Contra-era envoy nominated to be U.N. ambassador

Diplomat helped hide Honduran abuses from Congress in '80s

Vocal supporters, critics

March 07, 2001|By Jay Hancock, Gary Cohn and Tom Bowman | Jay Hancock, Gary Cohn and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - John D. Negroponte, a retired career diplomat who helped conceal from Congress the murder, kidnapping and torture abuses of a CIA-equipped and -trained Honduran military unit while he was ambassador to that country in the 1980s, was nominated yesterday by President Bush to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Bush said that Negroponte will be a "key member" of the administration's foreign policy team. A State Department spokesman called Negroponte "one of our most accomplished professional diplomats" despite questions about the former ambassador's conduct in Honduras.

"Should there be any questions regarding his tenure in Honduras or at any of his other postings, I am sure Ambassador Negroponte will come prepared to answer them at the Senate confirmation process," said the spokesman, Richard Boucher. "We are confident he will be able to allay any concerns that might be raised."

The nomination of Negroponte, who served as ambassador to Mexico and the Philippines after leaving Honduras, will be sent to the Senate. The top U.N. job has been a Cabinet post in the past, but the Bush administration has said the next ambassador will not serve in the Cabinet. However, it remains a high-profile job.

Some Democratic senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, which will review the nomination, expressed concerns about Negroponte's record in Honduras and his qualifications for the U.N. job.

"The questions that have been raised regarding Mr. Negroponte are serious ones," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. "I believe they need to be fully and thoroughly reviewed by the Foreign Relations Committee."

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said that Negroponte's "politics have been contentious in the past, and we must gauge his willingness to be an evenhanded force and face for the United States around the world."

For Negroponte, the U.N. ambassadorship would represent the triumphant revival of a long diplomatic career interrupted when he resigned from the State Department four years ago. For Hondurans, it would conjure up bad memories of when Negroponte wielded extraordinary influence in their country in collaboration with Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, the Honduran military commander who advocated brutality, even assassination, against suspected leftists.

"The declassified record on Ambassador Negroponte's role in Honduras is a shocking one," said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington and a top authority on covert U.S. involvement in Latin America. "His activities in support of the illicit contra war operations and disregard for repression by the Honduran military run directly counter to the purpose and principles of the United Nations."

Powell's choice for post

Negroponte has supporters in the highest places of the new Bush administration, not the least of whom is Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a close former colleague who chose him for the U.N. position. Bill Smullen, a spokesman for Powell, said the secretary "feels strongly it's a good choice, one that he feels excited about. And he looks forward to working with him again."

Negroponte did not respond to repeated requests for an interview before and after his nomination yesterday.

The 61-year-old former envoy has strong vocal backers. He is "clearly one of America's greatest diplomats," said retired Army Gen. Paul F. Gorman, who as commander of the U.S. Southern Command from 1983 to 1985 worked closely with Negroponte. "I have unbridled admiration for the way he handled his job in Tegucigalpa. ... John Negroponte was sitting on a powder keg down there. He did so with grace."

And he has strong vocal critics. "Ambassador Negroponte knew all about the human rights violations, and he did nothing to stop them," said Leo Valladares, who as Honduras' human rights commissioner has spent years looking into the abuses of the 1980s. "He was more interested in politics than in human rights violations."

In 1995, The Sun published a four-part series about the Honduran army unit known as Battalion 316, which was trained and equipped by the CIA, and which kidnapped, tortured and executed hundreds of suspected subversives during the 1980s. Much of this happened while Negroponte was ambassador to Honduras. As such, he was one of the chief instruments of the Reagan administration's mission to fight communism in Latin America. Honduras was the launch pad for the battle, and embassy reports of human rights abuses there were not to interfere with the mission.

Reagan priorities

The experience of Jack Binns, a Carter appointee and Negroponte's immediate predecessor, confirmed the new priorities. After Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981, Binns sent a classified cable to his bosses warning that the Honduran military was assassinating political opponents. Binns was promptly summoned to Washington and told not to report human rights abuses through normal - even classified - channels.

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