat of a C.I.A. station chief in pushing for the Contras to get more arms, in lobbying and meeting with very high Honduran officials to facilitate U.S. support for the Contras and Honduran cooperation, even after the U.S. Congress terminated official support for the Contra war.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just watching the Senate Intelligence — head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts. He was being asked about the confirmation hearings for John Negroponte and asked if he has enough intelligence background. He has diplomatic background, and he said, no, he has both, because as ambassador, he is in charge of the C.I.A. station chief, and so he always knows what’s going on around intelligence in his embassy. Of course, I think he was talking about very much Iraq, but what about what Negroponte knew and when he knew it in Honduras?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, you know, the interesting thing, Amy, is that throughout the years, Ambassadors and the State Department have complained that the C.I.A. has been the stronger force in these smaller countries particularly where major covert operations are going on, and that the Embassy head, the Ambassador, essentially gets cut out of the loop. But in the case of Honduras, it was just the reverse. In fact, the Ambassador was a major player not just in receiving information from the C.I.A. station, but in really being the mover and shaker on C.I.A. covert operations there. So, he was very much in the loop even though those are not the, I think, the official duties. He was in the loop and he was active in running this paramilitary war. I would say that his strongest qualifications for this post were the unofficial duties that he had as Ambassador in Honduras.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and then when we come back, we’ll continue speaking with Peter Kornbluh, of the National Security Archives. We’ll also speak with Laetitia Bordes, the nun who met with John Negroponte when he was Ambassador to Honduras in 1982 about the fate of dozens of nuns who had gone to Honduras.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We continue to look at the early record of John Negroponte, who has been nominated by President Bush to one of the highest posts of the land. It’s new. It’s Director of National Intelligence. We’re looking at his record as Ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. Our guests are Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives, and Laetitia Bordes, an American nun, who met John Negroponte in 1982. Can you talk about why you went to Honduras, Sister Laetitia Bordes?

SISTER LAETITIA BORDES: Yes, I went to Honduras in May of 1982 on a fact-finding delegation. As you know, Archbishop Romero had been assassinated in El Salvador in 1980, and there were quite a few members of Christian-based communities who were being picked up and disappearing in El Salvador. So, a group of 32 women — by the way, these were not nuns. They were lay women, but they were members of Christian-based communities who had been followers of Archbishop Romero, had gone to Honduras to seek refuge from the repression that was taking place in El Salvador at that time. These 32 women — also included were four children, by the way, in that group — disappeared in Honduras, and there were witnesses to their disappearance. Vans pulled up in front of the safe house where they were staying, and they were taken and never heard from again. And so, this was — this happened in April of 1981, and I went to Honduras in May of 1982 and met with John Negroponte to find out what had happened to these 32 women. And John Negroponte said very clearly that the embassy in El Salvador did not know what happened to those women, that we would need to talk to the Honduran government to find out about their fate. We went back. We did speak with the Honduran government. We had meetings there, and they referred us very clearly to our American embassy and sent us back to the American embassy and told us we would need to go through them to find out what had happened to the women. We had two meetings with John Negroponte. The first, and then we went to the Honduran government, and then returned to John Negroponte with the information that we had been given from the Honduran government, and again, he denied clearly the whereabouts of these women. He was very specific in saying that the embassy in Honduras did not interfere in Honduran affairs. That was very, very clear. At the same time, we were talking to different people in Honduras, and it was clear from the people with whom we spoke that John Negroponte was working closely with General Alvarez, who was Chief of the Armed Forces in Honduras at that time. And he was facilitating, really, the training of Honduran soldiers and psychological warfare and sabotage, and many types of human rights violations. And by the way, the co-founder — the founder and commander of battalion 316, who was General Discua, had been trained at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, which is very interesting. So, we see the close connections that there was there between what was going on in Honduras and the American government.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sister Laetitia Bordes, speaking of the School of the Americas, we have just been joined on the telephone by Andres Contreris. He is joining us from Chile right now. He is co director of the film, Hidden In Plain Sight, which is about the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia. He is also the person who, when John Negroponte was going through his confirmation hearings as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, stood up in the hearing room and protested. We welcome you to Democracy Now! Thanks for joining us Andres.

ANDRES CONTRERIS: Amy it’s really good to be with you, and I’m glad that you’re really focusing on this very, very important issue. I not only disrupted Negroponte last year in April, but also in September of 2001 when he was having his hearing to become Ambassador to the United Nations. The reason that I stood up on both of those occasions is because I was trying to be a voice for the voiceless in Honduras. The sister of Manfredo Velazquez whose name is Venaida Velazquez, she was the founder of the Committee of the Family Members of the Disappeared in Honduras. She asked me to go to the hearing when Negroponte was to be confirmed to be Ambassador to the United Nations, and to be a presence there on his behalf. I did not plan to do anything at that time, but when Negroponte said in sworn testimony that he had never even heard of Battalion 316 until years after he left the post in Honduras, I couldn’t believe this incredible lie that he was committing, which is a crime, and I decided to risk arrest by standing up and telling him that the people of Honduras consider him to be a state terrorist. This was two days after September 11. I was whisked out of the room at that time. Then last year in April, when he was being — in the hearing to be confirmed to be Ambassador to Iraq, I also returned at that time because it just seems incredible that this man, who we consider to be a promoter of torture, knowing that that’s what was going on in Honduras and Central America, this is the man who just before the Abu Ghraib scandal was breaking — he was being — he was under testimony then in the Senate, and he clearly went to Iraq having had the experience of covering up U.S. involvement in torture in Central America. So, this is a state terrorist that needs to be confronted. He needs to be accused of war crimes. He needs to be taken to trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, National Security Archive, can you elaborate on what Andres is saying?

PETER KORNBLUH: I think Andres is absolutely correct that John Negroponte misled the Senate in his confirmation hearings about his knowledge of Battalion 316 about his knowledge of death squad activity. The C.I.A. did report to him on various atrocities that took place. There is some evidence in partially declassified C.I.A. Inspector General’s report about the Battalion and its atrocities and about the reporting out of the embassy by both the C.I.A. officers and diplomatic attaches there that seems to imply that Negroponte preferred not to see honest, hard reporting going back to Washington on atrocities being committed by our very strong allies in Honduras. People have to remember, and certainly your listeners remember better than anybody, that they — your audience and many others in this country — made Reagan’s policy in Central America controversial and managed to get Congress — push Congress to cut off aid to the Contras. So, any negative reporting on our main allies’ activities in Honduras would have given further ammunition to the critics of Negroponte’s policies, Reagan’s policies, et cetera. That’s why there are strong indications that he squashed this reporting. He certainly was critical to the Contra war effort. What he had told the sister about not interfering in Honduran affairs is quite frankly laughable, because he was named essentially the Proconsul. He essentially was a fallback to the age of gunboat diplomacy when the U.S. Ambassador ran a Central American country. In the early 1980’s, he was in that position in Honduras. I’m holding a declassified White House document which is from 1983, and it’s a memo to the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. It begins, "Ambassador Negroponte, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, has recommended that we increase the number of weapons issued to the F.D.N. forces." The F.D.N., of course, was the leading contra force and the one most strongly associated with massive human rights violations of civilians in Nicaragua. And in his memo, Negroponte has apparently recommended that the United States send 3,000 additional rifles to the F.D.N. forces, and his recommendation is approved by the President. There are two little R.R.’s, Ronald Reagan, and a yes box under the recommendation in his options memo. So, you get a sense from these declassified records of how important Negroponte was and the type of odd role he played, stepping out of his position as ambassador, a diplomat, and essentially putting on the hat of the C.I.A. station chief and pushing forward the Contra war.

AMY GOODMAN: When you heard, Peter Kornbluh, that John Negroponte had been promoted yet again from U.N. Ambassador to Iraq Ambassador and now to become the Director of National Intelligence, what was your reaction?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, part of it is that this President, George Bush, has resurrected many of the Iran-Contra criminals, if you will, or people who certainly tarnished their own careers and the image of the United States by their activities in the Iran-Contra operations. John Negroponte was certainly one of them. You know, I — I thought that this was not the person that the 9/11 commission had in mind when they wrote for the need — described the need for us to reconfigure our intelligence committee and have a very, very forceful person at the top. John Negroponte’s resume is a diplomatic one, aside from his involvement in the paramilitary operations in Honduras, and he has no deep background in the intelligence community, other than being a State Department official who received intelligence during the course of his positions as head of embassies in the Phillipines, Honduras, Mexico, and at the United Nations, et cetera. So this was — and everybody is treating it as somewhat of a surprise. Obviously, not the first choice of the President, either. We know that he went to three other people before he finally arrived under pressure at picking John Negroponte.

AMY GOODMAN: Apparently among them, Robert Gates, the former Director of C.I.A.?

PETER KORNBLUH: Robert Gates, who had been already been D.C.I., Director of Central Intelligence, and apparently did not want to be D.N.I., Director of National Intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me put that same question to Laetitia Bordes, American nun, who met with John Negroponte in 1982 over the fate of dozens of nuns in Honduras. Your reaction, as you have watched John Negroponte’s career as he moves up in the U.S. government?

SISTER LAETITIA BORDES: Yes. When I heard the news yesterday, I must say I was devastated, absolutely devastated. I wondered, can things get any worse, really, and I am frightened for our own country. I think of what happened in Central America and countries like Honduras, like El Salvador, like Guatemala, where ordinary people organized for justice, for their basic rights and they disappeared. And I’m wondering if that’s the road that we are on now, when we hear the President saying that John Negroponte’s responsible for getting the information that we need and gathering all of the intelligence, and you know, stopping them before they stop us. That kind of language. It really frightens me. Sometimes I feel that we’re on a rollercoaster, and we’re headed down, and there’s no one pulling the switch. And I think that the switch ought to have been pulled on John Negroponte years ago. When the Senate nominated him —approved his nomination to be Ambassador to the U.N., that was their fault. When once again, they approved his nomination as Ambassador to Iraq, I mean, they bear the responsibility for that. Right now, his confirmation is going to come before the Senate again. Are they going to approve this nomination? I mean, when is all of this going to stop? That is what I’m asking. When is it going to stop?

AMY GOODMAN: If I recall correctly, Democratic Senator Dodd of Connecticut opposed the confirmation of John Negroponte as Ambassador to the U.N. on the grounds of what he had done in Central America, but when it came to his being nominated and confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Senator Dodd backed off the protest he had made earlier. When you heard Andres Contreris, about this nomination yesterday while you were in Chile, what was your response, and do you think that there will be Democrats who will raise the kinds of issues that you are raising, Andres?

ANDRES CONTRERIS: You know, Amy, in terms of democratic protest, it seems like what they will probably do again is have another "love-fest," which was the description of the last Senate committee hearing when he was to become Ambassador to Iraq. Here in Chile, they’re very mindful of the role that the United States and C.I.A. had in the coup of 1973, and as Sister Laetitia is talking, it seems in some ways that our country is — is practically a Chile in 1972, and we are approaching more and more what could become an overt military dictatorship with folks like Negroponte in power, with Elliot Abrams being promoted, and all of the ones who have committed human rights crimes are the ones who are being rewarded. Those who are the most experts in what the C.I.A. engages in constantly as "plausible deniability," they are the experts in this horrendous kind of policy, and they’re the ones who are really going to be pushing the buttons in terms of U.S. war making around the world. A month ago, Amy, we heard that from Newsweek that Salvador option was being implemented in Iraq. What we’re seeing is that the U.S. military is losing the war there, and so the Salvador option was really a policy of death squads. And it’s no coincidence that Negroponte, having been the Ambassador in Honduras where he was very much engaged in this kind of support for death squads was the Ambassador in Iraq and this is the kind of policy that was starting to be implemented there, which is not just going after the resistance itself, but targeting for repression and torture and assassination the underlying support base, the family members, and those in the communities where the resistance is. These kinds of policies are war crimes, and these officials need to be called to accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Andres Contreris, if people want to find out about your film, Hidden In Plain Sight, where do they go on the web?

ANDRES CONTRERIS: Thank you, Amy. They would go to hiddeninplainsight.org. We are going to be screening the film here in Chile tonight. We screened it at the World Social Forum in Brazil. I have been traveling in the Southern cone of Latin America talking about the role of the School of the Americas, and U.S. support for torture.

AMY GOODMAN: And Peter Kornbluh, National Security Archive, if people want to see the documents that the National Security Archive has on this period, where can they go?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, the National Security Archive has a very prominent website, nsarchive.org. The key documents on Negroponte are not up on the site at the moment, but they are in our collections, our Iran-Contra collection. There is some citations to them, and use of them in our book, the Iran-Contra scandal, the declassified history. I’m sure they will be circulating around, and if there are any Democratic Senators who wish to address Negroponte’s role in Honduras, during the questioning for confirmation of this post, they certainly will have these documents in their hands.

AMY GOODMAN: Maybe even Republican Senators as well?

PETER KORNBLUH: I would doubt there are going to be very many of those who will challenge his nomination, Amy. Hopefully you are right, and there might be a few.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, as well as Sister Laetitia Bordes, the Catholic nun with the Society of Helpers, the Catholic community of women, speaking from San Bruno, California.

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