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Bush Appoints Negroponte Iraq Ambassador

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George Bush has appointed a diplomat infamous for supporting right-wing death squads in Central America during the 1980s to succeed Paul Bremer as the top US official in Iraq. UN Ambassador John Negroponte is set to take over what will be the largest US embassy in the world, that in Baghdad. [includes rush transcript]

Negroponte currently serves as US ambassador to the United Nations. But it is his reputation as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985 that earned him a reputation for supporting widespread human rights abuses and campaigns of terror. As ambassador to Honduras, Negroponte played a key role in US aid to the Contra death squads in Nicaragua and shoring up the brutal military dictatorship of General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez in Honduras. During his term as ambassador there, diplomats alleged that the embassy’s annual human rights reports made Honduras sound more like Norway than Argentina.

According to a four-part series in the Baltimore Sun, in 1982 alone the Honduran press ran 318 stories of murders and kidnappings by the Honduran military. In a 1995 series, Sun reporters Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson detailed the activities of a secret CIA-trained Honduran army unit, Battalion 316, that used “shock and suffocation devices in interrogations. Prisoners often were kept naked and, when no longer useful, killed and buried in unmarked graves.” In 1994, Honduras’s National Commission for the Protection of Human Rights reported that it was officially admitted that 179 civilians were still missing.

Former official Rick Chidester, who served under Negroponte, says he was ordered to remove all mention of torture and executions from the draft of his 1982 report on the human rights situation in Honduras. During Negroponte’s tenure, US military aid to Honduras skyrocketed from $3.9 million to over $77 million. Much of this went to ensure the Honduran army’s loyalty in the battle against popular movements throughout Central America.

Negroponte’s nomination for the UN post he currently holds was confirmed by the Senate in September 2001, but that confirmation didn’t come easily. It was delayed a half-year mostly because of criticism of his record in Central America. Negroponte was questioned by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on whether he had acquiesced to human rights abuses by Honduran death squads 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. “To this day,” he said, “I do not believe that death squads were operating in Honduras.”

Concern over his nomination was coupled with Bush’s decision to downgrade the United Nations ambassadorship position by depriving it of Cabinet rank. This decision raised concerns that Bush would be hostile to the UN. If confirmed by the Senate, Negroponte will head a US embassy in Baghdad that will be temporarily housed in a palace that belonged to Saddam Hussein. At a White House ceremony to announce the appointment, President Bush praised Negroponte as “a man of enormous experience and skill” who has “done a really good job of speaking for the United States to the world about our intentions to spread freedom and peace.”

  • Jim Paul, Executive Director of Global Policy Forum. He is based at the United Nations and monitors events there. He has authored a number of reports on oil companies and Iraq.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Paul, I want to turn to the issue of Negroponte. George Bush appointing the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations to the role — of after June 30 becoming the top U.S. official in Iraq. Can you talk about John Negroponte’s past?

JIM PAUL: Well, John Negroponte started off his diplomatic career, as I understand it, in Saigon in the 1960’s at the time of the Vietnam War. I believe he was the roommate of Richard Holbrooke, who was his predecessor as U.S. Ambassador. Holbrooke and Negroponte, having just graduated from Yale, probably in the CIA, were doing the thing in Vietnam. He starts off his career in counter-insurgency. The highlight, if you will, of his middle career was his ambassadorship in Honduras, which you mentioned earlier in the show. He was running the Contra Operation out of that U.S. Embassy in Honduras, which grew rapidly, and was working together with a military dictator in that country. It’s fitting in a sense that at the very end of his career, he would come back to counter-insurgency because that’s exactly what it’s going to mean to be the American Ambassador there. There’s a huge resistance and uprising in Iraq. The U.S. has to try to put it down. John Negroponte is the perfect person to do that. In the meantime, I have run across him, of course, at the U.N., because he has been the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. for about three years. He has been in — of course, the U.S. was bugging a lot of ambassadors, and arranged to have a number of ambassadors removed from their posts. So, he’s a tough hombre.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you make of the fact that — well, according to the “Washington Post,” Democratic Congressional staffers say that the Democrats won’t focus on Negroponte’s controversial past. The staffers said, quote, “The Honduras issue is ancient history.”

JIM PAUL: Well, it’s pretty sad that they take this approach. At the time when he was nominated to be the U.N. Ambassador, it was apparently going to be a fairly robust discussion of his past in Honduras. If the Democrats don’t want to discuss it, it’s probably because they’re a little nervous about raising this whole issue and seeming to be opposed to counter-insurgency at a time when some of them feel and evidently the Kerry campaign feels it’s unpatriotic not to be in favor of this kind of a thing.

AMY GOODMAN: And this whole issue of the Battalion 316 in Honduras that used shock and suffocation and terrorism devices and prisoners were kept naked and when no longer useful, killed and buried in unmarked graves. In 1994, the Commission for Protection of Human Rights reported it was officially admitted that 179 civilians were still missing. Again, this, the battalion in the 1980’s that earned John Negroponte a reputation as Ambassador in Honduras as a supporter of widespread human rights abuses and terror. As Ambassador to Honduras, Negroponte playing a key role in the U.S. aid to the Contra death squads in Nicaragua and shoring up the brutal military dictatorship in Honduras. Your response.

JIM PAUL: Well, it’s hard to say any more, Amy. You pictured a person who is a pretty nasty character.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, diplomats alleging that the Embassy’s annual human rights reports made Honduras sound more like Norway than Argentina, this when Negroponte was in charge. Now, he will be in charge of the largest embassy in the world, with some 3,000 U.S. people, personnel, in Iraq, including some 500 CIA officers.

JIM PAUL: Well, they certainly intend to run Iraq out of that Embassy, and the U.S. forces are going to stay there. There’s going to be whatever — 120,000 or more U.S. troops in occupation. The U.S. military commanders are going to be in charge of the Iraqi military and Iraqi police. The U.S. has to sign off on any media that are licensed and so on. This is going to be the pro-consul in a way, very similar to Bremer’s role that we have seen up to this point. I don’t think that Negroponte is the person to bring democracy to Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Paul, I want to ask you about Senator Kerry’s response to the report of Bob Woodward about the relationship between the Saudi ambassador and his knowing about the war plans even before Colin Powell what John Kerry said in Florida as he was courting the Jewish vote. Jim Paul, if you could respond to that information.

JIM PAUL: Yeah. Thank you, Amy. Well, John Kerry has, of course, when he was speaking in Florida, he was insisting on the importance of U.S. relations with Israel, and I think he used the term, “bunch of Arabs” to refer to some Arab states’ alleged support of terrorism. He has a discourse about the Middle East that’s not very hopeful in terms of the kind of leadership that he might bring to the U.S. policy in the region. But I think on the question of oil, his comments were very strange, in a way, because he insisted, although he criticized the President for this possible October surprise saying that that wasn’t proper, nonetheless, he said that he himself would persuade the Saudis to lower oil prices, and that at the same time, he would make the U.S. independent of Middle East oil. Well, to have cheap oil coming from Saudi Arabia and independence from Middle East oil doesn’t make any sense at all. So, this suggests some of the problem of the lack of thought-out policy on the question of energy and oil in general. Another thing that he said that struck me was, he said, this is a Halliburton price, and not an Exxon price. My interpretation of this is that Halliburton is associated with the present Administration, however, it’s not strictly speaking an oil production company. Exxon Mobil on the other hand is the largest corporation in the world with $250 billion in turnover last year and $22 billion in profits. To be picturing Exxon as being the nice guys in this and Halliburton as the bad guys, again this is creating an entirely false understanding of what the oil issue is in the Middle East. So, I was very sorry to see Kerry responding in that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to be exact here, Senator John Kerry, on the issue of the explosive allegations of Bob Woodward, criticized the alleged Bush-Saudi deal in the campaign stop in Florida where he was reaching out for the Jewish vote. He said, quote, “I have 100% record of supporting the special relationship and friendship we have with Israel. I can guarantee you that as President, I understand not just how we do that, but also how we end this sweetheart relationship with a bunch of Arab countries that still allows money to move to Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Al Aqsa Brigade.” Jim Paul.

JIM PAUL: Well, exactly. I don’t really have anything to add to that. That’s the essence. You clarified his exact words I was alluding to before. I think if we look on further to see what John Kerry has been talking about in Iraq, this other disturbing signs, for instance, his suggestion that the U.S. forces be increased in Iraq, that the turnover date be postponed from the Thirtieth of June; this kind of a thing. All of this suggests that the Kerry campaign doesn’t have much of a grip on alternate policy and may in fact be coming in as a critic of the Bush Administration from the right and rather than from the left. That’s not encouraging.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s actually a very interesting piece in the “New York Times” yesterday that talked about the neoconservative core of the Bush Administration, people like Wolfowitz, people like Bill Kristol of the “Weekly Standard” perhaps they would form more of an alliance with John Kerry as he calls for more troops to be sent into Iraq than with conventional conservatives, some who are coming out increasingly against the invasion of Iraq, saying, “Well, if we have to move from being called” — I think they quoted Bill Kristol, “we’ll move from being called neoconservatives to neoliberals; if we end up in alliances with people like John Kerry, so be it.”

JIM PAUL: Precisely. This is — this should tell us something.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jim Paul, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

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