For decades, he had answered calls just like this one.
A diplomat needed, harsh terrain, intrigue on the ground. And off he'd go, big suitcases all packed, debonair and nervy all at once.
This time when the White House called, the mission was one that could cap a long and provocative career: Baghdad.
Then there he was, John Negroponte, cameras flashing, posing with the president, the new ambassador nominee -- since confirmed -- to Iraq.
With the stumbles in that country striking many as maddening -- and the praise that followed the Negroponte announcement -- it sounded as if President Bush had found a man to settle things, to wade into the bloodshed and dust and anger and fix what had gone so horribly wrong.
He had the kind of pedigree that might have brightened the writerly muscle of Somerset Maugham: ambassador to the United Nations, to the Philippines, to Mexico. Adviser to the White House under national security adviser Colin Powell. And he had served in that crucible for a generation of young men: Vietnam. He was known to be comfortable in the shadows, at ease with secrets. He had served in Honduras. Plenty of secrets there.
Praise poured forth from both sides of the political divide.
"He is far more qualified than [Paul] Bremer," says Richard Holbrooke, speaking of the Bush point man in Iraq. Holbrooke, a former ambassador to the U.N. himself, first met Negroponte in the early 1960s and later brought him to Washington during the Carter administration. "John is subtle, Bremer is black and white. John understands ambiguity."
Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger thought so much of the young Negroponte that he chose him to be a member of his staff at the Paris peace talks to end the war in Vietnam. "He brings great steadiness and solidity," Kissinger says of Negroponte's new challenge. "He has patience and subtlety to bring it off."
There are, however, other sentiments and memories about the career of John Dimitri Negroponte. And they are assuredly of a rawer nature. Old stories about a Honduran death squad. Tales about mischief with military generals and rogue CIA operatives.
When Negroponte strode into a Senate room for his confirmation hearings two months ago, he was a jaunty figure, tall, swinging an umbrella with such insouciance that it seemed to have turned into a walking stick. He'd seen this scene before, of course, necks yanking toward his arrival, the long mahogany table before him, the microphone, the glass of water, the senators seen chest-high, all of it lit up by the TV lights.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee -- his hair ice cream white with the lights pouring down on him -- referred to the posting to Iraq as "one of the most consequential ambassadorships in American history." Negroponte, in blue pinstripes, nodded. He read from his statement. "With our help, the people of Iraq can overcome the trauma of Saddam's brutality and the intimidation of violent extremists seeking to derail the progress they have made so far."
Back and forth it went, words of praise and encouragement. Then a bearded man popped up, jack-in-the-box-like, and began shouting at the seated senators: "Ask him about his involvement with a death squad in Honduras that he supported!" Heads swiveled, shoulders twisted. "What about death squad 316, Mr. Negroponte?" The man was Andres Thomas Conteris, a human rights activist who spent five years in Honduras. Security officers escorted him out. Negroponte didn't flinch during the outburst, didn't even turn around to eyeball his critic. Those who've known him for years -- family and friends, fellow ambassadors -- have long attested to his cool demeanor.
"There are two streams of analysis about John Negroponte," says Larry Birns, who, as director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a human rights group, has tried, unsuccessfully, to derail Negroponte's career over the years. "One is that he is a distinguished career diplomatic officer. The other is that he is a rogue, a jackanape, a bounder of the worst type."
'John Was a Winner. . . . You Just Felt That'
He was born in London on July 21, 1939. His father, Dimitri John Negroponte, was a shipping magnate. His mother, Catherine, "was one of the most beautiful women in all of Greece, blond, blue-eyed," says Anthony Lykiardopoulos, a cousin of Negroponte's who grew up with him in Manhattan. (The shipping business brought the Negropontes to America following World War II. )
Dimitri Negroponte was proud to be in America. He taught his children about life, leisure, the need to make a commitment to something. "His dad taught him how to eat, how to ski, how to be a good athlete," Lykiardopoulos says of John. "His dad would have made a sensational diplomat."
Having money meant the elder Negroponte had choices for his children. John Negroponte was sent to grade school at the tony Buckley School in Manhattan. His classmates there called him "Ponte." His intelligence impressed them mightily. "At that age," recalls Robert Harrison, a classmate at Buckley, "you can see the intelligence of someone. It hasn't got the varnish of pretension yet."
After Buckley, Negroponte went off -- like Harrison -- to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. There he joined the debating society, he played varsity soccer, he golfed, he swam, he took a prize in French. Even amid the keen young minds of Exeter, Negroponte stood out. He seemed to walk ahead of most everyone, invading the open air around him.
"Our family was very international," says Nick Negroponte, John's younger brother. "At the dinner table when people spoke, it was rare they would keep their sentence in one language. Our father spoke at least five languages fluently. John has his genes."
One of the things that made his cousin stand out, says Lykiardopoulos, was a sense of discretion, a feeling that one must handle problems privately. He recalls an outing to the beach when they were teens, and John suffered a case of sunstroke. Lykiardopoulos started making phone calls, inquiring about medical assistance. Negroponte told his cousin all he needed was sleep, but Lykiardopoulos wasn't so sure. He called Negroponte's mother. "He said, 'You've called my mother!' He was angered that someone thought he might not be able to take care of himself."
Exeter boys often had wide choices in their selection of college. Many would simply step, in their buck shoes, onto the campus of one of the Ivies. Robert Harrison chose Harvard. Negroponte chose Yale. He had shared with friends that he was interested in law. Beneath his picture in the Exeter yearbook, he contemplated -- "certainly in jest," says Harrison -- another possibility:
A Knack for Foreign Cultures
Yale was a quiet place in the mid- and late '50s. The Korean conflict had ended. But Cold War passions hummed like bumblebees in the air overhead.
"Communism was a part of our lexicon," says Denis Turko, a Negroponte roommate at Yale. "Khrushchev had spoken at the U.N. and said that the Russians were going to bury everyone. We talked about that -- and Sputnik and U2."
There were, of course, less severe pursuits. Turko remembers Negroponte -- "who was a really good poker player" -- coming into their dorm suite late one night. He had been out playing poker, had lost, needed to borrow some money. "I told him I had just gotten my tax refund check back," remembers Turko. "Well, he convinced me to sign it over to him. He went back out to play poker. The next day I said, 'How much did we win?' He said, 'We didn't, we lost.' John had to call his father to bail him out. I don't think he was too happy about that."
"He was genial and affable," recalls Jonathan Blake, another Negroponte roommate at Yale. "He was also more mature than most kids in college." Negroponte grew a coterie of friends and acquaintances and Blake attributed it to his background: "He was smooth and polished and had come from this continental background." Negroponte had a propensity for reaching out to other students, especially those from foreign cultures, engaging them in conversation, asking questions. "It was an outstanding trait."
Negroponte took the exams for the Foreign Service and, though he was told he had passed, went off to Harvard Law School -- a simple hop and skip in his intellectual world. "I only went there because of the uncertainty of when I'd be offered a job in the Foreign Service," Negroponte recalls in a telephone interview from his office in New York. While at Harvard, he received the notice to report from the State Department. He was beyond giddy. "I went running over to the dean's office to say I'd like to withdraw from law school. I think I was even able to get a little kind of refund back."
Fast Start, Then Exile
His first posting was Hong Kong.
The young foreign service officers there at that time were mainly China watchers, meaning they talked to refugees. China was still closed and America was interested in gleaning information any way it could. Stanley Karnow, a young journalist then working in Hong Kong, remembers Negroponte's arrival. "He came in there, a kind of classy guy. Very amiable. You know, hanging around. He quickly became one of the cast of characters."
Negroponte's superiors were impressed with him. By 1964 he had a new posting. Not many Americans knew much about the place: Saigon.
If you were young, with untested legs, and imagined a long foreign service career, and had read enormously about communism, then South Vietnam was a place to be in the early 1960s, a place where a young diplomat might come face to face with intrigue, adventure, chaos. Negroponte whizzed through foreign language training. In time, "he could sing in Vietnamese," recalls his brother Nick. "He could tell jokes in Vietnamese. I thought that was stunning."
The U.S. Embassy was an incubator for testing policy. "You had a whole slew of these young guys in Vietnam at the embassy," recalls Karnow, who would come to write a classic chronicle of Vietnam. "Richard Holbrooke, Tony Lake and Negroponte. It was a kind of crucible. They were a very keen group of guys."
"He was less flashy than some of the others," Kissinger recalls of the young Negroponte. "Very reliable."
A political liaison officer, Negroponte read everything he could. He went off into the countryside to meet and talk with the Vietnamese. He became the resident American expert on the Vietnamese constitutional assembly.
Young foreign service officers received plenty of dinner invitations in Vietnam. One evening, Sir Peter Wilkinson, the British ambassador, was hosting an affair for his visiting niece, Diana. "He gives a dinner for me on the last night of my visit in 1968," she recalls. "He had invited eligible bachelors, one of whom was John Negroponte, who explained the constitutional assembly throughout the whole meal! I was terrified -- and bored. Terrified that he might ask me something I didn't know the answer to, and bored because I was just an 18-year-old."
Still, she found herself impressed with the "power" she envisioned was represented by the young foreign service officer.
"The next day he's on the same Pan Am flight I am, going to Paris," recalls Diana. "When I got out 19 hours later in Paris, I was heads over heels in love with this guy. And he had not talked one minute about the constitutional assembly."
By the early 1970s, Negroponte was at the Paris peace talks, shuttling between the U.S. and North Vietnamese delegations. The North Vietnamese had won a concession that concerned Negroponte: They would be able to keep some troops in the South after the withdrawal. He expressed his misgivings to Kissinger, challenging him, which many considered unwise. "I think that was the decisive event in his life," says Holbrooke of Negroponte's stance. "He felt Kissinger had abandoned the people of South Vietnam. He stood up to Kissinger."
Negroponte's brother, Nick, came to visit him in Paris during the peace talks. He was amazed at Negroponte's demeanor: "I was fascinated. The French students were having their uprisings. But you can't rattle John. John does not rattle."
Many in the diplomatic corps wondered if Negroponte would pay for his challenge to Kissinger. "It was a very gutsy thing to do," says Karnow. "Negroponte was smart in saying that once the North Vietnamese troops stay in South Vietnam, it'd be like a death warrant for the South Vietnamese."
"It was a career-defining experience," Negroponte says of Vietnam. "Vietnam exposed me to a lot of things. The press, high-level government officials." He goes on: "I also look back on that experience with some sadness and regret with what happened to many brave Americans and Vietnamese people who lost their lives -- or were misplaced. These situations have ramifications over a long period of time. Lo and behold, years later, there were boat people fleeing Vietnam."
Negroponte's next posting was in Quito, Ecuador. "Kissinger exiled him," believes Holbrooke. Kissinger disputes that sentiment. "There has never been a personal rift between me and John," he says.
After Ecuador, Negroponte went to Thessaloniki, Greece. These were not the movements of a diplomat for whom high-level officials have high hopes. He remained in Greece for two years. "John," says Holbrooke, "speaks Greek fluidly, but still, it was exile."
Hardly anyone heard Negroponte complain, however. "John is a very resilient person," says Holbrooke, "and a skilled diplomat."
It was Holbrooke who, as assistant secretary of state under President Carter in 1980, pulled Negroponte back onto the visible diplomatic stage, appointing him deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs.
Within a year, Negroponte had another promotion, his first full ambassadorship. He was off to become our man in Honduras.
Scandal in Honduras
In the early 1980s, Central America was rife with rebellion, gun-running, and a perception that communism was on the move. The specter of Soviet-influenced muscle spreading from Nicaragua, where a Soviet-supported government was in place, to Guatemala, El Salvador and elsewhere alarmed many. American military aid to the region ballooned.
Nicaragua's Sandinista government rattled the Reagan administration to the point that it backed an anti-government guerrilla movement known as the contras against the wishes of Congress. CIA operatives and military officials began using neighboring Honduras as a base for the contras right around the time the new U.S. ambassador was taking up his post. The fighting in Nicaragua alone accounted for 50,000 casualties. And while Honduras wasn't as big a battleground as some other parts of the region, it hardly escaped bloodletting: Nearly 200 would end up missing -- dissidents and human rights activists, church leaders and critics of the Honduran military.
The Iran-contra scandal -- the selling of arms to Iran in exchange for money to circumvent Congress and keep funding the contra wars -- was an embarrassing moment for the Reagan administration. There were indictments, convictions, jail terms -- as well as presidential pardons for some.
Negroponte would become one of those incendiary figures -- like Oliver North or Elliot Abrams, both linked to the scandal -- whose name human rights campaigners summon when recalling the deeds done in Central America during the 1980s.
Rumors about human rights abuses centered on Battalion 316, a death squad headed by one Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, chief of the national police force, that eliminated contra opponents. Some American politicians traveled to Honduras to investigate, including Tom Harkin, then a Democratic congressman from Iowa, who thought that Alvarez and Negroponte were too cozy for the ambassador not to know what had been going on with the death squads.
Negroponte has long denied knowledge of the battalion and its activities. His critics have long been bewildered by this conundrum: If Negroponte did know of the abuses and the death squads, why didn't he howl to the highest quarters? If he didn't know, what measure is that of an accomplished diplomat?
"If you look at the cables," says Harkin, now a senator, "Negroponte never protested the human rights abuses. When I visited Negroponte and asked him about Battalion 316, he said all that was communist propaganda."
"His mission," Larry Birns says, "was to convert Honduras into an unsinkable aircraft carrier to supply and maintain the contra cause against the Sandinistas."
In 1983, Alvarez received a Legion of Merit from the Reagan administration "for encouraging the success of democratic processes in Honduras." Harkin was livid: "That's just bizarre. What was Negroponte doing? He had to know what was going on. He's there with a CIA station chief. Many people disappeared and were killed and he turned a blind eye to it."
A Matter of 'Perspective'
After Honduras, Negroponte would become ambassador to Mexico and the Philippines. John Bennett served under Negroponte in Mexico. "He is a superb diplomat," says Bennett, now retired. "He knows how things work. He's very rigorous and tough intellectually. He's an extraordinary manager of institutions. When he arrived in Mexico City it was a very disjointed embassy with all the agencies going in their very own direction. He really brought them all together, going in the same direction."
Bennett realizes that Honduras, even with the passage of time, will remain a powerful element of Negroponte's legacy. "Those were not pleasant civil wars," he says of Latin America in the 1980s. "He was tagged with not being thoughtful about human rights. As diplomats, we go from administration to administration -- and you carry out the president's orders. I'm sure he did what he was told."
Negroponte believes his critics are ill-informed.
"First, about Honduras, the people who are critical, well, 99 percent of them don't even know me personally. Or maybe 95 percent. Secondly, I was there when we had a helping hand in transition from military government to a civilian government. It happened on my watch. And they've had elected governments ever since. I look back on Honduras with pride. I have five adopted Honduran children. I can't think of any better example of my love for that country."
He continues: "It was certainly my job to be concerned with the Honduran march toward democracy. We contributed positively toward that. I actually went through my record carefully before the 2001 hearings [on his nomination to the U.N. post], going back through my telegrams and schedules. I was surprised myself with the extent I had raised questions about human rights. I called to their attention [military officials] reports of serious abuses. My conscience is absolutely clear."
Negroponte wonders if his critics have put Honduras in "perspective": "Refugees were fleeing to Honduras. Why? Because it was a free and more stable place."
"Look," Negroponte says, "any missing person is a human tragedy. For that person and their family. I've even met some of the people. My heart goes out to them. Yet, El Salvador would have more people missing in one week than occurred during the entire conflict in Honduras. They talk about 117 people missing in Honduras? [Human rights activists say the number is closer to 200.] During the height of problems in El Salvador, that happened in one week. Fifty thousand were killed in that country. It's a question of keeping things in perspective."
With the exception of four years working for McGraw-Hill, Negroponte's entire working life has been in diplomacy. "I spent 31/2 years of a 40-year career in Honduras. It's only a small part of my career."
As a matter of fact, when Negroponte was in Honduras, he was a fairly beloved figure. It had much to do with a Honduran baby crying by the road. And with the dazzling woman from an evening in Vietnam who had become his wife.
'One-Woman Peace Corps'
Diana's father was Sir Charles Villiers, a merchant banker who would rise to become chairman of British Steel. Villiers had a powerful social conscience. In his youth, he went to work for Tubby Clayton, a cleric who tended to the poor. The activism spilled over to his daughter. "He represented social justice for the unemployed man and their families," says Diana Negroponte. "That, along with my mother's work as a social worker in the East End of London, were elements I grew up with."
She and Negroponte met again in 1976, years after their original meeting. "I met his mother at a wedding in London," Diana says. "I asked her, 'How is your son doing?' She groans. John was 36 and unmarried. Mother got to work and mother pulled it off. Six months later we were married."
Wherever they went, he'd do the political thing, and she'd hustle off to the barrios, the slums, the tough places. "She was a one-woman Peace Corps," says Stanley Karnow. "I was down in Honduras once. She was out in the refugee camps and she came back to the capital all covered with chiggers. She's absolutely formidable."
Parents went missing during the contra war. Babies appeared on the sides of roads, in shacks, alone.
A Honduran nun told Diana Negroponte about a baby girl that had been found abandoned. The baby had been covered with ants, with worms. The nun asked Diana if she knew someone who might want to adopt the child. She did: her and her husband, Ambassador Negroponte. They adopted the child, and were hardly finished. Another child was found, and they adopted that one as well. Over the years, five Honduran children would be adopted by the Negropontes -- Marina, now 22, Alejandra, now 20, John, now 16, George, now 14, and Sophia, now 11.
The revelations about Battalion 316 had yet to surface and many Hondurans were wildly taken with the Negropontes. "She did more for diplomatic relations by adopting those children than anyone in the world," says her brother-in-law, Nick. "John and Diana turned the American residence into a nursery. The special forces troops there became sort of like nannies."
When President Bush nominated Negroponte to become ambassador to the United Nations in 2001, the revelations about what had happened in Honduras were more fully known and opponents tried to derail the nomination. But Negroponte wasn't sailing alone. "As he became a favorite target of the left," says Birns, "he became a revered figure to the right."
The confirmation hearings got underway in September 2001. They came to an abrupt halt as planes barreled into the World Trade Center. When they resumed, it was against the backdrop of a rattled nation, struck by terror, with a pronounced urgency to get a U.N. ambassador in place.
Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) allowed as to how he did not wish to relive the Honduran situation, but had no choice inasmuch as the committee, in earlier hearings with Negroponte, had been "flying blind." But now, with new information, that was no longer the case. "Based upon the committee's review of State Department and CIA documents, it would seem that Ambassador Negroponte knew far more about government-perpetuated human rights abuses than he chose to share with the committee in 1989 or in embassy contributions at the time to annual State Department Human Rights reports. . . .
"Finally, I would say a word of caution to other career foreign service officers, particularly junior officers, that they not consider this nominee's lack of candor before the committee as a model to be emulated," Dodd said.
Still, Negroponte won confirmation -- as well as Dodd's vote.
Negroponte has received good reviews on his U.N. posting, from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, among others. When President Bush announced Negroponte's nomination to Iraq, the hot lights came on once again.
Harkin's recitations from the Senate floor took on a familiar ring: the death squads, evasion, the lack of candor. Harkin summoned again the name of the Rev. James Carney, an American priest presumed killed by the death squads. Carney's body has never been found. "I am not suggesting Ambassador Negroponte was responsible for Father Carney's disappearance," Harkin said. "What I am saying, however, is Ambassador Negroponte was in very close contact, perhaps almost on a daily basis, with Gen. Gustavo Alvarez, the commander in chief of the Honduran military, and the architect of Battalion 316. For Ambassador Negroponte in 1982 to say it is simply untrue that death squads have made appearances in Honduras -- this is going to be our ambassador to Iraq at this time?"
"I should have raised my voice louder than I did," Harkin says about opposing Negroponte's nominations. "I've been amazed at how this individual -- from what he did in Central America, where under his watch hundreds of people disappeared -- has moved up. He falsified reports and ignored what was happening."
Harkin adds: "I feel a certain sense that I let people down because I haven't kept on this guy."
The Negroponte loyalists have heard it all before.
"I know the circumstances," says Diana Negroponte, who teaches history at Fordham University in New York. "The dilemma is: Should you be explicit in your condemnation of human rights? John had a different tactic. His tactic was to go quietly to the president and the chief of the armed forces and say 'Stop it.' He did not go public. I know that he protested because he'd come back and tell me about the meetings."
Nick Negroponte has watched his brother's rise in the foreign service with awe. He attributes a good part of his brother's success to "professional silence."
To Diana Negroponte, her husband's critics emerge at intervals as if from behind a velvet curtain. "It's an old battle," Diana Negroponte says. "I want to say to these people: 'Haven't you moved on?' To keep fighting all of that is old hat."
"I visited him in Honduras," recalls Richard Holbrooke. "He denies the charges. I do not know what happened there."
"I have no idea what happened in Honduras," says Anthony Lake, who served as national security adviser under President Clinton. "I have no reason to believe John hasn't been honorable." He lauds the Negroponte appointment. "I can't think of a better appointment to Baghdad. I have opposed this [administration's] policy, but every American has a stake in its success and I can't think of a better person than John to be representing the U.S. in Baghdad."
"It's going to be difficult," Negroponte says of Iraq. "There are many challenges to face. I'd like to say two things: I am very committed to the proposition that a free and strong Iraq can be realized. I see no reason why Iraq shouldn't be able to realize its aspirations of peace with itself and its neighbors."
'I Wanted to Call Him a Liar'
Zenaida Velasquez Rodriguez is on the phone from San Jose. She is a political refugee, having fled Honduras in 1988. Her brother went missing and is presumed dead. In less than three minutes of conversation, her voice has already begun to crack.
Manfredo Velasquez was a schoolteacher and a protester. He was in the marketplace of Tegucigalpa, the capital, when eyewitnesses saw men hustle him into an automobile. The date was Sept. 12, 1981. "As of today, we don't even have a vague idea of where his remains could be," his sister says. "It's like having an open wound that is bleeding all the time."
Manfredo had a wife and three kids.
As more and more people began to go missing, Zenaida Velasquez helped found the Committee of Families of the Disappeared. "It was a state of terror," she says of Honduras during the contra wars. "We were very afraid. We were paying for ads in the newspapers to talk about the disappearances."
Manfredo's son, Hector, 7 years old at the time, taped one of the ads directed to Gen. Alvarez and the army. The boy's words: "General, my father is Manfredo. He was detained by members of your Army. Please release him. I want to have Christmas with my father."
Zenaida pleaded with the U.S. Embassy for a meeting to inquire about her brother, to ask for an investigation. Ambassador Negroponte agreed to see her.
"Finally, he received us, some family members and families of others who had disappeared as well. He denied completely any knowledge of what was going on. But we knew every day he was meeting with the chief of the army, Alvarez. Honduras is a very small country."
She catches herself, then goes on: "You know what? He doesn't even look you in the eye. We were crying and desperate. I wanted to call him a liar. It was hard."
Next Stop, Baghdad
At the end of his confirmation hearing in April, Negroponte rose and shook hands all around. A couple of his daughters were in attendance, along with his wife. Family friends and well-wishers hovered. Then Negroponte turned, swinging his umbrella in one hand and, in the other, his lovely brown leather briefcase. Heading for the door, bound for Iraq. He glided right by Andres Thomas Conteris, back inside the room now, glowering in silence, the bearded man who had yelled, who had come to represent the ghosts, the dead, the missing.