On Friday, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by Al Jazeera English’s weeknight news program “Inside Story Americas,” along with Latin America scholars Gerardo Munck of the University of Southern California and Diana Villiers Negroponte of the Brookings Institution, on the ramifications of the U.S. hunt for whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Latin America has reacted in strong opposition to Washington’s pursuit of Snowden. Precipitating Latin America’s outrage was the denial of airspace to Bolivia’s President Evo Morales on July 2 by multiple European Union countries: his flight was diverted to Vienna, Austria, due to the incorrect suspicion that the plane, destined for La Paz, was also carrying Snowden aboard. It’s highly likely that the false intelligence that the countries acted upon originated from the U.S. government. In any case, the European countries’ actions clearly violated international law.
Two days after the incident, members of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) released a statement strongly condemning the episode as an “illegal,” “hostile act,” and a reminder of the existence of “neocolonial practices” in the 21st century. Bolivia filed an official complaint with the United Nations and planned another to its Human Rights Commission. Since the program’s broadcast, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have all publicly invited Snowden to seek asylum in their countries.
My co-panelists offered divergent perspectives on such developments. Gerardo Munck, professor of international relations and author of four books including Measuring Democracy, expressed dismay over the “unprecedented” actions to divert Morales’s plane. He considered UNASUR and Bolivia’s responses important steps in addressing the “fundamental issue” of “dignity and sovereignty of nations.”
Negroponte, on the other hand, downplayed the importance of UNASUR’s declaration: “This provides a real rallying point for them. But will this last?” she asked. “Does this got long-term significance? I doubt it.” She also expressed a broadly shared sense of bewilderment regarding Snowden’s attempts at asylum: “I cannot understand why Mr. Snowden would want to end up in Ecuador,” she said, “which has over the last 18 months changed its laws to restrict freedom of speech.”
If Negroponte’s views appear to reflect the reigning consensus within Washington’s foreign policy establishment, that’s because she is one of its higher-ranking representatives. She arrived at her position as a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution after having served as a senior scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federal institution created and funded by Congress. She also serves as board member of the largely government-financed organization Freedom House. Her Brookings biography cites her experience of having practiced law at the blue-chip firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, and of having “played an active role with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Mexico during the negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement.”
Her position on the U.S. hunt for Snowden, as one might imagine, was therefore less than iconoclastic. But her criticisms of an effectively stateless 30-year-old languishing in an international transit zone in Moscow—besieged by relentless efforts of the world’s most powerful country to subvert his inalienable legal right to asylum—can only occur within a framework of double standards.
Negroponte sought to highlight Snowden’s poor decision-making by referring to a criminal libel suit launched by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa against the Guayaquil-based El Universo newspaper. Ecuadorian courts ruled in favor of imposing fines of $40 million and three-year prison terms for three directors and the editorial page editor. (As I noted in a previous post, Correa had indicated his willingness to drop the suit if El Universo offered an unconditional apology, and when the men’s sentences were upheld, Correa pardoned them of all convictions.)
But Negroponte declined to mention that criminal libel laws prevail in most of Europe as well, and that the behavior of El Universo would be unthinkable in a U.S. or European context. After all, the newspaper published an article in 2010 by editor Emilio Palacio alleging that the democratically elected president was in fact a dictator who had committed crimes against humanity by ordering the military to fire on a hospital filled with Ecuadorian civilians—without offering a shred of evidence for any of his claims.
Negroponte, like the much of the Beltway’s intellectual elite, publicly fretted over the chilling effects of Ecuador’s media laws, but has never criticized Palacio for having obtained asylum from the U.S. government. That the Obama administration has “legally quarantined” potential sources for journalists “so there’s no way then to get the story” is irrelevant to Washington’s foreign policy establishment, despite the warnings of The New Yorker’s investigative journalist Jane Mayer. “Chilling isn’t quite strong enough” to describe U.S. government actions, Mayer added. “It’s more like freezing the whole process [of reporting] into a standstill.”
Her comments are not hyperbolical—in May, the government formally charged a Fox News reporter with being a “conspirator” for communicating with a government source about unclassified intelligence on North Korea. It also “obtained records of home, office and cellphone calls over two months, for 20 phone lines for up to 100 [Associated Press] journalists”—all without judicial approval, according to Richard Winfield, former outside counsel to the AP. The record of U.S. attacks on journalism abroad is far more savage, as Jim Naureckas of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting detailed recently, but is even further relegated from mainstream discussion. (He notes for example that the United States detained Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj in Guantánamo for six years without trial, and attempted to extract information from him about his outlet's newsgathering operations.)
In our Al Jazeera exchange on Snowden’s attempts at asylum in Ecuador, I chose to focus instead on the absurdity of criticizing the decisions of individuals whose options are drastically constrained by outside coercion. In Snowden’s case, this could not be any clearer: as Amnesty International noted, “The U.S. authorities’ relentless campaign to hunt down and block whistleblower Edward Snowden’s attempts to seek asylum is deplorable and amounts to a gross violation of his human rights.”
I argued that it would be similarly unfair to disparage Nicaraguan and Honduran refugees in the 1980s who pursued asylum in the United States despite its role in organizing, training, and financing the agents of terrorism that caused them to flee their homes in the first place. Negroponte disputed this, classifying the case of Snowden and that of Central American refugees as “apples and oranges.”
“I lived in Honduras during that time, and there was a vibrant free press,” she added. Yes, there were hundreds of Hondurans who were disappeared, Negroponte conceded, but “we’re talking about the press and the freedom of the press, because that’s what concerns to Snowden.”
Diana Negroponte did not offer further information about her life in Honduras in the 1980s on “Inside Story Americas.” But as the wife of John Negroponte, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to that country, she was privileged with a unique view into the dynamics of the region at that time. Two Washington Post headlines from 2005, when John Negroponte was facing Senate confirmation hearings, encapsulate the issues clearly: “[John] Negroponte's Time In Honduras at Issue: Focus Renewed on Intelligence Pick's Knowledge of Death Squads in 1980s,” reads one. The other is similarly damning: “Papers Illustrate [John] Negroponte's Contra Role: Newly Released Documents Show Intelligence Nominee Was Active in U.S. Effort.”
Together they provide a blistering indictment of the U.S. ambassador’s behavior. Whereas a CIA working group report stated that “the Honduran military committed most of the hundreds of human rights abuses reported in Honduras” from 1980-84, and that death squads with military connections committed “killings, kidnapping and torture,” John Negroponte denied their existence, even as he met weekly with General Alvarez Martinez, who presided over all security-related affairs for the country.
John Negroponte also participated in U.S. aggression against Nicaragua, which was condemned by the World Court. He supported, for example, “an April 1983 request by [General] Alvarez for more weapons for the contra rebels, and he predicted that the size of the contra force ‘could be doubled in next five months if we provided necessary weapons.’” His zeal even disgusted his colleagues: “I have my doubts about a dinner at the residence for a man who is in the business of overthrowing a neighboring government," remarked Anthony Quainton, the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, after “Negroponte played host to the political leader of the contra rebels, Adolfo Calero.”
Diana Negroponte’s husband, who went on to serve as George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations and to Iraq under U.S. occupation, is also connected to Snowden through the National Security Agency contractor’s first leak. Evidence of the NSA’s data collection on millions of Verizon customers, according to Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, “is an exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years.” This means the illegal surveillance program was first approved in 2006 by Bush’s Director of National Intelligence—John Negroponte.
As Diana Negroponte’s commentary on Al Jazeera illustrates, within the world of Beltway think tanks, one standard exists for the actions of the United States and the elites who craft and execute its policies; a separate standard applies for everyone else. In other words, they’re apples and oranges.
Keane Bhatt is an activist in Washington, D.C. He has worked in the United States and Latin America on a variety of campaigns related to community development and social justice. His analyses and opinions have appeared in a range of outlets, including NPR, The Nation, The St. Petersburg Times, and CNN En Español. He is the author of the NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which critically analyzes the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere. Connect with his blog on Twitter: @KeaneBhatt