In a 37-year foreign-service career, John D. Negroponte has glided through sticky episodes with such aplomb that U.S. diplomats call him "the Teflon Ambassador." But there is one thing he can't seem to shake: his tenure in Honduras in the 1980s.
Now that Negroponte is the Bush administration's nominee for the prominent post of ambassador to the United Nations, questions from that era are again being raised. And this time, with new material and declassified documents available for his confirmation hearings, some of those hard questions may be harder to answer.
Back then, Negroponte helped oversee one of the most sensitive operations of the Cold War, a mission to contain the spread of communism in Central America. Under his ambassadorship, Honduras became a base for a covert military operation to unseat the leftist Nicaraguan government next door.
In the process, Negroponte had to protect the reputation of Honduras as a democratic ally, even as its government used violent means to silence its political opponents. That balancing act led the embassy, under his leadership, to conceal the truth from an already skittish U.S. Congress that could have easily withdrawn its financial support.
Negroponte failed to report human rights violations in the early 1980s in Honduras, including one U.S.-backed operation that resulted in the execution of nine prisoners and the disappearance of an American priest, according to interviews--including ones based on newly discovered Honduran military correspondence--and declassified documents obtained by The Times.
Negroponte quashed a U.S. Embassy report on the executions for fear it would alarm Congress, according to a CIA inquiry. And embassy staffers of the time say they were told to downplay reports of a CIA-backed death squad called Battalion 316 that has been implicated in the torture and disappearance of nearly 200 political opponents.
In the CIA's 1997 inquiry into whether the embassy covered up human rights violations in the 1980s, one embassy official told investigators that information about rights abuses was suppressed for political reasons. "Reporting murders, executions and corruption," he said, "would reflect negatively on Honduras and not be beneficial in carrying out U.S. policy."
The 1997 investigation also found that the embassy was aware of Honduran military involvement in death squad activities and that inadequacies and inconsistencies in reporting obscured the scope of human rights abuses in the country.
Overall, the declassified documents and interviews suggest that Negroponte consistently acted to protect the brutal actions of a military whose high command was bent on swiftly crushing any possibility of leftist revolt. Battalion 316, also referred to as the "Special Unit," was only one tool.
Negroponte, however, describes himself as a champion of human rights in the country, citing two high-profile cases in which he intervened to free victims. He has also said the abuses he was aware of in Honduras paled compared with atrocities in neighboring countries.
But critics of Negroponte's nomination to the U.N. say he subordinated human rights to U.S. strategic policy--and that a U.N. ambassador must have a stronger, prouder record on an issue so prominent at the world body.
"When you say 'Negroponte,' it causes terror here for everyone in our generation," said Bertha Oliva, director of a Honduran group representing the families of those who disappeared. "For Honduras, it's a humiliation. It's offensive that the U.S. would name a man like this to the United Nations."
But Negroponte, called out of retirement for the U.N. post by his longtime colleague and mentor, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, also has strong defenders. Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz has started a letter-writing campaign on his behalf.
Thomas R. Pickering, a career ambassador himself who served as the envoy to El Salvador while Negroponte was in Honduras, said the attitude toward human rights questions then was to report only what could be substantiated. "I think there was more effort in those days in trying to sift through before reporting a question rather than reporting it quickly and then sifting through," he said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, addressing concerns about the ambassador's past, said, "We're confident that he can be a forceful and effective advocate for human rights at the United Nations."
Negroponte declined to comment on the record for this story because, under Senate protocol, nominees are strongly discouraged from talking to the media before their confirmation hearings. His hearing has not been scheduled.
Negroponte was known during his 1981-85 tenure as "the Proconsul," a title implying that Honduras was his fiefdom. The saying at the time was that three people ran the country: Negroponte, military chief Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez and the president--and the president didn't matter.
Both his defenders and his critics say Negroponte became deeply involved in the country, going beyond an ambassador's typical diplomatic duties. But as Negroponte faces renewed scrutiny, critics say that just as important as what he did as ambassador is what he didn't do.
Running the embassy in those politically charged times was not an easy task: U.S. laws prevent the release of aid to governments that consistently violate human rights. The previous ambassador, Jack Binns, recently told The Times that State Department officials told him to stop reporting through official channels about the emergence of death squads, for fear that leaks would undermine the U.S. program.
When Negroponte arrived in the country's capital, Tegucigalpa, in November 1981, he met Alvarez, the man Washington favored to carry out its mission in Central America. But the army chief, Binns had warned him, was a man who thought torture and murder were among the most efficient means to achieve his goals. His obligatory collaboration with Alvarez would draw Negroponte deep into the secrets of a dirty war--and challenge him to keep them hidden.
As the military chief, Alvarez was the architect of a secret death squad that eventually became known as Battalion 316. Negroponte personally intervened in the cases of at least two people who were detained and tortured by the battalion--although its role was never cited in State Department reports. The two victims and others involved in securing their release say the embassy ordered them not to go to the U.S. or seek asylum there when they were immediately exiled.
Relations between Negroponte and Alvarez became strained. Alvarez resented U.S. control over his military, despite the flood of funds and equipment from the north. And Negroponte became frustrated that he couldn't rein in the errant general Washington had empowered.
When Negroponte once confronted him at a party about his excesses, Alvarez walked away, complaining: "I take orders from the president. We're a sovereign country. I don't take orders from the United States," a person present at the event recalled. Alvarez was ousted in 1984 and exiled to the U.S., where he worked as a consultant to the Pentagon. When he returned to Honduras in 1989, a group calling itself the Popular Liberation Movement assassinated him.
"The sense was that we didn't have control over him [Alvarez]," said a U.S. official who worked closely with Negroponte in Honduras. "We wouldn't know what he'd done until afterward, and half the time we wouldn't like it. We were constantly being handed surprises, because he was constantly doing things in a ruthless way and was indifferent to our concerns."
One of those surprises was the so-called Olancho operation, which resulted in the disappearance of the American priest.
On July 19, 1983, a band of 96 guerrillas calling themselves the PRTCH, the Spanish initials for Central American Workers Revolutionary Party in Honduras, marched from Nicaragua into Honduras to try to incite a leftist rebellion against the Honduran government.
Included in the band was James Francis Carney, a U.S.-born priest long associated with leftist causes in Honduras.
With the help of U.S. helicopters, the Honduran military discovered the band in the remote and mountainous Olancho province in eastern Honduras. In a letter to Negroponte, Alvarez later thanked the ambassador for the "aerial transport offered to our troops" in Olancho. It is unclear whether Negroponte ever received the letter, which was obtained by The Times from military sources in Honduras, but independent interviews confirmed its contents.
The U.S. position has long been that the only support given was to supply food to Honduran troops in the area. But top-ranked embassy sources acknowledged the aerial support when presented with the letter recently.
The military--including members of the unit that would become known as Battalion 316--quickly subdued the ill-equipped, poorly trained guerrillas. Most of the prisoners were displayed for the media at a news conference Sept. 19, 1983.
But soon, questions arose about the fate of the rest of the captured guerrillas, including Carney. The priest's family members contacted the embassy to demand an investigation into rumors that Carney and other members of the guerrilla column had been tortured and killed by Honduran military officials.
Alarmed by the growing tide of accusations, Alvarez wrote Negroponte on Oct. 15, 1983, to ask him for help in dealing with the attention raised by the Carney family's persistent questioning.
"There is still a worry in the army over the political turn taken by the death of the guerrilla priest James Francis Carney," Alvarez wrote. He then asked for the embassy's cooperation in quieting the investigation.
Two days after Alvarez wrote to Negroponte, the CIA issued the first of two sensitive memos on the Olancho operation and Carney's fate, according to a 1997 report by the CIA inspector general that was declassified two years ago after Freedom of Information requests by rights groups and family members. The report was a response to a 1995 series in the Baltimore Sun that asserted that Negroponte had suppressed information about Honduran human rights violations.
The report, which is heavily blacked-out, said the memos indicated that Carney had probably starved to death in the jungle. Of equal concern, the two memos also said that at least nine of the captured rebels, including the rebel leader, had been summarily executed at the command of top military officials.
Then, in November 1983, the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command received reports that Alvarez himself had approved the executions. This information was put into a draft report that was given to various agencies but never officially disseminated, according to the inspector general's report.
Negroponte never reported the information, telling associates he had concerns about the source of the Army report. Significantly, a colleague said there were questions about whether the killings were carried out by Honduran soldiers or by still-covert U.S.-backed Contras.
Negroponte was particularly concerned that the Army report, coming on the heels of the CIA memos, might cause a human rights problem for Honduras, according to several embassy officials interviewed for the inspector general's report.
One unidentified embassy worker "actively discouraged" any follow-up reporting on the accusations because of Negroponte's concerns, the 1997 report said. It quotes another embassy official who "believes that the Embassy Country Team in Honduras wanted reports on subjects such as [the prisoner executions] to be benign 'as to avoid Congress looking over its shoulder' and to keep Congress satisfied with the ongoing implementation of U.S. policy."
Other colleagues recalled the political pressures of the time.
"It was a very highly charged political environment," an official who served under Negroponte told The Times. "The dilemma was that anything could set off the U.S. Congress, it was so divided on the issue [of Contra support]."
The official, who didn't want to be named because he still works for the government, said he was directly told by embassy staff not to report an incident only one time, and was never told to lie. "But he [Negroponte] made it very clear that you always had to be conscious that whatever you reported would be political grist," he said.
Negroponte has denied that he suppressed information about human rights violations. While acknowledging that there were hundreds of articles in local papers about state-sponsored kidnappings and killings as well as regular demonstrations in the capital by relatives of missing people, Negroponte has said he tried to place the country's human rights performance in a regional context. In the nascent democracy of Honduras, the disappearance of 112 people in three or four years seemed insignificant compared with the mass executions happening in neighboring nations.
But the previously undisclosed letter from Alvarez and CIA documents raise new questions about whether Negroponte told Congress and the American public the whole truth about evidence of human rights abuses by the Honduran military.
In confirmation hearings for a subsequent ambassadorship to Mexico, Negroponte acknowledged "isolated incidents" of violations but denied there was a pattern of officially sponsored kidnapping, torture or killing of political opponents.
"I have never seen any convincing substantiation that they were involved in death squad-type activities," he testified.
There are many Hondurans who contest that assessment and believe that the U.S. Embassy could have done more to halt the Honduran military's transgressions.
One of those is Zenaida Velasquez, whose brother was kidnapped in 1981.
Velasquez helped form an organization for people whose family members had disappeared. In 1983, they met with Negroponte to appeal for his help.
"A word from the ambassador was like an order. We went there to beg him," she said. "He shrugged, as if to say, 'I had nothing to do with it,' and in the end, he didn't even offer to look into it. He was a cold character."
Many of those who endured torture or prolonged captivity have since channeled their energies to bringing to light the wrongs committed in Honduras while Negroponte was ambassador. They see Negroponte's nomination for the U.N. post as a rejection of the justice and accountability they have worked so hard to achieve during the last 20 years.
Luis Manuel Figaroa was taken into custody July 21, 1983, while trying to cross from Honduras into Nicaragua. Because he was a nationalized Honduran born in Nicaragua, Figaroa said, Honduran border officials were suspicious of his passport. For the next six months, Figaroa said, he was tortured.
"For me, Negroponte is a criminal," said Figaroa. "He knew of the problems here. He knew what Alvarez Martinez was doing. He knew all this and did nothing about it."
Nora Miselem, 46, was a Honduran activist who worked with refugees fleeing the violence in El Salvador. She was kidnapped in July 1982, she said, and held for nearly a month.
She said her torturers in Battalion 316 attached electrical wires to her breasts and vagina and administered shocks. They threatened her with rape, she said, and took credit for killing one of her children, who had died in a hospital years earlier.
Miselem blames Negroponte for creating a climate in which Honduran officials knew they could act with impunity.
"What signal does it send to the indigenous and the poor for the United States to have a man like this in the United Nations?" she asked. "What is the U.S. thinking?"
Miller reported from Tegucigalpa and Farley from the United Nations. Times staff writers Norman Kempster and Doyle McManus in Washington and special correspondent Alex Renderos in San Salvador contributed to this report.
Deported: Honduran who says he knows much about Negroponte's tenure has been sent home, A10