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Tale of Two Ambassadors

John O’Leary and John Negroponte. Two ex-U.S. ambassadors. The former passed away last week at age 58 of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The latter was passed upward this week by the U.S. Senate to become America’s new intelligence czar.

Both men worked for the same U.S. foreign service but couldn’t be more ­dissimilar.

O’Leary was the best of faces that America can and should put forward to the world. Negroponte is simply the worst.

I met both men up close and personal. In a 1982 briefing in his U.S. Embassy in Honduras, Negroponte was a stiff, diffident and defensive man surrounded by heavily armed guards. Before a roomful of ­inquisitive reporters, he dodged and dissembled over the scope and very existence of a Central American “Contra” network that the CIA was running and that, despite his denials, he was clearly helping to command.

Nearly two decades later, in the fall of 2000, on the sunny patio of his official residence in Santiago, I met then–U.S. Ambassador to Chile John O’Leary and was charmed not only by his relaxed warmth and openness but by everything he was doing. O’Leary made me proud to be an American. Appointed to his post by Bill Clinton in 1998, O’Leary was a former councilman and mayor of Portland, Maine. His record was distinguished by his leadership in building the Portland Museum of Art and a new Portland Public Library.

His cultural work was fueled in part by his wife, Colombian-born Patricia Cepeda, daughter of a prominent ’60s novelist and goddaughter of none other than Gabriel García Márquez.

What a pleasant shock for me it was, then, to stumble onto the O’Learys after my own experience in Chile. During the ferocious and bloody 1973 military coup, I and other American citizens living in Santiago had the door of the U.S. Embassy literally slammed in our faces when we asked for help. One of those fellow Americans, Charlie Horman, would then be kidnapped and murdered by the Chilean army.

But after former dictator Pinochet’s 1998 arrest, the newly arrived Ambassador O’Leary aggressively moved to open up the archives of secret U.S. Government papers relating to the dictatorship and its human-rights abuses. He then vigorously supported legal initiatives by Horman’s family and those of two other murdered Americans that would force the Chilean government to investigate and prosecute its own death squads of that period. No question that O’Leary was trying to right the many wrongs his own. government had encouraged and supported two and three decades before in Chile. For the three years he held his post, until the administration of George W. Bush took over and replaced him, Ambassador O’Leary was a key contact and ally for anyone looking into Chile’s dark history of human-rights atrocities — as well as any U.S. complicity in them. His wife, meanwhile, used her position to promote Chilean poetry, specifically the work of Pablo Neruda. I had to pinch myself several times to comprehend that these folks really were U.S. diplomats.

John Negroponte, meanwhile, is nothing of what O’Leary was. Indeed, he’s the direct opposite. A professional foreign-service apparatchik with intimate ties to the intelligence services, Negroponte (who most recently served as ambassador to Iraq) reigned over the Honduran embassy during the crucial years of 1981 to 1985. During that same four-year period, as the Reagan administration used Honduras as a staging ground for its covert war against Sandinista Nicaragua, annual U.S. military aid to that impoverished country skyrocketed from $4 million to more than $77 million. Human-rights abuses, including torture and disappearance, became routine and systematic.

While O’Leary interpreted his job as clarifying and exposing the role of death squads, Negroponte was much more interested in covering up for them. Negroponte oversaw the construction of the El Aguacate airfield where the CIA secretly trained Contra troops to be sent into Nicaragua. Longstanding accusations that the base was also used as a clandestine torture and murder camp were borne out in August 2001, when excavations at the base unearthed 185 corpses, including those of two Americans.

Back in 1982, an American nun, Laetitia Bordes, met with Negroponte to inquire about the fate of 30 Salvadoran church workers who had fled to Honduras the year before and then disappeared. As usual, Negroponte hunched his shoulders, claiming total ignorance, and quickly ushered Bordes out of the embassy. When Negroponte was nominated and confirmed as ambassador to the U.N. in 2001, Sister Bordes recounted his role in covering up the deaths of the church workers: “I had to wait 13 years to find out. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun in 1996, Jack Binns, Negroponte’s predecessor as U.S. ambassador in Honduras, told how a group of Salvadorans, among whom were the women we had been looking for, were captured on April 22, 1981, and savagely tortured by the DNI, the Honduran Secret Police, before being placed in helicopters of the Salvadoran military. After takeoff from the airport in Tegucigalpa, the victims were thrown out of the helicopters. Binns told the Baltimore Sun that the North American authorities were well aware of what had happened and that it was a grave violation of human rights.”

No matter, Negroponte by now has perfected his polished platitudes, claiming he knew nothing, saw nothing and is responsible for nothing, even though he stood at the epicenter of a now fully exposed covert network of subversion, torture and, yes, officially sanctioned terror. His entire sordid past was fully dredged up during his 2001 confirmation hearings, but the Senate merely rolled him over, gently patted his tummy and sent him off happily wagging his tail to his new U.N. post.



The same bizarre ritual unfolds before our eyes this week as the Senate moves to grant Negroponte extraordinary powers as the first-ever director of national intelligence. The DNI. Eerily, the same acronym used by the Honduran death squads. Once again this week, Negroponte’s clear record of covering up human-rights atrocities and lying about them to Congress has surfaced. And Congress doesn’t seem to care very much. “People change a lot in 20 years,” Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia said impassively in reference to Negroponte’s record.

Some do. Some don’t. Negroponte is among the latter.

The passing of John O’Leary, a great American, was a painful blow to his family and his many, many friends on two continents. The confirmation of John Negroponte is a burden and a sorrow that all Americans must now bear.

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