Time for Negroponte to be more than dutiful

February 22, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

`DUTIFUL" IS A word this newspaper used Sunday to describe John Dimitri Negroponte, the 65-year-old career diplomat President Bush named last week to be the first director of national intelligence.

It was in an editorial that otherwise had little good to say about the man, and I think the word best characterizes the image that comes to mind when Mr. Negroponte is mentioned. He is a dutiful servant.

One thinks of him as America's representative to the United Nations, sitting dutifully behind Colin L. Powell as the secretary of state testified incorrectly about the threat Iraq posed to the world. One thinks of him standing dutifully next to Mr. Bush as the president promises that Mr. Negroponte will be the one who decides what's important and what's not important for him to know.

Given his history, it's likelier that Mr. Negroponte, with an excellent grasp of what the president wants to hear, will dutifully decide that what the president wants to hear is what is important for him to hear. He won't promise slam dunks in quite the way former CIA Director George J. Tenet did. Mr. Negroponte is a quieter, subtler individual. He is a craftsman.

The veteran diplomat demonstrated as much more than two decades ago, when he was U.S. ambassador to Honduras during the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.

Mr. Negroponte arrived at his post in Tegucigalpa in 1982. The policy of the Reagan administration and the unimportance of human rights in the scope of that policy had been clearly defined.

Thomas O. Enders, President Ronald Reagan's assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, made that clear to Mr. Negroponte's predecessor, Jimmy Carter appointee Jack Binns. "Whereas human rights abuses had been the single most important focus of the previous administration's policy in Latin America, the Reagan administration had broader interests," Mr. Binns said he was told by Mr. Enders.

Mr. Enders confirmed it to Sun reporters who wrote a series of articles 10 years ago about human rights abuses in Honduras in the 1980s. The articles confirmed that a Honduran military squad equipped and trained by the CIA had kidnapped, tortured and murdered suspected leftists.

A full account of these atrocities never made it into the human rights reports supplied to Congress by the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa after Mr. Negroponte became ambassador. He has denied distorting the truth that would have jeopardized the Reagan program. But, typically, a former staff member at the embassy in Tegucigalpa complained the reports were so whitewashed that he one day wondered, "What is this, the human rights report for Norway?"

Mr. Negroponte was ambassador to the Philippines when The Sun series appeared. After his tour in Manila was finished, it seemed he was finished, too. With no new ambassadorship, he went into the private sector as an executive with McGraw-Hill publishers. If George W. Bush had not been elected in 2000, the dutiful Mr. Negroponte might have drifted into oblivion.

But Mr. Bush rescued Mr. Negroponte. Since 2001, he has dutifully served as the U.S. representative to the United Nations and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and now he's about to be confirmed to the job he has described as the most important of his 40-year career.

Mr. Negroponte is right about that. Including a stint he served as a political officer in Saigon during the Vietnam War, this is the third he will have served in the front line of a war in which the U.S. government has lied to the American people. As in Honduras, he will be serving in a position of great influence at a time when human rights have been abused in the service of this administration's broader interests.

Mr. Negroponte has an opportunity here. The business he will be directing is necessarily secretive. Even in secret, there is an opportunity for redemption. Sooner or later, secrets are declassified. He knows this, and we may hope he wishes the record of what may be his final and most important service will show he was not just dutiful, but brave.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Sun.

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