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Negroponte Under Close Scrutiny; Service as Ambassador Examined

By T. Christian Miller

and Maggie Farley

In a 37-year foreign-service career, John D. Negroponte has glided through sticky episodes with such aplomb that U.S. diplomats call him ``the Teflon Ambassador.'' But there is one thing he can't seem to shake: his tenure in Honduras in the 1980s.

Now that Negroponte is the Bush administration's nominee for the prominent post of ambassador to the United Nations, questions from that era are again being raised. And this time, with new material and declassified documents available for his confirmation hearings, some hard questions from the past may be harder to answer.

Back then, Negroponte helped oversee one of the most sensitive operations of the Cold War, a mission to contain the spread of communism in Central America. Under his ambassadorship, Honduras became a base for a covert military operation to unseat the leftist Nicaraguan government next door.

In the process, he had to protect the reputation of Honduras as a democratic ally, even as its government used violent means to silence its political opponents. That dangerous balancing act led the embassy, under Negroponte's leadership, to conceal the truth from an already skittish U.S. Congress that could have easily withdrawn its financial support.

Negroponte failed to report human rights violations in the early 1980s in Honduras, including one U.S.-backed operation that resulted in the execution of nine prisoners and the disappearance of an American priest.

Negroponte quashed an official embassy report on the executions for fear it would alarm Congress, according to a CIA inquiry. And embassy staffers of the time say they were told to downplay reports of a CIA-backed death squad called Battalion 316 that has been implicated in the torture and disappearance of nearly 200 political opponents.