WASHINGTON -- The State Department yesterday defended a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras, John D. Negroponte, saying he shouldn't be blamed for reports sent to Congress during the early 1980s that painted a false picture of that country's human rights record.
"These are not individual acts by American government officials, they are acts by the United States government," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said yesterday.
A four-part investigative series that The Sun concluded Sunday described how the Central Intelligence Agency helped train and equip a Honduran military battalion that tortured and executed civilians during a crackdown on suspected subversives during the early 1980s.
The series included an article based on interviews with three Hondurans who were members of the battalion and admitted torture and murder. Another part of the series was based on a Honduran woman's description of her torture for 78 days by the battalion, and a visit to her by a CIA officer between her torture sessions.
The series reported, however, that CIA trainers neither taught nor encouraged torture or executions.
At the time, the United States was using the small Central American nation as a base of operations for its efforts to destabilize the Sandinista regime in neighboring Nicaragua.
The final article in the series reported that the Reagan administration, in an effort to maintain congressional support for military aid to Honduras, submitted misleading -- and at times false -- human rights reports to Congress in that the documents omitted abundant evidence of Honduran abuses.
Mr. Negroponte, now the U.S. envoy to the Philippines, was ambassador to Honduras at the time. As ambassador, he was responsible for the information sent by the embassy in Tegucigalpa to Washington for inclusion in the State Department's human rights report, Mr. Burns acknowledged.
But Mr. Burns said that "by the time a report is fully drafted, fully cleared and printed in our annual human rights report, these reports have a thousand fathers, and lots and lots of people have gone through these reports."
In the strongly anti-Communist climate of the early Reagan administration, Mr. Burns said, "There was enormous scrutiny of these reports by a number of high-level officials in Washington, D.C."
He said the department has "the greatest confidence" in Mr. Negroponte, who is a career diplomat.
Asked about Rick Chidester, a former political officer in the embassy who told The Sun he was ordered to drop information about human rights abuses from his draft reports, Mr. Burns said, "I can't speak to that."
Allegations of abuse reported
"These are events that took place in 1982," he added. "I can tell you that allegations that we brought of torture, of disappearances . . . did in fact appear in the 1982 human rights report. I think you must also consider the fact that there is now in the mid-1990s much more verifiable information available than there was in the early 1980s when the report was done."
Mr. Negroponte refused to be interviewed by The Sun, but late last week, he issued a statement saying "At no time during my tenure in Honduras did the embassy condone or conceal human rights violations."
White House spokesman Michael McCurry avoided a direct response when asked yesterday whether Mr. Negroponte should be questioned about his role in Honduras.
"The Clinton administration, rather than dwelling on these events that are now well over a decade old, has been looking forward and we've been placing our policy related to Honduras and human rights in the future and have been pressing our own concerns," Mr. McCurry said.
No U.S. investigation
Neither the State Department nor the CIA is investigating America's role in Honduras during the 1980s, although the State Department has pledged to cooperate with Honduran government probes.
The department also declines to say whether it would make Mr. Negroponte or other officials available for questioning by Honduran authorities. Mark Krischik, the embassy spokesman in Tegucigalpa, said last week that, because diplomats enjoy immunity from being witnesses in judicial proceedings, the department would be justified legally in denying Honduran authorities access to them.
Mr. Burns said there was no reason to "put into question the activities or the judgment of some of our senior people who were on the ground in Central America and that particular country in the early 1980s." He said The Sun's articles don't appear to contain any information that hasn't previously come to light.
An official of the human rights group Amnesty International criticized the administration yesterday for what she called an apathetic response to The Sun's disclosures.
"The Clinton administration has so far failed to seize the opportunity to restore some of its citizens' lost confidence in government by demonstrating a clear commitment to break with the past," Gay Gardner, Amnesty's Honduras coordinator, said in a written statement.
Amnesty International and other human-rights groups last week demanded that the federal Intelligence Oversight Board investigate the CIA's relationship with repressive military establishments throughout the hemisphere.