It wasn’t quite a gathering of storms. But in two different Senate meeting rooms on the same morning, committees were holding hearings on two controversial picks for George W. Bush’s national security team. As the Senate intelligence committee questioned–yes, questioned, not grilled–former ambassador John Negroponte, whom Bush has nominated to be the new director of national intelligence position, the Senate foreign relations committee took the testimony of a former assistant secretary of state who maintained that John Bolton, Bush’s choice to be UN ambassador, had imperiously tried to fire a State Department analyst who had challenged Bolton’s contention that Cuba posed a WMD threat to the United States. The pair of hearings exposed–to a limited degree–the failings of each nominee. But they also demonstrated that there is probably not enough opposition to derail either appointment.

At the intelligence committee gathering, Republicans praised Negroponte–and so did some Democrats. Senator Jay Rockefeller, the senior Democrat on the committee, cited Negroponte’s 40-year career as a diplomat and gushed, “This breeds a tough and disciplined man of self-esteem and a willingness to make decisions and tell truth to power….You’ve ably served the country.” Rockefeller did not mention the well-supported allegation that Negroponte, when he was ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, downplayed and smothered reports of human rights abuses conducted by the Honduran military, his partner in providing assistance to the contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. When Negroponte was ambassador to Honduras and ever since, he has denied that he covered up abuses or that the Honduran military engaged in systemic human rights violations. But a 1997 CIA inspectors general report and Honduran investigations have concluded the Honduran military committed serious human rights atrocities during Negroponte’s tenure. The CIA IG noted, “The Honduran military committed hundreds of human rights abuses since 1980, many of which were politically motivated and officially sanctioned.” It also noted that an infamous CIA-trained military outfit, Battalion 316, was linked to “death squad activities.” As ambassador, Negroponte toiled side by side General Gustavo Alvarez, the Honduran strongman who was the architect of Battalion 316.

This may be ancient history, but hours before Negroponte sat down before the intelligence committee, The Washington Post published an article based on hundreds of previously secret cables Negroponte sent to Washington when he was ambassador in Tegucigalpa. The records show that he regularly met with Alvarez. In one cable, Negroponte praised Alvarez’s “dedication to democracy.” (Alvarez was kicked out by his fellow militarists in 1984 for being too much of an authoritarian.) Negroponte’s support for the fellow who oversaw a battalion that engaged in kidnapping, torture and murder never wavered. And the Post reported, “There is little in the documents…to support [Negroponte’s] assertion that he used ‘quite diplomacy’ to persuade the Honduran authorities to investigate the most egregious violations, including the mysterious disappearance of dozens of government opponents.”

So these documents buttress the case that Negroponte tried to ignore or cover up human rights abuses committed by his ally in the contra war. Yet they received little attention at his confirmation hearing. Negroponte did not refer to the Honduras controversy during his opening remarks. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican, asserted that Negroponte had shown “compassion for the Honduran people.” (Hatch also quipped that since Negroponte had been confirmed by the Senate for seven previous positions, it “seems to me we don’t even need this hearing.”) Rockefeller, after hailing Negroponte, referred to the Post article, noting he and his aides had not had the “chance to review the documents.” He then asked a weak question about Negroponte’s use of back-channel communications when he was in Honduras. Negroponte said this all had been examined in 1989 when he was appointed to be US ambassador to Mexico. And Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the committee, mused aloud, “the timing of [the Post story}…is sort of interesting to me.”

Only Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, pushed Negroponte on the human rights issue. Wyden observed that if one looked at Negroponte’s reporting from Honduras, which said little, if anything, about human rights problems in Honduras, and the 1997 CIA IG report (and reports produced by investigations in Central America), “it’s almost as if you were an ambassador to a different country.” Negroponte replied that he did not think there was “such a large gap.” But he has said repeatedly in the past there was no extensive, government-sanctioned human-rights abuses in Honduras. The other sources concluded there was plenty. Pressed by Wyden, Negroponte said, “let me put Honduras into context….Honduras was a country surrounded by trouble….Political freedom was relatively greater in Honduras than in neighboring countries.” Wyden was not satisfied with this evasive answer. “I see a pattern of you ducking the facts,” he said, adding that he was not convinced that Negroponte was a fellow who could report difficult facts to the president.

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Don’t forget about DAVID CORN’s BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on John Kerry’s blog campaign against Bolton, Jeff Gannon/James Guckert’s false accusation against me, and the latest on the banned-in Arkansas controversy.

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Few other senators seemed troubled by Negroponte’s record or by a newspaper story that suggested he had lied about his activities in Honduras. No one asked him, “My God, Mr. Ambassador, you were supporting and praising a military thug who created a unit that was trained by our CIA and that the CIA later said was involved in death-squad-like activity. And there’s no record you ever raised a peep about this. How the hell did that come to be?” Of course, no one should expect the Republicans to broach such a politically inconvenient matter. But where were the Democrats?

They were busy chasing their tails–or Negroponte’s–on other topics. Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, asked Negroponte what he would do as director of national intelligence if the president or another policymaking misrepresented intelligence in public. (As a point of reference, Levin reminded Negroponte that Vice President Cheney publicly promoted the report that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer even though the CIA concluded the report was probably wrong.) Responding to Levin, Negroponte said, “You’re raising a hypothetical.” Levin pushed for more of an answer, and Negroponte said he would make sure “the correct intelligence is presented” to the president. That was another dodge. But Levin’s allotted eight minutes was about done. And when Wyden asked whether the United States should hand over terrorist suspects to countries that torture and abuse prisoners, Negroponte stated, “With regard to the question of rendering detainees, here’s what I’m prepared to commit to you: the law shall be obeyed.” Wyden requested more specificity, and Negroponte said, “I’m not sure I can add” to that answer.

None of this was surprising. But Negroponte did offer an unexpected reply when Levin asked if he had read the Senate intelligence committee’s 500-page report on the intelligence failures regarding WMDs in Iraq. “I read the executive summary,” he said. Actually, there was no executive summary. The committee did put out a compilation of conclusions from the report, which totaled 30 pages. Was it too much for Negroponte to read the entire report? Levin gave Negroponte no grief for this and asked if he had read the 618-page report on WMD intelligence failures recently released by a commission created by Bush. “A lot of it and the recommendations,” Negroponte answered. A lot of it? That sounded like a dodge, too. A Democratic senator should have thundered, “If you really want to do this job right, don’t you think you should have taken a few hours and read the entire reports on the most recent big screw-up of the intelligence establishment?”

But there wasn’t any thunder–and little rain fell on the Negroponte parade. The civilians tortured, disappeared and slain by Negroponte’s buddies in Honduras were absent and no one on the dais truly spoke for them.

In the hearing room of the Senate foreign relations committee, Democrats were being somewhat more fierce, taking their swings at Bolton, who was not present. He had testified before the committee the day before and had been roughed up, but hardly vanquished by the Democrats. Senator Barbara Boxer had scored points when she showed a three minute film of Bolton dumping on the United Nations during a 1994 panel discussion before the World Federalist Association. His disgust and disdain for the UN and international governance was palpable. (One disappointment that day was newcomer Senator Barak Obama, who placed no pointed questions before Bolton and who rambled when he should have been interrogating.) But on the second day of the Bolton confirmation hearings, the committee turned the spotlight on Carl Ford, a former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. For several hours, he told the same tale over and over: Bolton had sought revenge against an analyst who had dared to prevent Bolton from misstating–that is, overstating–the US intelligence community’s conclusions about Cuba and bioweapons.

The Democrats had spent much time on this episode the previous day. But Ford, a Republican who claimed to be as conservative as Bolton, came across as a sincere and convincing witness, who maintained that Bolton had tried to abuse his position and did not deserve any job in which he must work with people. Bolton, Ford said, “is the quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy.” Bolton’s attack on the analyst, Ford noted, had a chilling effect on other analysts–so much so that Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the department’s intelligence analysts and urged them not to be affected by the episode. “Clearly,” Ford testified, Bolton had engaged in “an attempt to pressure this analyst.” After Ford was finished, Senator Joe Biden, the top Democrat on the committee, accused Bolton of having “shaded the truth” when he had answered questions about this incident.

Bolton’s attempt to squash the analyst is one part of the case against his nomination. But watching Senator Lincoln Chafee, the one Republican who might vote against Bolton and, thus, prevent his nomination from going forward, I saw little indication that Chafee was much troubled by the incident, which Republicans were trying to depict as an isolated event. It could be that the Democrats on the committee devoted too much time to this one imbroglio. If they want to win over Chafee, they might have to pile on more. No Democrat has yet to focus on Bolton’s connection to a secret Taiwanese slush fund and the possibility that he broke federal law by failing to register as a foreign agent for Taiwan. (Click here.) And why didn’t Senator John Kerry, a member of the committee, ask Bolton why in the late 1980s he blocked Kerry’s investigation–and that of other members of Congress–into the connections between contras and drug runners? (Click here.)

It’s tough to block a presidential nomination–even an outrageous one…or two. The Democrats are making no fight on Negroponte. Rockefeller practically kissed his ring. It does appear that the Democrats would like to do battle over Bolton, but they don’t seem able–or willing–to generate the amount of intensity needed to make the Bolton vote a difficult one for Chafee. “So far they’re not making it hard enough for Chafee,” one Democratic Senate staffer bemoans.

It’s a truism: to the victor goes the spoils. Bush seems likely to get his way with both of these nominations. It’s a pity that the Democrats can’t–or won’t–do more to stop these appointments and that Bush’s spoils are so spoiled.

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