Company man

February 20, 2005

ABU GHRAIB and Guantanamo are world-famous outposts of the American intelligence-gathering system - and they are two of the worst stains on America's reputation in recent memory. The New Yorker magazine recently reported on the third leg of that shameful stool: a policy of "extraordinary rendition," by which the United States has shipped prisoners to countries where it is quite clear they will be tortured.

As it happens, the United States is now preparing for a reworking of its intelligence apparatus, and last week President Bush nominated John D. Negroponte, the ambassador to Iraq, to the new post of national intelligence director.

Mr. Negroponte is an intelligent diplomat, a skilled infighter, a discreet public servant. If he were also a man who had earned unqualified respect for his dedication to the rule of law and to democratic norms, if he were a man who simply by taking office could reassure Americans and the world that the disgraceful practices of the past three years would not be repeated, we would happily endorse his nomination. But he is not such a man.

For four years in the 1980s, he was U.S. ambassador to Honduras, at the time perhaps the quintessential banana republic. His job was to help oversee the Reagan administration's covert and outside-the-law support for the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, who were financed by the illegal sale of arms to the mullahs in Iran. In Honduras itself, a death squad trained by the CIA went about its dirty business. Mr. Negroponte has long denied that he knew about and covered up the death squad's atrocities, which came to light in a series of articles in The Sun in 1995. Maybe that's true - but it happened on his watch, at a time when he was the most powerful man in Honduras. If it is true, it doesn't say much for his ability to marshal good intelligence.

Some might argue that that was all a long time ago. Mr. Negroponte, 65, has had a lengthy career, stretching from Saigon to Baghdad. For three years, he was ambassador to the United Nations - but think what that means. His task there was to present the Bush administration's case for war against Saddam Hussein, all based on completely erroneous intelligence about chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. It wasn't Mr. Negroponte's job to confirm that intelligence, of course, but he is unavoidably associated with it. He dutifully played his role, in other words, in one of the most egregious intelligence failures in American history.

And now he's got the top job.

American intelligence is in need of repair; on that point, all sides agree. The nation must have an incisive intelligence chief, not afraid to deliver bad news when he has to, and able to stand up to Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary. But on top of that, America needs a director who by virtue of his reputation and his experience would make it clear from the start that there is no place for abuse, and no place for truth-shading, in the agencies he oversees. Instead, the Senate has been asked to confirm Mr. Negroponte.

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