Apr 1 2005

Weasel Words on Negroponte


George W. Bush’s February 17 nomination of John Negroponte to the newly created job of director of intelligence was the subject of a flurry of media coverage. But little attention was paid to Negroponte’s role in the brutal and illegal Contra war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the mid-1980s.

From 1981 to 1985, Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, a country that served as the main staging ground for the CIA-created and -backed Contra armies, who attacked civilians in a terrorist campaign against Nicaragua. Negroponte was a key player in organizing training for the Contras and procuring weapons for the U.S. effort to topple the socialist Nicaraguan government (Extra!, 9-10/01).

Negroponte’s ambassadorship was marked by another human rights scandal: the Honduran army’s Battalion 316, which operated as a death squad that tortured, killed or disappeared “subversive” Hondurans–and at least one U.S. citizen, Catholic priest James Carney. Despite regular coverage of such crimes in the Honduran press, the human rights reports sent by Negroponte’s embassy consistently failed to raise these issues. Critics contend that this was no accident: If such crimes had been acknowledged, U.S. aid to the country’s military would have come under scrutiny, which could have jeopardized the Contra operations.

Many news reports included brief mentions of Negroponte’s past. The New York Times (2/18/05), for example, noted that “critics say” that Negroponte “turned a blind eye to human rights abuses” in Honduras. But the Times (like most mainstream outlets) quoted no critics on the subject; to get a sense of what Negroponte’s critics actually said, you had to tune into Pacifica Radio‘s Democracy Now (2/18/05), where Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive said that Negroponte “essentially ran Honduras as the Reagan administration changed it from a small Central American country into a territorial battleship, if you will, to fight the Contra war and overthrow the Sandinista government. He was really the head person in charge of this whole operation, which became a massive paramilitary war in the early 1980s.”

Kornbluh added that declassified documents from those years show Negroponte had “stepped out of being U.S. ambassador and kind of put on the hat of a CIA station chief in pushing for the Contras to get more arms, in lobbying and meeting with very high Honduran officials to facilitate U.S. support for the Contras and Honduran cooperation, even after the U.S. Congress terminated official support for the Contra war.”

The night of Bush’s announcement, network news broadcasts woefully understated or misrepresented this history. On NBC Nightly News (2/17/05), reporter Andrea Mitchell glossed over Negroponte’s Honduran record: “As Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Honduras, he was accused of ignoring death squads and America’s secret war against Nicaragua.” While Negroponte might be accused of ignoring Honduran death squads, no one could credibly suggest he was ignoring “America’s secret war against Nicaragua.” To the contrary, the documentary evidence cited by Kornbluh show that he was intimately involved with running it.

In general, right-wing pundits and commentators were much more likely than mainstream news reporters to cite Negroponte’s shady past–as proof that he is the right man for the job. On CNBC (2/17/05), Tony Blankley happily summarized Negroponte’s human rights record: “Negroponte is not just some ambassador. He has a track record. Starting in Honduras in 1981, he was the ambassador who oversaw the management when the Argentines turned over the covert operations against the Nicaraguans. He took over that responsibility. He managed it operationally. The CIA was very impressed with the way he handled that.”

After James Warren of the Chicago Tribune disagreed (calling the Contra war an “at times slimy operation”), Blankley offered a blunt response–“Well, we won”–which host Lawrence Kudlow endorsed: “We did win. Thank you, Tony. I was just going to say, you know, the forces of freedom triumphed with a little bit of help from the right country.”

Fox News Channel‘s Fred Barnes took the same line (2/19/05): “I would say on Central America, I give John Negroponte credit, along with people like Elliott Abrams and President Reagan, for creating democracy in all those countries in Central America, in Nicaragua, in El Salvador and in Honduras, where Marxists were going to take over, they fought them back.”

By way of balance, Fox pundit and NPR correspondent Juan Williams noted that while he didn’t “have any love for Marxists,” it was important to note “what death squads do to people, and you understand that nuns were involved, Fred, then you think–wait a second–excess is not to be tolerated in the name of democracy.”

Barnes’ response: “Well, now that we have democracy, there are no death squads.”