Iran-Contra, the Sequel?

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

The recent announcement that John Negroponte was the president’s nominee to be the nation’s first national intelligence director (NID) was treated as major news, but the current ambassador to Iraq’s past record was visited upon by reporters with only the most cursory examination. Although the duties of the NID have yet to be fully fleshed out, the one thing we do know is that Negroponte will oversee a combustible mix of 15 agencies (including the CIA). What power the position actually entails (or even where his office is) is yet to be discovered.

The Negroponte nomination comes equipped with a resume containing a few bullet points that ought to give anyone, not just Democrats, considerable pause. Before he was the American ambassador to the U.N. from 2001 to 2004 and top official in Iraq for much of the past year, he served as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. It was there that Negroponte – if a wealth of well-corroborated and documented evidence is to be believed – covered up a pattern of gross human rights abuses by the country’s CIA-trained forces. Under Negroponte's direction, military aid to Honduras rose dramatically, from less than $4 million to $77.4 million. To keep the aid flowing, the American embassy in Tegucigalpa needed to reassure Congress annually that Honduras was not a gross human rights violator. This he did. Negroponte’s 1983 report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for instance, argued that the "Honduran government neither condones nor knowingly permits killings of a political or nonpolitical nature" and that there were "no political prisoners in Honduras."

The snow job worked, and under Negroponte’s watch "U.S. military aid [for Honduras] jumped from $3.9 million in 1980 to $77.4 million by 1984. But in truth, as Sarah Wildman reported in The New Republic, the Honduran army, especially the U.S.-trained Battalion 316, engaged in widespread human rights abuses, including kidnapping, torture and assassination. Negroponte worked closely with the perpetrators and covered up their crimes, according to Ambassador Jack Binns, his predecessor." Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has noted that neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times mentioned Negroponte’s connection to Battalion 316 in the months between Negroponte’s being nominated as U.N. ambassador and his confirmation in 2001.

Likewise, the story of Battalion 316 was conspicuously absent from press coverage of Negroponte’s nomination last week, with only a few stories casting a sufficiently critical eye on Negroponte’s past. Despite the investigative firepower of major news outlets such as CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post, it was up to the AP to file the only story to fully take into account the outrage expressed across Central America over Negroponte’s nomination.

Mainstream media coverage also largely ignored Negroponte’s role in helping to cover up a horrific massacre conducted by U.S.-supported death squads in El Salvador in the town of El Mozote in the province of Morazan. The massacre was reported in The New York Times and The Washington Post on the eve of Congressional hearings on funding for the Salvadoran military, whose elite forces had carried out the massacre. Top Reagan officials, including most particularly Elliott Abrams, sought to discredit the reports with McCarthyite accusations, and were supported by their allies in the conservative punditocracy—which was then just a fraction of its current size and scope. They succeeded and the funding went through, in part due to the cooperation of then-Ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte. The gruesome details of the massacre were later excavated by a Salvadoran truth commission, and reported on by the New Yorker’s Mark Danner, with the dead numbering over 500 civilians. (Of the 143 human remains discovered in the sacristy of the Mozote church, 136 were judged to be children or adolescents, of whom the average age was six.)

During the controversy, State Department officials received a confidential cable from

Negroponte reporting on a visit by a U.S. embassy official and a House Foreign Affairs Committee staff member to a refugee camp, where many of the survivors of Morazan had fled. The cable described the refugees’ account of "a military sweep in Morazan December 7 to 17 which they claim resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties and physical destruction, leading to their exodus." Negroponte himself noted that the "names of villages cited coincide with New York Times article of January 28 same subject." He noted that the refugees’ "decision to flee at this time when in the past they had remained during the sweeps … lends credibility to reportedly greater magnitude and intensity of … military operations in Northern Morazan." The State Department, however, decided to keep this information secret. By the time of the second certification report—which appeared six months later, in July 1982—the massacre reports were ancient history. Enders now bragged of "many fewer allegations of massacres during this reporting than last," a trend he attributed to the fact that "many earlier reports proved to be fabricated or exaggerated."

In reporting his nomination, however, much of the media played the old "critics say" game when bringing up the charges against him. Media Matters, as usual, has cataloged these half truths. Some journalists, like Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, made short work of Negroponte’s past, lauding him for avoiding prison. Speaking on FOX News, Krauthammer said that "he didn't end up in jail, which is a pretty good attribute for him. A lot of others practically did."

Leaving his Honduran experience aside, one cannot ignore – unless you’re the mainstream media – the fact that Negroponte was point man at the U.N. during the time the Bush administration peddled its falsified WMD evidence in 2002 and 2003.

But it isn’t just Negroponte who has received the kid gloves treatment from the press.

On the day of the president’s 2005 State of the Union address, the administration quietly announced the appointment of Iran-Contra fellow traveler and admitted perjurer Elliott Abrams to the post of deputy national security adviser. His duties, according to the announcement, will revolve around "global democracy strategy." Abrams, as assistant secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, pled guilty in 1991 to two counts of withholding evidence from Congress over his role in the Iran-Contra affair. But the Bush family has undertaken his rehabilitation, with Bush 41 officially pardoning his crimes, and his son appointing him to a series of top jobs in the National Security Council. He is now, I kid you not, director of its office for democracy, human rights and international operations – a post free of any Senate approval process.

As Michael Crowley recently wrote in Slate, "Surely the White House grasps the ironies here: A man accused of subverting the Constitution is leading its charge for democratic government; a reputed defender of dictators is working to depose them." (After being repeatedly misled by Abrams during a Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing, Thomas Eagleton (D-MO) noted for the record that Abrams’s testimony made him "want to puke."

If the White House didn’t grasp the irony, neither did most of the media. What’s the line about those who forget the past?

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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