Negroponte: Unfit to Lead

Negroponte: Unfit to Lead

“You have to ask, Who would want this job?” So said a former senior CIA official referring to the new post of director of national intelligence, to which George W.


“You have to ask, Who would want this job?” So said a former senior CIA official referring to the new post of director of national intelligence, to which George W. Bush has appointed John Negroponte, the current US Ambassador in Iraq. The job–to oversee the sprawling collection of fifteen intelligence agencies known in Washington as the “intelligence community”–was created by Congress last year when it passed an intelligence reorganization bill in belated response to the 9/11 attacks. The wisdom of the legislation was debatable, but the DNI position was compromised from the start, partly because the Pentagon, which claims 80 percent of the overall intelligence budget of $40 billion-plus, did not fancy the creation of an intelligence czar who might tell the military what to do. The DNI slot ended up with plenty of responsibility–e.g., insuring that the spies do a smart and effective job–but limited authority. The DNI, without any budget power, will have to depend upon his sway at the White House to implement any serious changes. This is not the ideal relationship. A DNI should be somewhat independent of the White House–and its biases and assumptions. For example, it seems that CIA chief George Tenet tried too hard to please the Bush White House regarding those nonexistent WMDs in Iraq. He should have challenged and fact-checked Bush’s pronouncements. Instead, he provided faulty ammunition (which Bush then misused). A DNI who can function in Washington’s bureaucratic wars only if the White House is providing ground fire might be less likely to confront his patron. No wonder several prominent players turned down this mission-impossible job. But not Negroponte.

Negroponte has been a loyal Bush foot soldier, serving as ambassador to the United Nations (and pitchman for the phony Iraq-has-WMDs argument) before heading off to Baghdad, but he is unsuited for this position. The ultimate goal of the DNI is to guarantee that the President and other policy-makers receive unvarnished and valuable information. Yet there is evidence that Negroponte, when he was Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, suppressed intelligence that was politically inconvenient. At the time, the Reagan Administration was relying on the Honduran government and military in its not-too-secret war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. After Congress ended aid to the anti-Sandinista contras, the Reagan Administration essentially bribed the Honduran government into providing further assistance to the contras in what was arguably an illegal deal. (For helping the contras, the Hondurans received economic aid that had been withheld and military supplies.) Throughout this episode, Negroponte acted as the boss of the contra operations in Honduras, and he participated in the covert quid pro quo arrangement. According to a 1997 CIA inspector general’s report, he also smothered reports on human rights abuses committed by the Honduran military.

Since the early 1980s, Negroponte has denied that his partners in Honduras perpetuated deliberate and extensive human rights abuses. Yet this CIA report concluded, “The Honduran military committed hundreds of human rights abuses since 1980, many of which were politically motivated and officially sanctioned.” According to the report, the US-backed Honduran army was linked to “death squad activities.” The report quoted an official in Negroponte’s embassy saying that “the embassy country team in Honduras wanted reports on subjects such as [human rights abuses] to be benign” because such reporting “would reflect negatively on Honduras and not be beneficial in carrying out US policy.” The heavily redacted CIA report said that in one case the embassy discouraged reporting on a particular human rights matter because of Negroponte’s concern that it would “create human rights problems for Honduras.” A groundbreaking 1995 Baltimore Sun series noted, “A comparison of the annual human rights reports prepared while Negroponte was ambassador with the facts as they were then known shows Congress was deliberately misled.” The newspaper reported, “Time and again…Negroponte was confronted with evidence that a Honduran army intelligence unit, trained by the CIA, was stalking, kidnapping, torturing and killing suspected subversives.” None of this made it into State Department reports.

During Negroponte’s confirmation hearings for the UN posting in 2001, he testified that there had been no government-backed human rights abuses and no death squad activity in Honduras. He was either out of touch with reality or covering up. Neither explanation befits a fellow up for DNI. (The Senate quickly confirmed Negroponte after the 9/11 attacks.) And when the Senate considered him for the Baghdad job last year, there was no debate over his days as our man in Honduras. Given the task he is being handed now, his time in Honduras–and his two decades of denial–warrant close scrutiny. (The Democrats should call for a full declassification of the 1997 CIA report.)

The “intelligence community”–which failed on 9/11 and screwed up the WMD question–needs solid and independent-minded leaders committed to truth-finding. In Honduras, Negroponte was a secret-war proconsul who turned a blind eye to torture, rigged the reporting and participated in an end run around Congress. Regardless of his willingness to accept the post, Negroponte is the wrong man for this poorly designed job.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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