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Negroponte knowledge of 1980s death squads { March 21 2005 }

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Negroponte's Time In Honduras at Issue
Focus Renewed on Intelligence Pick's Knowledge of Death Squads in 1980s
By Michael Dobbs

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page A01

It has been two decades since John D. Negroponte left his post as ambassador to Honduras, but the man President Bush has chosen to become the United States' first intelligence czar is still being hounded by human rights activists such as Zenaida Velasquez.

Their paths first intersected in 1983, when Velasquez asked for the ambassador's help in tracing dozens of Hondurans, including her brother, allegedly kidnapped by agents of the U.S.-backed Honduran military. Little came of the meeting, and the disappearances continued for at least another year.

Over the years, Velasquez has gotten the CIA, an official Honduran ombudsman and an international human rights court to acknowledge that the Honduran army was responsible for her brother Manfredo's kidnapping and presumed killing. But Negroponte has repeatedly insisted that military-backed death squads did not operate in Honduras while he was ambassador.

The selection of Negroponte for the new post of national intelligence director has focused renewed attention on the question of how much he knew about the Honduran military's involvement in nearly 200 unsolved kidnappings during the 1980s, and what he did about it. The subject has dogged him in the past, and Democratic staff members said it is likely to be revisited when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence holds nomination hearings, tentatively scheduled for April 12.

A review of hundreds of declassified State Department and CIA documents suggests that Negroponte was preoccupied with "managing perceptions" about a country that had become a key U.S. ally in a decade-long campaign to stop the spread of communism in Central America. The documents show that he sought to depict Honduras in a generally positive light in annual human rights reports to Congress, and played down allegations of government abuse.

Opinions differ sharply over whether Negroponte, who served most recently as U.S. envoy to Iraq and the United Nations, ever suppressed pertinent intelligence information for fear of undermining support for U.S. policies.

Negroponte's admirers see him as a tough-minded, professional diplomat who loyally implemented Reagan administration policies in Central America during an exceptionally difficult period. His critics view him as a symbol of what they consider a dark chapter in American history, when the United States closed its eyes to crimes by Third World strongmen because they were seen as partners in a larger anti-communist crusade.

For Velasquez, who founded a relatives' committee to investigate the spate of kidnappings and disappearances in Honduras in the early 1980s and is now a U.S. citizen living in California, the controversy is more personal. She wants Negroponte to do something he has so far declined to do: acknowledge the existence of death squads in Honduras, and their ties with the U.S.-backed Honduran security forces.

"It's like a slap in the face," she said of Negroponte's selection to the intelligence post. "He knew what was going on, but he still refuses to speak the truth."

Negroponte declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article, in accordance with the tradition that presidential nominees refrain from public statements before their confirmation hearings. Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2001, before assuming the U.N. post, he continued to insist that the disappearances were not the result of Honduran "government policy."

Human Rights Concerns

When John Dmitri Negroponte arrived in Tegucigalpa as ambassador in December 1981 at age 42, Honduras had just become key to the Reagan administration's strategy of rolling back communism in Central America. Over the next six years, Honduras would become the principal staging ground for U.S.-backed contra rebels struggling to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

Honduras had a better human rights record than its neighbors -- Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala -- and was fairly tranquil. The army was transferring power back to an elected civilian government, while retaining control over security matters.

After winning the 1980 election, President Ronald Reagan needed someone reliable in Honduras to replace Jack R. Binns, a Carter administration holdover. The new ambassador would coordinate a huge increase in military assistance, from $3.9 million in 1980 to $77.4 million in 1984. Negroponte had hawkish credentials: A former aide to Henry A. Kissinger, he had criticized his patron for making too many concessions to the North Vietnamese in the previous decade.

Before his departure, Binns had sent cables to Washington warning of some ominous human rights trends. Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who was selected to be commander in chief of the Honduran armed forces, told Binns privately that "extralegal" methods might be necessary to "take care" of subversives, declassified State Department documents show. He praised the "Argentine method" of dealing with the problem, which Binns took to refer to the kidnappings and disappearances of thousands of government opponents.

In June 1981, Binns cabled the State Department to say that he was "deeply concerned at increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations," which suggested that the repressive policies Alvarez favored were being implemented "much faster than we anticipated." The State Department's response, Binns said, was to instruct him to use "back channels," meaning the CIA, to report on sensitive human rights issues that could create problems for Honduras if they were leaked to Congress or the media.

A 1994 report by Oscar Valladares, a lawyer appointed by the Honduran parliament to investigate human rights abuse, blamed the Honduran army and the contras for 174 disappearances and kidnappings in the 1980s. Most of the incidents took place before the March 1984 ouster of Alvarez as armed forces chief.

The kidnapping of Manfredo Velasquez in September 1981, a few weeks before Negroponte arrived in Honduras, established what would be a familiar pattern. A university student and left-wing political activist, Velasquez was seized in daylight in a public parking lot by several men in civilian clothes, one of whom was later identified as a Honduran police sergeant. They bundled him into a car, and he was never seen again.

According to a November 1985 CIA report, which has since been partly declassified, the kidnapping was the work of the Honduran Anti-Communist Liberation Army, or ELACH. A 1997 CIA study identified ELACH as a "death squad" with close ties to a special security unit reporting to Alvarez.

In a 1988 ruling, the Inter-American Commission Court on Human Rights found the government of Honduras responsible for Velasquez's disappearance and ordered it to pay damages to his family.

Disappearances Continue

The disappearances continued after Negroponte became ambassador. The Valladares report cites 17 disappearances and kidnappings in 1982, 20 in 1983 and 18 in 1984. There were 26 disappearances in 1985, but they were mainly the work of the contras, rather than Honduran security forces, the report says. The kidnapped included trade union activists, journalists and professors opposed to the military authorities.

The embassy played down the problems in the annual human rights reports on Honduras that it was required to submit to Congress, according to declassified cables collected by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research group. In 1982, for example, the embassy recommended including a sentence asserting that there was "no evidence of systematic violation of judicial procedures" by the Honduran police.

"Allegations to the effect that death squads have made their appearance in Honduras appear to be totally without merit," the embassy cable added, reflecting a position Negroponte has maintained ever since.

In an interview, Binns noted that reporting about killings and disappearances "would have made it much more difficult to sustain our economic and security assistance" to Honduras.

A 1997 report by then-CIA Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz on CIA activities in Honduras contains numerous references to Negroponte's concerns about the possible "political ramifications" of negative human rights reporting. It cites several instances when reports were "suppressed" or given very limited circulation because of fears that they "would reflect negatively on Honduras." Hitz quoted an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency as saying that "the Embassy country team" wanted to keep human rights reporting "benign" in order "to avoid Congress looking over its shoulders and to keep Congress satisfied with the ongoing implementation of U.S. policy." The analyst's name was redacted.

Raymond Burghardt, head of the embassy's political section under Negroponte, said he never felt any pressure from Negroponte to "pull our punches or delude anybody in Washington as to what the real situation was." But he did not contest references in the 1997 CIA report to attempts by Negroponte to "manage perceptions" of Honduras in Washington at a time when the political debate about Central America was highly partisan.

"There are two ways you can manage reporting," said Burghardt, who is now director of seminars at the East-West Center in Hawaii. "One way is to make sure that reports are balanced. . . . The other is to steer people away from reporting on certain topics, and lie about what is going on. Negroponte's approach was the former, not the latter."

Negroponte and his supporters have criticized some of the conclusions of Hitz's report, saying that the ambassador never "suppressed" information about human rights abuse. During Negroponte's 2001 Senate confirmation hearing, then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) quoted from a letter written by a senior CIA officer at the Tegucigalpa embassy asserting that decisions on disseminating such information were made entirely on "intelligence merits, and not on any extraneous political considerations."

In his own testimony, Negroponte described the Hitz report as "grossly unfair" and "misleading." He said his attitude about human rights reporting was "almost the opposite" of the picture presented in the inspector general's report.

Desperate to draw attention to the disappearance of her brother and dozens of other activists, Zenaida Velasquez tried every avenue available to her. She organized street demonstrations, filed complaints to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and helped set up a Honduran committee for the relatives of the missing. She also badgered the U.S. Embassy for a meeting with Negroponte.

Velasquez says she and other relatives met with the ambassador around March 1983. "It was like a bucket of cold water," she said. "Our hopes were high, because we knew the influence that the embassy had with the government. But he denied knowing anything, and said it was an internal affair of Honduras. We got out of there wanting to cry."

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2001, Negroponte said he had no recollection of that meeting, but did not deny it took place. He expressed "surprise" that he would have described the disappearances as an "internal" Honduran affair.

Negroponte said he preferred "quiet diplomacy." On some occasions, he approached Alvarez and other Honduran leaders about the disappearances. The most frequently cited case was the July 1982 abduction of Oscar Reyes, a Honduran journalist sympathetic to the Sandinistas, and his wife, Gloria.

Reyes, who now edits the Spanish-language Catholic newspaper El Pregonero from an office near Catholic University, said in a recent interview that masked men took him and his wife from their house in Tegucigalpa to another house, where they were beaten and subjected to electric shocks. At one point, he was forced to undergo a mock execution in front of a tree, but the torturers changed their minds at the last moment, saying, "We'll kill him another day."

Cresencio Arcos, who was then the embassy media attache, said that he talked to Negroponte about the Reyeses' disappearance and that the ambassador took the matter up with Alvarez. Reyes and his wife were subsequently brought before a judge and eventually released.

While Reyes is grateful to Negroponte for "helping to save our lives," he said his case proves that U.S. diplomats exercised influence with Honduran authorities and were well-informed about what was going on. "If they saved our lives, they could have saved a lot of other people's lives as well," he said.

No attempt was made to find and arrest those who seized and tortured the Reyeses before handing them over to police. The embassy did not mention the incident in its annual human rights report on Honduras, which said the Honduran government had taken action "to discipline police who violated legal procedures."

CIA Group Backs Claims

In 1983, even as a dissident Honduran army officer accused Alvarez of masterminding "death squads," Reagan awarded him the Legion of Merit for "encouraging the success of democratic processes in Honduras."

Alvarez's fellow generals were less confident about his commitment to democracy. In March 1984, they accused him of abuse of authority and sent him into exile. He was hired by the Pentagon as a consultant on unconventional warfare, and was assassinated by leftist guerrillas in Tegucigalpa in 1989 while exploring a political comeback.

A CIA working group set up in 1996 to look into the U.S. role in Honduras found that "the Honduran military committed most of the hundreds of human rights abuses reported in Honduras" between 1980 and 1984. The report added that "death squads" linked to the military had used tactics such as "killings, kidnapping and torture" to deal with people suspected of supporting leftist guerrillas.

U.S. "intelligence collection and reporting requirements on human rights abuses [in Honduras] were subordinated to higher priorities," the CIA working group reported, according to a summary released to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2001, before confirmation hearings on Negroponte's nomination to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Attempts by Democratic senators to block the appointment evaporated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Meeting just two days later, the Foreign Relations Committee voted 14 to 3 to support the nomination, on the grounds that the Bush administration needed an experienced diplomat at the United Nations at such a crucial time.

While acknowledging that there had been occasional "abuses of authority" by Honduran police officials, Negroponte reiterated his assertion that they were not officially sanctioned. He told the committee that he associated the term "death squad" with events in El Salvador, where more than 50,000 people had disappeared.

"I did not think that any activities that were occurring in Honduras at that time fit that description," Negroponte said.

2005 The Washington Post Company

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