Negroponte: Nominee for Baghdad US Embassy, a Rogue for all Seasons

by Larry Birns and Jenna Wright


President Bush confirmed recent rumours by announcing last week that John D. Negroponte was being nominated to become US ambassador to Iraq, a post that he would assume on June 30, when sovereignty ostensibly will be transferred to Iraqi authorities. But the Negroponte nomination must be seen as a profoundly troubling one since the same nagging questions which were present during the summer of 2001, when Negroponte was nominated to be US ambassador to the UN, continue to persist. Enough time apparently has passed since a number of accusations first surfaced concerning Negroponte’s profound moral derelictions (which at least date back to the time that he served as U.S. ambassador to Honduras (1981-85)), for these again to be thoroughly aired. But if the past is any precedent, Negroponte will sail through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the full Senate as if he was a Happy Warrior rather than the immoral reprobate that his record undeniably portrays him as being. Since then, Washington’s ability to slip into political amnesia regarding his reprehensible actions in Honduras will now once again be at play.


The central fact to the Negroponte story is that he misled Congress when some of its members attempted to question him about his complicity in helping to cover up his knowledge and direct personal involvement in the training, equipping and distracting attention from the heinous acts of Battalion 316, the Honduran death squad which at the time of Negroponte’s residence in Honduras was responsible for the murder of almost 200 Honduran dissidents opposed to their country being used as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the U.S.-backed Contra war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinistas.


Negroponte Arrives in Tegucigalpa


Negroponte replaced Jack Binns, who had been President Carter’s ambassador to Honduras during 1980-81, after Binns had spoken out against mounting evidence of major human rights violations occurring in that country against political dissidents who dared to speak out against the growing involvement of Honduras in the secret Contra war against Sandinista Nicaragua. He made references to activities that were being carried out by a shady operation which came to be known as Battalion 316. A big part of this story is the flawed annual human rights reports, prepared every year by U.S. embassies around the world, which had to be presented to Congress under terms of the Foreign Assistance Act. When it came to Honduras, this report was significantly expurgated, first in Tegucigalpa by Negroponte, and then once again after it reached Washington by then Assistant Secretary of State for Humanitarian Affairs, the infamous Elliot Abrams. Abrams, an obsessive cold warrior, had as little sympathy for human rights issues in Honduras as he was in favour of them when it came to Cuba. This operation subverted the law, and Abrams eventually confessed to his role in the Iran-Contra war, but was later pardoned by the first President Bush. This dominated Honduran realities during the early 1980s, which were to further deteriorate during Negroponte’s ambassadorial stint. The new ambassador’s mission was to ensure that the steady stream of U.S. aid to Honduras, aimed at preventing the spread of Communism by Sandinista Nicaragua, was to continue at any cost. Years later, in 1995, a former junior political officer, who had worked in the embassy under Negroponte, came forth with serious accusations concerning the human rights lapses of the Honduran army in the annual human rights report he was required to draft during the Negroponte era. This report was meant to be sent to Congress, but he claimed the charges had been eliminated or transformed by others by the time that the report had reached its ultimate destination.


Negroponte Doctors Human Rights Reports


There is no question that Negroponte and the rest of the senior embassy personnel must have known about the disappearances and tortures of Honduran leftists since some of the most widely-distributed newspapers in the country carried at least 318 stories about such military abuses in 1982 alone. Negroponte also had direct contact with General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, by then the chief of the Honduran armed forces and the secret head of Battalion 316. Negroponte himself has insisted that on occasion he requested the release of a torture victim when the story was close to breaking in the U.S. press. This happened in the 1982 case of the arrest and torture of journalist Oscar Reyes and his wife, Gloria. Clearly, Negroponte and the embassy knew enough about these cases to act appropriately on occasion and when compelled by circumstances to do so.


Negroponte Introduces the Hard Line


The replacement of Binns by Negroponte reflected a shifting foreign policy strategy for Central America, witnessed by the introduction of the Reagan administration’s hard-line policy and its implementation by Elliot Abrams; regarding Honduras, it was represented by the zealotry of the ambassador in Tegucigalpa, John Negroponte.


Negroponte’s objective in Honduras was eerily familiar to the Bush administration’s present goal in Iraq. The U.S. government, again, is attempting to implement a democratic format in a country that has not yet chosen to do it on its own, and not necessarily by democratic means. To implement this complex task will inevitably create a less than ideal situation for the ambassador to fulfill his instructions. But given Negroponte’s well-practiced M.O. of dark box chicanery, the spread of false information and outright lying, it is doubtful that he will be any less controversial or contrived in his task of successfully introducing democracy in Iraq than he was in Honduras, perhaps because “democracy” is not exactly his stigmata. John Negroponte is preeminently an-ends-justifies-the-means operator. He repeatedly in the past has proven that he is willing to employ practices which seem to be the antitheses of the definition of “democratic”, in democracy’s good name. Negroponte’s career has been one where in his professional life he has shown a willingness to use authoritarian means to professedly advance democracy.


Which Man is Negroponte?


To his admirers, Negroponte is a distinguished career senior foreign service officer who has served his country well in a number of important posts. To his detractors, Negroponte is a blunt, self-serving opportunist who aggressively (to a point well past overkill) took on what he perceived as being the ideological ethos of whatever administration he was serving at the time, even if it meant stretching credulity, ethics and personal honesty to the breaking point. Perhaps a more accurate assessment of his performance is that he misused his authority and egregiously flouted decent standards of professional behaviour, while scarcely looking backwards. Rather than a paragon of democratic virtues, Negroponte is a man who has to be seen as the anti-Christ of democracy, repeatedly dragging its noble cause through offal. Negroponte’s nomination, along with the earlier appointments of Cold War stalwarts such as Otto Reich and Elliot Abrams, as well as Senator Helms’ prot�g�, Roger Noriega, to key hemispheric posts by President Bush, represents a throwback to an era when human rights and democratic processes were routinely suffered in the name of halting purported efforts by Moscow to expand Communism throughout the hemisphere.

To Iraqis used to Saddam Hussein’s inflexible rule, his cynicism and indifference to the suffering of others, Negroponte’s arrival in Baghdad will require no prolonged adaptation to the rule or style of America’s new pro-consul in the country. They will have exchanged one man on horseback for another. For those who are familiar with his professional history, it will take a clothespin on one’s nose for his Iraqi audience to stomach any speech that he makes touting democracy.


Negroponte’s Recent Past


After Negroponte had been nominated for the U.N. Ambassadorship, he was scheduled for a potentially withering cross-examination by his detractors on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his actions in Honduras, as part of his confirmation hearings that were being conducted for that post. But he was spared any further scrutiny by the occurrence of 9/11 and the overpowering feeling in the Senate that the U.S. must quickly fill the existing UN vacancy, by a peremptory vote. Thus, rather than be submitted to exacting querying, the process then turned out to be little better than a pro-forma interrogation.


This scenario is sure to be replicated when it comes to the Iraq post. The nomination is another in a series of disturbing foreign relations moves by the Bush administration and the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, which has had its ramifications when it comes to Latin America. After all, Negroponte played a key role when it came to manipulating a string of weak leaders in Mexico and Chile in order to persuade them to fire their respective ambassadors to the UN because they opposed Negroponte’s position on Iraq. Negroponte’s complicity in efforts to obtain the discharge of Mexico’s ambassador Adolfo Abullar Zinnser and Chile’s Juan Gabriel Valdes scarcely differed from his purported perjured testimony in which he covered up the full extent of his knowledge of the human rights abuses committed by the Honduran military during his stay in that country, and his testimony over the details of his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. He also admitted to the illicit diversion of U.S. aid to Honduras for the Contra forces, which normally should have disbarred any attempt to let him into a higher posting. Unfortunately, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its chairman can be counted on to do themselves little honour by trivializing their advice and consent responsibility when it comes to sending off this appointee to Baghdad.


General Luis Alonso Discua Elivir, a former Honduran death squad commander who claimed that he would “spill the beans” on Negroponte unless his family was allowed to remain in this country, had his U.S. visa revoked in 2001. It would be perhaps of interest to hear this man’s testimony and have Negroponte respond to the huge amount of material implicating him in playing a sedulously deceitful role after being posted to Honduras. Despite an abundance of reporters, scholars and former governmental officials who have publicly raised questions about Negroponte’s record, no public witnesses were invited to try to establish before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Negroponte was not qualified for his appointment to the UN post. Therefore, what should have been an occasion of close scrutiny over serious charges of malfeasance in office, will instead be afforded no better than a cursory screening which will be more of a celebration than an examination.

Complicity with Death Squad Leaders


During his ambassadorship in Honduras from 1981 to 1985, Negroponte was known to have close working ties to that nation’s most egregious local abuses of human rights. One of the most notable of these unsavoury characters was then-Colonel Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, at the time Honduras’ military chief and the de facto strongman of the country. Promoted to general, Alvarez was later assassinated after returning from the U.S., where he had sought refuge from his senior military colleagues, who purportedly later had him murdered after he had refused to share with them the alleged large bribes that he had received via the U.S. embassy. This largesse was a reward for facilitating the conversion of his country into a base to wage the Contra war against the incumbent leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.


Alvarez was perhaps most infamous for his close connections to the death squad that became know as Battalion 316. This Alvarez-created unit, which received training in torture techniques from Argentine ‘dirty war’ veterans and the CIA (according to the Pulitzer prize-winning Baltimore Sun series which in part examined Negroponte’s controversial role in Honduras), is widely suspected of “disappearing” over 180 suspected “subversives” in the early 1980s. At the time, any Honduran opposed to that country’s use as a staging ground for President Reagan’s anti-Sandinista campaign was generally considered a “subversive.”

Promoting Human Rights to Save Face


In response to recurrent journalist inquiries, as well as in formal proceedings, Negroponte repeatedly has denied or minimized any knowledge of charges that the Honduran military was behind the death squads and that such a force as Battalion 316 even existed. Negroponte’s attempts to dismiss the role of death squads have been undermined by his later boasts that, quite to the contrary, he personally intervened in a number of instances to secure the release of politically sensitive detainees being held by Honduran authorities. Even if one grants this claim, such behaviour on Negroponte’s part was the exception rather than the rule, and perhaps is an indication of how he could have saved many more lives, if he had used his plenary position in Honduras to be a true advocate of human rights and human decency.


One such apparently rare occasion in which he professedly intervened involved journalist Oscar Reyes, who was abducted after writing numerous articles critical of the Honduran military. Former U.S. embassy spokesman Cresencio Arcos has verified that in July of 1983, Negroponte approached General Alvarez about his apprehensions over the just “disappeared” Reyes. It should be recalled that Arcos himself, as the embassy press officer, has been repeatedly accused by scholars studying Honduras during that epoch, of knowingly distributing false information to U.S. journalists stationed in Honduras at the time, and that he had entered into a familial relationship with a politically important Honduran family, allegedly not keeping his personal life entirely separate from his official responsibilities.


Prompted by protests from university students and a rash of newspaper publicity on Reyes at the time, it is unlikely that Negroponte’s request for the journalist’s release was principally motivated by abiding human rights concerns. Rather, the impetus for such singular concern in this case almost certainly was the fear that widespread coverage of the Reyes kidnapping could eventually make headlines in U.S. newspapers and bring unwanted publicity to his ambassadorship and the skullduggery in which it was involved.


Recently released declassified documents that had been requested by the Senate for the Negroponte hearing were always on Negroponte’s mind because they repeatedly articulated a concern over any bad publicity that could becloud his reputation. An undesirable outcome of this kind would have hardened opposition to President Reagan’s extremely controversial policy of trying to suck Honduras into the Contra war in exchange for secret bribes to a number of that country’s political and military officers, as well as hundreds of millions in U.S. funds being allocated for economic and military assistance programs to the Honduran regime.

Another high-profile case in which Negroponte claims to have intervened was the disappearance of a suspected leftist, In�s Murillo. A number of reports at the time stated that a U.S. Embassy (or perhaps a CIA) official had visited the Honduran torture facility known as INDUMIL, where Murillo was being held and tortured. The daughter of a prominent local family, Murillo’s parents were relentless in trying to locate their daughter, even taking out a full-page advertisement in the Honduran newspaper, El Tiempo. Negroponte professedly vocalized concern over Murillo’s status, again fearing bad press coverage, and brought up the matter when meeting with Honduran officials. Four days later, Murillo was, in effect, narrowly saved from a certain death when she was publicly sentenced to two years in prison.


Contra Connections


Starting in the early 1980s, Hondurans had become the primary U.S. support base for the Contra war. The Honduran Army provided facilities and logistical support in a swath of territory adjacent to Nicaragua which became known as “Contraland.” Honduran channels were also used to funnel U.S. funds to the Contras, without disclosing their source, at a time when such funding to the rebels was prohibited by Congress, but was still flowing from other U.S. funding sources, including the CIA.


During his stint in Tegucigalpa, Negroponte expanded the embassy staff’s size ten-fold and it came to house one of the largest CIA deployments in all of Latin America. The same scenario inevitably will be the case in Baghdad once Negroponte initiates his ambassadorship, and presides over what is being touted as the largest U.S. overseas diplomatic mission in the world, with anywhere from one to three thousand personnel being employed there. Hondurans frequently referred to Negroponte as the U.S. “proconsul” of the country, as his arrogant and stealthy style of operating was more like that of an intelligence officer than a traditional diplomat, redolent of his days as a young agent in Vietnam. Utilizing this persona, he was able to guarantee the cooperation of a Honduran base for the Contra rebel army through his domination of compromised local officials and institutions.


Negroponte and the Boland Amendment Negroponte also played a primary role in organizing such pro-Contra projects as a regional U.S. counterinsurgency training centre at Puerto Castilla and the construction of the controversial $7.5 million highway to Puerto Lempira, which passed through a virgin strand of mahogany trees towards the country’s eastern coast. Such a road would facilitate the flow of supplies to the U.S.-directed Nicaraguan right-wing contras. In spite of U.S. AID regulations stipulating that such a U.S.-funded project must have an environmental impact study conducted before construction could commence, Negroponte huffily overruled such legal niceties and resorting to expletives, ordered the road to be built in spite of the illegalities involved and the protests of an AID official who had been sent from Washington to argue his case. Support of Honduran aid to the Contras at the time also violated Congressional prohibitions, such as the 1982 Boland amendment, which banned the use of U.S. funds for “military equipment, military training or advice, or other support for military activities, to any group or individual not part of a country’s armed forces, for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua or provoking a military exchange between Nicaragua and Honduras.”

In exchange for General Alvarez’s total collusion in support of Contra operations in Honduras, Washington offered full political and economic support to that country’s corrupt military. U.S. military aid to Honduras swelled from $3.9 million in 1980 to $77.4 million by 1984. Between 1981 and 1986, more than 60,000 U.S. soldiers and members of the National Guard traversed Honduras in over 50 military exercises meant not so much to intimidate the Sandinistas as to covertly transfer arms to the Contras. Cynically enough, upon recommendation by Negroponte and others, the Reagan administration obscenely awarded Alvarez the Legion of Merit in 1983 for “encouraging democracy.”


By Whatever Means Necessary


John Negroponte was sent to Tegucigalpa with the mission of keeping U.S. aid flowing into Honduras for the Contras by whatever means necessary. Under Negroponte’s direct guidance, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa turned a blind eye to glaring evidence of systematic human rights abuses by Honduran officials. Recently declassified State Department papers also reveal the lengths that Negroponte would go to in order to protect the victimizer, rather than the victims, of human rights abuses. In 1982 alone, there were over 300 newspaper articles in the Honduran press reporting the illegal detention of university students and the abduction of union leaders. Colonel Leonidas Torres Arias, a disgruntled former intelligence chief of the Honduran armed forces, stated in a 1982 news conference that Battalion 316 was indeed a death squad, citing three of its victims by name. Efrain Diaz Arrivillaga, a Honduran congressional delegate, also said that when he spoke about the military’s abuses at the time to Negroponte, he was met with an “attitude…of tolerance and silence.” In addition, organizations such as the Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared visited the U.S. embassy to complain that the Honduran military was holding suspected dissidents in clandestine jails such as INDUMIL, to a totally unmoved Negroponte.


Recent reports have further established that Negroponte was very well aware of human rights abuses in Honduras, and any doubts he had about individual cases were politically motivated rather than the product of genuine caution or any high evidential standard. In Search of Hidden Truths, co-authored by the Honduran Human Rights Commissioner, documents recently-declassified reports which provide solid evidence that the U.S. was minutely aware of human rights abuses committed by the Honduran military in the 1980s, in spite of Negroponte’s persistent claims to the contrary. In addition, declassified State Department documents also establish that in October of 1984, after General Alvarez had been deposed by the Honduran armed forces, Negroponte’s embassy was finally willing to acknowledge that, “responsibility for a number of the alleged disappearances between 1981 and March 1984 can be assigned either directly or indirectly to Alvarez himself.”


Recently declassified cable traffic indicates a persistent inclination on Negroponte’s behalf to wholeheartedly believe rather pitiable excuses offered by General Alvarez to explain any human rights abuses. For example, in a 1983 letter, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Inter-America Affairs Craig Johnstone conveyed to Negroponte that a number of guerrillas had been captured and executed by elements of the Honduran armed forces. Negroponte’s response was to accept General Alvarez’s lame excuse that the six detainees were shot dead while trying to escape. However, when dealing with protests coming from human rights activists and political dissidents, the exact opposite was true when it came to assessing the quality of the information concerning allegations by Honduran human rights groups, such as CODEH, on violations by the armed forces. These were routinely met with scepticism if not total denial by Negroponte’s embassy, and often, by the ambassador himself.


Further discrediting Negroponte’s bona fides on the country’s human rights situation are statements by Jack Binns, his immediate predecessor as ambassador to Honduras from 1980 to 1981. At the time, Binns warned State Department officials of what he described as “increasing evidence of officially sponsored and/or sanctioned assassinations of political and criminal targets.” Binns also has stated that there was no way for Negroponte not to know the grim facts of life in Honduras. Thomas Enders, then Binns’ superior as Assistant Secretary of State, has admitted that he told Binns not to report human rights abuses through official channels in order to keep U.S. aid flowing in Honduras by any means. Enders confessed his transgressions at a later date, something that Negroponte has failed to do, let alone even consider.


Blatant Contradictions in Human Rights Reports


Instances of disappearances, harassment and abductions of political dissidents all escalated under Negroponte, yet the annual Human Rights Reports prepared by the ambassadorial staff for the State Department’s Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs were masterpieces of cunning redaction or invention, consistently downplaying human rights abuses and denying that any evidence existed of systematic violations by manipulating language and statistics. For example, the 1982 report prepared for the State Department by Negroponte’s staff asserted, “Legal guarantees exist against arbitrary arrest or imprisonment, and against torture or degrading treatment. Habeas Corpus is guaranteed by the Constitution, Honduran law provides for arraignment within 24 hours of arrest. This appears to be the standard practice.” All of this is absolute rubbish, and is not even true today, let alone in the early 1980s. In fact, Honduran judicial procedures are routinely given the worst ratings by Transparency International. In reality, extra-legal abductions by the military were rampant at the time and widely reported as well. In addition, as was acknowledged in declassified State Department documents at the time, the judicial system was (and still is) almost entirely corrupt. Relatives’ requests for information or visitation rights for imprisoned family members were met with stonewalling, as court and military officials asserted that there was no record of the individual being detained, and thus no assistance was given in locating them. The U.S. embassy was often asked to help find relatives or use its influence to gain the individual’s release. Negroponte’s awareness of at least a substantial number of these abductions is beyond dispute.


Honduras or Norway?


Curiously enough, the aforementioned Reyes case did not even deserve any mention in Negroponte’s 1982 Human Rights Report, despite widespread media coverage and his self-professed personal involvement. However, the following was included in the report: “No incidence of official interference with the media has been recorded for several years.” It was difficult even for embassy staff in Honduras to take the human rights reports seriously, as they appeared to be in such blatant denial of what U.S. officials were witnessing in Honduras on a daily basis. Rick Chidester, then a U.S. embassy aide in Honduras, has been quoted as wondering at the time whether they actually had not just prepared the human rights report on Norway.


Promoting Democracy Only When Necessary


Before being sent to Washington, the embassy’s human rights reports were being carefully edited to clearly correspond to Negroponte’s own ideological sentiments and mission rather than to objective facts. One must realize that Negroponte did not look upon the report as being routine, but rather as a potentially explosive document whose revelations must be contained. What is certain is that Negroponte hypocritically set an incredibly high standard of proof for the inclusion of evidence of any wrongdoing by Honduran authorities, but repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of various human rights leaders in the country, which was certainly not in conformance with existing State Department practices. Someone with such a ‘distinguished’ Foreign Service career as is routinely claimed for Negroponte by those whose capacity for righteous indignation – such as former Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson and U.N. ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick – is quite low, if it existed at all. They would surely have known that in spite of their fulsome praise for Negroponte, such embassy reports are not intended to be exclusively based on facts and be admissible in court, but rather are also meant to include anecdotal information from ordinary citizens and the media concerning human rights abuses, which were myriad in Honduras at the time, and of which Aronson and Kirkpatrick have been aware. Negroponte broke with this practice by requiring that all testimonies be in the form of public affidavits. This criterion could only be met at great risk to the personal safety of those who wanted to come forward and reveal the truth behind the human rights violations occurring at the time, but were fearful of doing so.


The juxtaposition of the Human Rights Reports for Honduras and Nicaragua provides a striking contrast of exactly what purpose the documents served. While the embassy-produced Human Rights Reports for Honduras were characteristically incredulous over allegations of abuses by the military, in Sandinista Nicaragua the reports were manipulated to have the U.S. public believe that atrocities committed by the Sandinista government were of a gross nature and a daily event, which was far from the truth. The Embassy reports provided by Negroponte’s office appeared to state whatever was necessary in order to assuage the concerns of the Democratic majority in Congress as to what was happening in the area, disregarding the murderous realities that average Hondurans confronted on a daily basis. The skewering of human rights reports thus appear to have been an exceedingly serious instrument in the Negroponte Embassy’s arsenal, aimed at promoting his full-time efforts to abet the overthrow of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and were not at all intended to strengthen democratic institutions by actually reporting on human rights violations, or saving lives in that country. There is ample reason to believe that charges of complicity in the murder of a Chilean constitutionalist general, that were levelled against Henry Kissinger in a U.S. court, could very well have been duplicated against Negroponte in a civil proceeding involving his own lawless behaviour.


The Worst Man for the Job


Negroponte’s mental and moral flaws in the area of human rights should be prompting serious concerns over the disservice that his appointment would do to the diminished standing of this country’s already tattered reputation over its troubled Iraq policy. As a would-be harbinger of democracy to Iraq, it would be little more than a cruel joke to pretend that this man had a bone of democratic rectitude to him. Given Negroponte’s tawdry record in Honduras, some observers contend that the original Negroponte nomination to the UN offered one more example of Secretary Powell’s lack of standards when it comes to State Department policy, and that his testimonials of the honourable nature of such nominees, as was equally true of his nomination of Otto Reich, John Bolton and Roger Noriega, whom Colin Powell defended as “honourable men,” are totally at variance with reality. The nomination of such a tainted figure as Negroponte to one of the most prominent posts available today to a U.S. diplomat should represent an insult to the international community, as well as a hollow affront to the memory of the victims of the Central American wars of the 1980s, and can only result in a further diminution of the reputation of this country for civic rectitude at a very difficult moment in its history.


This analysis was prepared by Larry Birns and Jenna Wright, respectively director and research fellow of the Washington based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, with archival contributions by research fellows Jeremy Gans and Matthew Tschetter. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent research and information organization. Read more about COHA at