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New Docs Shed Light on Negroponte’s Role in Honduras, Iran-Contra Affair

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The confirmation hearing of John Negroponte as National Intelligence Director open in Washington. We speak with Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive about newly declassified documents that provide a virtual day-to-day record of Negroponte’s unique tenure as ambassador to Honduras during the early 1980s and his role in the Iran-Contra affair. We also speak with Tom Barry of the International Relations Center about the direction of the intelligence community. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to another Senate confirmation hearing held yesterday in Washington–and that was John Negroponte–Bush’s nominee to be the country’s first National Intelligence Director.

If confirmed, Negroponte will oversee 15 intelligence agencies and give the president’s daily intelligence briefing. Negroponte is a career diplomat who has had five ambassadorships over the last forty years. Most recently, he served as the Ambassador to Iraq and before that, the Ambassador to the United Nations where he made the case for the Iraq war.

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.

During his tenure, Honduras was the staging ground for the contra war in Nicaragua and the home of the brutal, CIA-backed Battalion 316, which is responsible for the deaths and disappearances of many Hondurans.

Earlier this week, documents surfaced that shed new light on Negroponte’s connection to the Iran Contra scandal. The newly declassified cables and memos were obtained by the Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act. They reveal that after the House voted in July 1983 to halt all aid to the anti-Sandinista contras, Negroponte responded by sending a cryptic message to the president’s national security adviser and the CIA Director urging them to keep the secret arms deal alive.

At the confirmation hearing Tuesday, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia asked Negroponte about the documents.

  • Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), questioning National Intelligence Director nominee John Negroponte.

Senator Jay Rockefeller did not have a follow-up question. To further discuss John Negroponte we are joined by two guests:

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

AMY GOODMAN: At the confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia asked Negroponte about the documents.

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER: Mr. Ambassador, this morning’s paper indicated that the State Department released hundreds of documents related to your time in Honduras. This question, as you know, was bound to come. The committee has not had a chance to review those documents. I’m not sure that there’s anything new in those documents. But let me ask you a couple of questions about the report. According to the article, immediately after the House voted to cut off funding to the Contra rebels, you sent a cable expressing continued support for this policy. Were you advocating continuing of some kind of aid to the Contras after the Congressional cut-off of funds? What was the purpose of this cable? And I might go on to say the Post describes back channel messages. Can you describe what this back channel was, as opposed to the normal State Department cable traffic method?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Senator, first and foremost, with respect to the question of support for the Contras, whatever activities I carried out, whatever courses of action I recommended in Honduras were always entirely consistent with applicable law at the time. So, if your question is whether I ever undertook any activity or made any recommendation that was inconsistent with legal prohibitions that existed at various times, known as the Boland Amendment, I scrupulously made every effort to scrupulously comply with that amendment. Secondly, as far as the material is concerned, if I read the story correctly, and I haven’t reviewed — I haven’t had an opportunity to look at the cables to which the Washington Post refers, but it sounds to me like the same set of cables. It was my chronological file, my personal — my file of cables that I had personally drafted, which was declassified and made available to the Foreign Relations Committee prior to my hearings to be Ambassador to the United Nations in 2001. The committee also reviewed this very same matter in practically microscopic detail in 1989 when I was appointed to — nominated to be Ambassador to Mexico and, I think, in both instances, found that I had not carried out any improper behavior. I certainly believe that my comportment was always in an absolutely legal and entirely professional manner.

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Jay Rockefeller did not have a follow-up question. Joining us to talk about John Negroponte is Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a public interest documentation center in Washington. The newly declassified documents on John Negroponte are posted on their website. He joins us from our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Peter Kornbluh.

PETER KORNBLUH: It’s a pleasure to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about these documents and what they say?

PETER KORNBLUH: This is a collection of about 450 cables and memos that, as you just heard, John Negroponte personally wrote and kept in a file known as the Chron File. They essentially contain the nuts and bolts of his daily and at times hourly work as ambassador to Tegucigalpa during one of the most controversial periods in the recent history of US foreign policy, the Contra War period against Nicaragua. And you really do get a sense of his latitude, his breadth, the number of things he was involved in, from counseling the Hondurans on how to push back the peace process that was being pushed by other countries such as Mexico and Venezuela, to stop the Contra War and bring peace to the region, negotiating with the Honduran military on military bases, and being the most forceful advocate and strategic planner in Honduras for the Contra operation itself. So, they’re quite revealing about him, about his personality and about his actions at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s trying to suggest that this is old news, this is stuff that came out before, when the confirmation hearings for him for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Can you talk about the significance of what you have gotten? Now, this was just gotten under the Freedom of Information Act?

PETER KORNBLUH: He asked for this file to be declassified and given to him in 1998, when he retired from the Foreign Service and went into private practice for a few years. This was somewhat before he was nominated to be UN Ambassador. It was actually in 1998, the last two years of the Clinton administration. And he kept this file. It was declassified but not publicly released, which is a big distinction here in Washington. The Washington Post, getting ready for these hearings that went on yesterday and will continue, I guess, asked for this file to be actually released to them, and it was turned over. So, this is really the first time that the public — you and I and your listeners, your viewers — are getting a chance to actually digest, read from his own pen, from his own typewriter, Negroponte’s accounts of his meetings with Honduran military officials, his talks with other US government officials, and it’s an important file. It’s important to understand his personality, as he’s being considered for this incredibly important job in Washington, and frankly, it’s very important because 20 years after these documents were written, we are able to use them to revisit the Contra War, which too many people in this country have forgotten about.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of the document that came out, that said the day after the House voted to halt all aid to the Contras, John Negroponte urged the President’s National Security Adviser and Director of Central Intelligence to hang tough. The July, 1983 memo to the men running the Contra War against Nicaragua contained, as the Washington Post said in a single cryptic sentence, “Hondurans believe special project is as important as ever.” The significance of this, Peter Kornbluh, and what that term, “special project” means.

PETER KORNBLUH: Special project was the euphemism that he used in this cable traffic, which some of this cable traffic was through direct channels. Some of it was back channeled to the CIA, but others wasn’t. So they really didn’t refer to the code names of the CIA covert war. He generally referred to it as, (quote), “special project,” (unquote). But basically, you have to remember that there was a series of votes in Congress and, in fact, in 1983, Congress in the end didn’t fully shut down the Contra War. They voted to put a $24 million cap on CIA spending for the Contra War. So, Negroponte is basically saying, well, okay, this vote went against us, but here, I’m in Honduras, and I’m going to continue to tell the Hondurans that this thing is not over. They really are counting on continuing support for the FDN, the main Contra force based here in Honduras. And we need to bolster them. They want to see this continue. And that’s basically what he is saying there. Let’s make some lemonade out of lemons at this point. The more important cables, frankly, are later in 1984 and 1985 when Congress actually does pass the final Boland Amendment, terminates all aid to the Contra War. I have a cable with me here, Amy where — [lost transmission]

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Peter Kornbluh, who is joining us in our Washington studio. We have lost transmission for a moment. We’re going to take this moment to take a break and then come back to him. Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, working with the Washington Post in getting these documents under the Freedom of Information Act, that say, among other things, that the day after the House voted to halt aid to the Contras, that John Negroponte urged the President’s National Security Adviser and CIA Director, to hang tough. We’ll come back with Peter Kornbluh and other guests in just a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about John Negroponte and his tenure before he was Ambassador to Iraq, before he was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, when he was Ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. Newly released documents show that John Negroponte was active in a U.S. effort to support the Contras despite the fact that the House had voted to cut all aid to the Contras. Our guest in the studio in Washington is Peter Kornbluh who is with the National Security Archive, has been releasing numerous documents over the years gotten under the Freedom of Information Act and putting them on the National Security Archive website where the latest documents are also displayed. Peter Kornbluh, you were just talking about what you thought was even more important than this memo that Negroponte had sent to the National Security Adviser and Director of Central Intelligence to hang tough with that cryptic single sentence, “Hondurans believe special project is as important as ever.” “Secret project,” a code for the secret arming of the Contra rebels from bases in Honduras. What was more important than that?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, a year later, in 1984, when the Congress led by Massachusetts Congressman Edward Boland, did actually vote to shut down all aid to the Contras, you then have Negroponte saying to the Hondurans, don’t do anything too irreversible to kick the Contras out of Honduras. We have a cable here from August of 1984, which I’ll just share with your viewers and listeners, he says — he’s reporting back on his conversation with the president of Honduras. The Ambassador mentioned success that the FDN, the Contra forces, having in obtaining additional funding through private sources. The Ambassador explicitly urged that the government of Honduras not, repeat, not do anything to deprive the Contras of their Honduran support base at a time when their position inside Nicaragua appears to have improved substantially. The Ambassador insisted on the point that the government of Honduras do nothing irreversible to the FDN in the weeks and months ahead. In other words, Negroponte was our point man — Negroponte was our point man in making sure that the Hondurans didn’t kind of bolt from this long-standing covert program, in which their nation was being used as a territorial base for the Contra War. In fact, even though he says to the Hondurans there’s private sources now funding the Contra War, in fact this was the Reagan administration kind of basically holding out a tin cup to Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries asking them to secretly and illegally provide money to sustain the Contra War after Congress had cut off aid.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh with us of the National Security Archives. Peter, can you talk about, as we talk about all the memos, what was happening in Honduras, in terms of human rights abuses? Why what we’re seeing here flies in the face of what people would consider — well, deals with grave human rights abuses. What was the scene in Honduras at that time, and what was John Negroponte’s role in it?

PETER KORNBLUH: The Honduran military, led by Commander Gustavo Alvarez between 1981 and 1984 was essentially the power behind the throne. Honduras had a civilian president. He was very weak, Roberto Suazo Cordova, and widely considered to be a front for the military, for Alvarez himself. Negroponte was very very fond of Gustavo Alvarez and his second in command, Colonel Bueso Rosa, Jose Bueso Rosa, because they were very cooperative in the Contra War effort. They allowed the United States to use Honduran air bases, to construct new bases, that the CIA used to run the Contra War, and they were ideologically very much involved with us, and in return, almost as a reward, Negroponte’s reporting back to Washington on these military officers that they were very professional, articulate, military men, and on Alvarez, he sends this extraordinary cable in the spring of 1984, I believe it was, saying that Alvarez is a constitutionalist and supports the democratic process. Five months after he writes this cable, Alvarez is pushed out as commander for, quote, “authoritarian tendencies” by the military officers under him. And Bueso Rosa, who Negroponte was also very fond of, eventually sells cocaine to drug suppliers to raise money to actually try to assassinate his civilian president Suazo Cordova and eventually ends up in jail here in the United States of America. These guys were thugs. They were involved in all sorts of human rights atrocities, more than 200 people disappeared at the hands of the Honduran military and the Contras themselves in Honduras between 1981 and 1984. But none of these 450 cables, not a single one of them, actually reports back on the truth of these human rights abuses. Out of all of these cables, there’s only one from 1985, after Alvarez has left, that is totally devoted to the issue of human rights, and in that cable, basically, Negroponte is saying, well, we don’t have any evidence of these newspaper allegations, claims that Newsweek magazine and The New York Times is making about these atrocities.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive. We’re also joined on the telephone from New Mexico by Tom Barry, he’s policy director of the International Relations Center, founder of Foreign Policy in Focus, as well. He lived for a number of years in Honduras during Negroponte’s tenure as Ambassador. Welcome to Democracy Now!

TOM BARRY: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. You have written a piece, “Negroponte and the CIA’s Eclipse: Rest Assured, We Will Now Have Good Intelligence.” Can you amplify on what Peter Kornbluh has said and talk about the significance of these hearings?

TOM BARRY: Well, I think the significance is, one, it’s really an old story in the 1980s, and I think that Barbara Boxer really pointed out the main issue that what’s happening here is that both Bolton and Negroponte are part of a conspiracy, an agenda, to — against the liberal establishment, that they feel that the CIA, the State Department are — they need to be overhauled and that Negroponte and Bolton are good choices to do that. They have long felt that the United Nations, the CIA and the liberals at the State Department have stood in the way of good foreign policy. So, that’s one point. Another is that both of them are masters of deceit. They follow a foreign policy agenda, and the truth is not the issue. What is the issue is victory, that — and there’s a whole philosophy of intelligence that both subscribe to, that good intelligence is policy-driven intelligence, is strategic intelligence, and that truth doesn’t matter. And that — in looking at Negroponte, Negroponte is a hawk. It’s not just in the case of Central America where he was Ambassador, but going back to his days in Vietnam. He disputed the peace process in Vietnam with Kissinger, and again in Iraq, that this man believes that the United States should exercise military power, and opposes peace processes, whether they be in Central America or Vietnam, or the settlement of the Iraq conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: You were in Honduras. Can you talk about what was happening then and can you talk about that period of John Negroponte?

TOM BARRY: Certainly. All of this news and these cables, anyone who was in Honduras saw it happening. I spoke to the families of husbands that were disappeared, I spoke to the military, went to the Contra camps, the refugee camps. It was all readily evident, that this — that U.S. Embassy was coordinating, and it wasn’t just for the Contras, remember. The Honduras was a logistical center for the whole intervention in Central America through the Pomerola Air Base, that they were supporting operations in El Salvador and Nicaragua and to some extent in Guatemala, that — that Negroponte was quite adept at, not unlike Bolton, of keeping his mouth shut, but he was a perfect foreign policy operator and contributed to the success of U.S. operations in supporting counter-revolutionary activities in Nicaragua and counter-insurgency activities in El Salvador and Guatemala. Deaths, disappearances were widespread, the military was cooperating closely with the Contras, and not only supporting the Contras, but eliminating the leftist opposition in Honduras.

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