White House doesn't plan probe of U.S. role in Honduran rights abuses

June 13, 1995|By Mark Matthews and Thomas W. Waldron | Mark Matthews and Thomas W. Waldron,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration said yesterday that it has no plans to launch its own investigation into the U.S. support of Honduran soldiers who killed and tortured civilians during the 1980s.

A State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, also expressed full confidence in John D. Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras, who supervised the preparation of annual human rights reports that omitted specific examples of brutality by the Honduran military.

Mr. Negroponte is now ambassador to the Philippines.

A series of articles that began Sunday in The Sun, citing newly declassified documents and other sources, reported that the CIA trained and equipped a secret Honduran military unit, known as Battalion 316, and that the intelligence agency and the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa collaborated with its leaders even though they knew of numerous crimes it had committed.

Responding to questions at a State Department briefing, Mr. Burns noted that the events cited occurred 10 to 15 years ago under a previous administration, that of Republican Ronald Reagan. Mr. Burns said the State Department would provide "any support that we can" to an investigation begun in December 1993 by Honduras' human rights commissioner. But, he said, "This is a Honduran investigation."

"As to Ambassador Negroponte, I would just say that he is one of the most distinguished members of our diplomatic corps, has had long and distinguished service to the U.S. government, has the full support of the Department of State," Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Negroponte has declined repeated requests from The Sun for an interview.

In Honduras, The Sun's article was published in a daily newspaper and was discussed on radio and TV programs.

A Honduran government official said Argentine military advisers, with U.S. support, were brought in to help monitor leftist activism, the Associated Press reported.

"At least nine Argentine military [officers], supported by the CIA, trained many Honduran officers to prevent communism from entering Honduras," said Leo Valladares of the government's Human Rights Commission.

Ramon Custodio, president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights of Honduras, spoke harshly of Mr. Negroponte.

"He came completely committed to the policy of his country, which was a policy that undermined the human rights of Hondurans," Mr. Custodio said.

Bertha Oliva, head of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared, claimed in an interview with the Associated Press that the CIA knew of disappearances by Honduran security forces and that "the U.S. Embassy had absolute power in this country."

The spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, Paul Kozelka, said the U.S. policy in Honduras "has always opposed tortures, disappearances and assassinations. The United States never has been involved in this type of activity."

The State Department's reaction to The Sun article contrasts sharply with a statement by Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1993 when he named a panel to investigate any U.S. role in human rights violations in El Salvador during the same 1980s period.

At that time, Mr. Christopher said: "Respect for human rights is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, and when questions arise that challenge our commitments, we have an obligation to seek answers."

A CIA spokesman, Mark Mansfield, indicated that there would be no new investigation of his agency's role.

"The notion that the CIA was involved in or sanctioned human rights abuses is unfounded," Mr. Mansfield said. He said that the matter was investigated in 1988 by a CIA inspector general who found "no evidence of wrongdoing by agency officers."

Mr. Mansfield said that programs to help the Honduran military were authorized by a presidential finding, and that CIA officers "followed U.S. government guidance on human rights in conducting their assigned mission." They were sensitive to their obligation to protect human rights "and to impart the U.S. government's position on human rights to foreign liaison services," Mr. Mansfield said.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, was not convinced. "I find the allegations to be shocking and repugnant. This sounds remarkably like the way the CIA was engaging in this out-of-line behavior in Guatemala."

She was referring to recent disclosures that the CIA had close ties to Guatemalan military officers linked to the killing of one American and the husband of a second.

The senator said Congress should investigate the U.S. government's role in Honduras as documented in The Sun.

"The intelligence committee had hearings on the CIA's operation in Guatemala and should do the same in Honduras," Ms. Mikulski said.

"Our foreign policy should reflect our values," she said. "I think this is a great opportunity for Mr. Deutch [John Deutch, the new director of central intelligence] coming in. I don't believe these activities are characteristic of all the CIA. I don't know if these were rogue operations. This is Mr. Deutch's opportunity to make sure the CIA in the 21st century reflects our values."

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