Grilling Negroponte

Bush's nominee for director of intelligence comes under fire for his role in covering up U.S. involvement in the war in Nicaragua.

Published April 13, 2005 1:56PM (EDT)

The man chosen by President Bush to be the new U.S. director of national intelligence Tuesday denied that he had covered up human rights abuses when he was Washington's ambassador to Honduras. John Negroponte came under fierce questioning from the Senate intelligence committee as his nomination for the role was considered.

The questioning coincided with the publication of diplomatic cables sent by Negroponte in the 1980s which indicate that he secretly sought to undermine the peace process in Central America and entertained the head of a group trying to violently overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The documents show that he sought to cover up clandestine U.S. involvement in the war in Nicaragua.

Nearly 400 cables and memos sent or received by Negroponte, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the U.N. before being nominated for his new intelligence position, indicate that he tried to undermine peace efforts, promoted the war against the Sandinistas -- which he referred to as "our special project" -- and gave tips to the State Department on how to cover up the U.S. role.

There is no indication of any concern for the Honduran regime's human rights abuses, or the disappearances of left-wingers at the time, despite much contemporary evidence of atrocities committed by the Honduran military. The documents were released by the national security archive in Washington.

In a cable to the State Department in October 1983, Negroponte expressed alarm that peace might be agreed through negotiations taking place through the offices of the Contadora Group of Latin American governments, which was seeking an end to the conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. "The Contadora process does indeed appear to be headed in directions inimical to our interests," he cabled. "This raises specter of an imposed 'peace.'"

He also expressed his concern about the possibility of a peace agreement in a cable in which he said of the initiative that "such an approach could eventually lead to de facto acceptance of old French/Mexican proposal, ie control of borders and effectively shutting down our special project."

A cable received from his U.S. diplomatic counterpart in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, in May 1983, showed that Negroponte was planning to entertain at dinner Adolfo Calero, the head of the rebel FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic Force). "Your hospitality is legendary and Calero's charm is irresistible, but I have my doubts about a dinner at the residence for a man who is in the business of overthrowing a neighboring government," wrote Anthony Quainton, the U.S. envoy to Nicaragua.

The release of the documents dominated Negroponte's Senate hearing Tuesday.

Ron Wyden, a Democrat, accused him of "ducking the facts" and asked whether in his new position he would continue to tell the administration what it wanted to hear.

"It looks like you saw things through an administration-colored lens then," Wyden said. "And what you need to do over the course of today is convince me that when you brief the president, you have this extraordinarily important duty, you're going to make sure the facts get out there."

Negroponte rejected the charge that he had covered up human rights abuses. He said the issue had been investigated in 1989 when he was named ambassador to Mexico, and again in 2001. "I think both instances have found that I had not carried out any improper behavior," he said. "My comportment was always in an absolutely legal and entirely professional manner."

By Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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