Interview on Today With Pat Kenny, RTE Radio 1John D. Negroponte, Deputy Secretary of State
November 18, 2008
QUESTION: Today …..Deputy U.S. Secretary of State John Negroponte live in the studio…
QUESTION: ‘Change” is the catch cry of President Elect Barack Obama and in the main that need for change was a pointed criticism of the current incumbent of the White House George W. Bush and his administration. A key member of that administration is the man sitting opposite me now John Negroponte who has served in several influential positions during the Bush years as Ambassador to the United Nations in the build up to the invasion of Iraq, Ambassador to Iraq in 2004. He was then appointed to the new post of Director of National Intelligence and is currently Deputy Secretary of State. If his diplomatic career is to end amerced in the politics of Iraq, well it began in that other contentious American engagement, the Vietnam War. So, he has spanned much of the history of the late twentieth century and into the history of the 21st. John Negroponte, good morning and welcome to our program.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Good morning. Thank you.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about Vietnam – it wasn’t your first overseas location – was it?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: I started my career in…well, I entered the Foreign Service in 1960 and my first posting was to Hong Kong in 1961.
QUESTION: What was your mission that tiny, little independent colony close to China?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, then it was a British Crown Colony. Of course now it’s a part of China or it has reverted to China if you will. But, I was just a Vice Consul and a trainee and beginning my career and then I went to Vietnam from 1964 to 1968 where I was a political officer reporting on developments in the country.
QUESTION: Now you contrast what has been happening in Iraq for example with the way the war in Vietnam was fought. In Vietnam the conflict happened, if you like, out in the countryside but the cities were safe.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. It’s what I always like to say because I travelled around Vietnam for four years as an unarmed civilian and one could go to …. Well in the capital one was entirely safe and then one could travel to the provincial and district capitals and it was also quite safe. The war was in the countryside as you suggest. Iraq on the other hand is sort of a classic situation of urban terrorism, all the fighting has been in the cities and as you know Baghdad was one of the most insecure places of all. So, that was quite a big difference.
QUESTION: And we’re still hearing even today of the number of explosions per day – it’s gone down dramatically but it’s still there.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well it certainly has gone down significantly though and I think so much so that we should be in a position to be able to withdraw some troops in the foreseeable future.
QUESTION: Now contrast that engagement of the United States in Vietnam with what’s happening in Iraq because it’s quite clear that the Vietnam War was all about the Cold War.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Right. It’s…they really are very different situations. Vietnam was part of the Cold War as you suggest. The insurgency in South Vietnam was supported by the North Vietnamese who in turn were a client state of the Soviet Union. So, it was to some extent, what they called in those days a ‘proxy war’ between the United States and the Soviet Union through local surrogates, if you will, although it wasn’t that cynical.
QUESTION: …and there have been many ‘proxy wars’ during that phase of the Cold War.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: In that period, yes and we bent over backwards to try and avoid any direct confrontation between us and by and large succeeded as you know.
QUESTION: But in Vietnam that changed. I mean there was direct, well not…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: I don’t mean … there certainly wasn’t direct…
QUESTION: …not between you and the Russians.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Exactly.
QUESTION: Between American forces and the enemy…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: That’s for sure.
QUESTION: Because if you remember, as you do better than I do, John F. Kennedy sending in--and bear in mind these were Republicans. Lyndon Baines Johnson and John F. Kennedy, they were Democrats who were sending in troops and advisors and Kennedy sent in advisors.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: When I got to Vietnam in May of 1964 there were only advisors. There were 20,000 American advisors and it was only during the time I was there, in the beginning of 1965, that the situation got so dire that North Vietnamese supported forces in the South were starting to take over so much of the countryside that we decided to send our own combat forces directly in support of the South Vietnamese forces.
QUESTION: At what point did you say to yourself, this is an unwinnable war?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well you know, this is an interesting debate and I think we are still going to be debating it on into the future. I mean the historians are going to have to study this war very carefully because in a sense the people say we lost to guerilla war. But, that’s not really true because you may recall the Vietcong themselves which were the Southern guerillas of the Communist Party – they were defeated and in the end, you may remember it was the North Vietnamese regular army tanks that drove into Saigon in the Spring of 1975. So during the time I was there, 64-68, I never had the feeling that we might lose but what was certainly evident was how costly and how much more engagement was required of us in order to maintain the situation.
QUESTION: You can take a broader historical view of this and say well yes the North Vietnamese may have won the war but now they are a capitalist economy…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: It’s quite a story really. I hadn’t gone back and I was deeply engaged, after serving in Vietnam, in the peace process in Paris and with Henry Kissinger. I spent several years working on that and I was at the signing of the Peace Agreement, at the initialing of the Peace Agreement, in January 1973. And, I didn’t go back to Vietnam until just this year for the first time and I went to Hanoi to which I had never been and then I went back Saigon which is now of course called Ho Chi Minh City and I was really astounded by the progress that that country has made, the capitalism, the business ethic, the development, the growth – it’s nothing short of spectacular.
QUESTION: Did you recognize any of the places, the old haunts, that you…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Yes, I did recognize some of the hold haunts, particularly the old colonial quarter, the French sector, if you will, of town is still very recognizable but there is also some just incredible new development including high rise buildings and so forth.
QUESTION: Now Oliver Stone, the celebrated movie director, has said that America is divided between those who went to Vietnam and those who did not. Do you understand what he means about something in the, I suppose, in the psyche of those who are probably in their 50s, 60s now that still divides them?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well to some extent although I have never been a particular fan of Oliver Stone’s renditions…
QUESTION: I can imagine…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: …of history and having lived through at least one of them, I don’t find them particularly accurate. But, certainly in our own diplomatic service, there are those of us who, in the older days, had served in Vietnam and those who had not and there is definitely an experience - a generational experience, if you will, of people who have been through the same thing together, just like those who fought in WWII. Vietnam was on a smaller scale but there were a lot of us who went to Vietnam, both military and civilian, and that was a bonding experience between us, if you will.
QUESTION: Part of the difficulty in going into any country whether in an advisory capacity which becomes a military capacity is unless you have a plan as to how to get out, it’s going to be a long term commitment financially and in terms of personnel. I mean if we look at Korea, there is still a commitment of forces there. We’re looking at a long term commitment to Iraq. Heaven knows what’s going to happen Afghanistan.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: It’s a terrific question because very often we look at these situations we say, “Oh, isn’t it terrible what’s happening in country X, we must go help fix it.” And, usually the first plan says, “Well, you know with this limited amount of resources and this limited amount of time, surely we can set everything right.” And, I remember some very optimistic predictions when I was in Vietnam about how quickly we could get this thing over with. And, almost invariably, when you get into these complicated third world situations where the situations are difficult to understand, their complexities, their intricacies and so forth, one ends up being engaged for a much longer period of time than one initially expects. I think that if there is a commonality between say Vietnam on the one hand and in Iraq and Afghanistan on the other, I would say that would be one of them because yes we are going to be, we already have been involved in Iraq longer than we thought we would be and I think…
QUESTION: Longer than World War II…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Right, if you want to put it that way. Although yesterday was quite--or the day before--was quite a positive development when we signed this Status of Forces Agreement which foreshadows a time when we might be leaving Iraq. But, Afghanistan, as you mentioned, is still going to require significant international engagement both by us and the rest of the international community for the foreseeable future.
QUESTION: Now one period of your career you have been subject to a quite a lot of scrutiny and that is when you were U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, 81to 85, and during this time military aid to Honduras grew from 4 million to 77.4 million a year. Doesn’t sound a lot in terms of the billions we talk about today…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Right
QUESTION: …but if you discount it back to money values at the time it was one heck of a lot of money. And, there was all question as to whether or not there were human rights abuses going on in Honduras on your watch.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: mm-uh…Well I did have four years, almost four years in Honduras. When people make those kinds of comments of course they, they…what I reply is, you’ve got to look at the context of the times. Honduras was a country surrounded by trouble. It was surrounded by El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Each of those countries had their own civil war going on at the time. Honduras was the most democratic of those countries. When I arrived there they had democratic elections for a President. They’ve had elections regularly for the 28 years that have followed. There were allegations of human rights violations, but as someone who was there I can attest that we did a lot of good work in supporting both the democratic process in that country and in the support of the promotion of human rights. There was a labor movement. The discrepancies of wealth in that country were not as significant as they were in the neighboring countries. And, I always answer the critics by saying, well if the human rights violations are so bad, why are there refugees from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua all trying to get into Honduras. So frankly, I think sometimes the truth gets a little bit turned on its head by the critics and I think it was really….
QUESTION: But there were cables from you which were published in the Washington Post and the New York Times which suggested a sort of admiring view of a man who was implicated in human rights abuse.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well yes and he got summarily ousted by his colleagues during about the middle of--you are talking about General Alvarez who was the commander of the armed forces--during the time…about the middle of my tour there, by his own colleagues. I didn’t have any particular close relationship with him and worked very happily and satisfactorily with his successors and I think he got his…
QUESTION: But, is it your philosophy that you can make an omelet without breaking some eggs; that maybe things that are not the American way happen – I can think of Guantanamo Bay as a current example, what happened in Abu Ghraib is another fairly recent example.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: No, I don’t. I think that we have to. Our diplomacy has to reflect our values. We’re a democratic country. We stand for democracy. We stand for human rights. We’re an example to the rest of the world and our foreign policy has to be informed by that kind of spirit. So, there may be times where we have to recognize that the ideal cannot be immediately achieved but that should be a constant goal of our foreign policy
QUESTION: Guantanamo Bay, for example, where people do not have due process certainly not under American law as an American citizen might have it in Texas or Milwaukee…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Right, and this goes to the issue of what do you do with terrorists? Everybody who was taken to Guantanamo Bay had been involved in being trained in terrorist training camps in Afghanistan or some such. And, there was reason to be concerned about their behavior particularly in the context of the 9/11 attacks. The population of Guantanamo was some 600 or so at one point but has been reduced to about 250 and we’re certainly not seeking to add to the numbers down there. The goal of President Bush has been to close Guantanamo when possible.
QUESTION: This is now the policy of Barrack Obama.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: And it is the policy of Barack Obama. And I think …. our responsibility and what we are trying to do is make the problem as manageable for him as possible. The easier it is for him to achieve that objective the better and the way we’re going to be able to do that is by trying to reduce the number, repatriating as many of these people to their countries of origin as possible. We’ve got the number down to 250. We hope to get it lower before we turn over.
QUESTION: It’s the principle of the thing though. If I was to ask you to put yourself in the shoes of someone who perhaps is innocent, perhaps is complicit but not getting the kind of due process which you as an American would get, no matter how heinous your crime was, in the United States, you’d get due process, wouldn’t you?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Right.
QUESTION: And, that is not open to the people in Guantanamo Bay.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, although there certainly has been process and more of it. There have been challenges in the courts. There have been rulings. I think, if you will, whereas at the beginning there was sort of no body of legislative history or judicial history governing these situations, there have been some appeals. There have been court cases as to what we can and can’t do. So, I think that the limitations have been better defined as time has passed.
Here’s the issue that we’ve got which is what happens in a modern democratic society when you have somebody in your possession who you know belongs to a proscribed group like Al Qaeda which seeks to overthrow or attack our countries by these means. What tools are available to you? Can you detain them and for how long and under what circumstances? And I think that is a subject that our societies are going to continue to debate.
QUESTION: You think that the nature of modern terrorism is such that new weapons which perhaps don’t tie in as well with traditional judicial practice have to be introduced.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Not necessarily – maybe and in fact, maybe the judicial procedures can be adequate but then they have to be reinforced by very good intelligence which is sort of the other side of the coin. The better your intelligence, the better you are at intercepting these activities when they occur and perhaps the easier it is to defend our existing system and values.
QUESTION: 9/11 was seen as the culmination of a failure of intelligence. Now, you worked to improve the level of communication between the various intelligence agencies. How good is it today?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well the issue with 9/11, at least in part, was information sharing and the horizontal movement of intelligence across agencies rather than up through stove pipes and that was one of the reasons for intelligence reform. That was one of the reasons for the creation of the position that I then occupied as Director of National Intelligence. And, my most important priority was to promote the integration of information across all these 17 different intelligence agencies.
QUESTION: But you know that term “information is power” and people don’t like dissipating their power by sharing their information. Also, the wider the net the more leaky they might be.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: They like to protect their sources and methods. It’s more that than it is power, frankly. It’s sources and methods. So you have to be sure these things are done on a basis of confidence – confidentiality and trust. But we did improve it and here’s the real symbol of that improvement is that we created what is called the National Counterterrorism Center. It has all the main agencies represented FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, State Department and so forth and 26 different databases with information about terrorism that pour into that center on a constant basis. It’s all filtered and sorted out and shared instantaneously with the agencies. They have three video teleconferences a day just to make sure that everybody is up to speed on what’s going on.
QUESTION: It doesn’t mean that a 9/11 couldn’t happen again.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: It doesn’t mean that a 9/11 couldn’t happen but it’s a significant improvement over what it was.
QUESTION: You were Ambassador to the United Nations. We can recall, I can recall vividly watching Colin Powell’s exposition at the United Nations
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: I was sitting right behind him. I was the fellow on the left.
QUESTION: Yes, that was you. It wasn’t, to my eyes anyway, convincing. I kept on saying you know, “Colin Powell – is that all you got?” It didn’t look convincing to me. Were you convinced or was this just some sort or just an excuse to go in and…..
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: In fairness to poor Colin Powell and to everybody else, I mean this was the best information available at the time. It’s what we believed was the case. I was with General Powell a couple of nights before when they were rehearsing and planning for this and going over this very question. Can I really rely on this information and Mr. Tennant was saying yes you can.
QUESTION: This came from Curve Ball, isn’t that so?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, one of the things came from Curve Ball.
QUESTION: Who turned out to be a very dodgy character with a drink problem.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Right and that’s one of the reforms that we talked about – about validation of sources and so forth.
QUESTION: We know that moves are afoot now to try and sort out Iraq, to get out of Iraq, leave the Iraqis to do their own business. There may be a residual force of Americans within barracks for quite a number of years but in terms of visibility on the ground that will probably cease in a few years. Afghanistan, going back to the time of the British in the 19th century – a terrible place, a place from which it is very difficult to extract oneself with any dignity. The Soviets tried and failed. Admittedly the Americans were arming Osama Bin Laden and his Mujahadeen colleagues at the time but you get the impression that this can only end in tears. This is country that is virtually ungovernable. The warlords will have their way and their day.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: It’s a tough place. I think probably the single most important thing that can be done is to help the Afghans build their own national institutions, particularly their army and their police force. Where right now the national army is at a ceiling of 80,000 but they have declared an intent to raise it to 134,000 and we believe it’s important to support that. And that combined with supporting this government and its political process, I think it’s a manageable situation. The main difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is Iraq, of course, has resources of its own. It’s got oil. It can pay for a lot of things. Afghanistan is going to need help from the international community for the foreseeable future. I’d say for a number of years looking forward. But I think with good help from the international community, they can bring that situation under control, especially, and here’s the ‘especially part, the if’ – if that federally administered tribal area in Pakistan that’s right on the border with Afghanistan is also brought under control because there has been a long on infiltration of Taliban and extremist elements across from Pakistan into Afghanistan that has been stoking up that fight. And, if that can be brought under control, I think that would be a significant improvement to the situation.
QUESTION: One of the stories – could be a myth, might not be fact but one of the stories is that 9/11 was a revenge for something that President Clinton did which was to send in cruise missiles into towns in the Pakistan border area which killed a school full of children and so on. I don’t whether that is true, could be true or whatever. We’ve have the prospect now of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. What is your reaction?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well I mean, this is - now, we have to wait and see. Obviously one of the first things…
QUESTION: You know her, you’ve watched her – you know her husband
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: I was an appointee of President Clinton’s. I was his Ambassador in the Philippines at that particular time and I have the highest regard for the Clintons. I think we’re going to have to wait and see though. The President is now, he has been President elect for several weeks now and obviously one of the first things he’s got has to set is mind to is picking his cabinet. There's a lot of speculation around who will be Secretary of State and we're all watching that with a great deal of interest but certainly … I'm sure he'll pick a well qualified candidate.
QUESTION: Finally you're heading to Northern Ireland. You were inducted into the Philosophical Society at Trinity College last night. Ireland is at peace by and large. There are still small pockets of activity going on. Are there lessons do you think that Ireland can bring to the rest of the world via people like you?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, I mean I think Ireland is a good news story and, of course, as a country which as a fundamental friendship with Ireland, we're very pleased about that. I was having a meeting yesterday with your Foreign Minister and he was talking about how there's a unit being established in the Foreign Office for precisely that purpose of sharing sort of conflict resolution experience with other countries. So I do think that Irish both in the North and in the South have useful experiences to share with others. I look forward to my trip up there. There are still some issues having to do with devolution of the police forces and hopefully that will be brought to some kind of closure fairly soon.
QUESTION: Okay, some of the calls coming in--Michael Mac Cathan, former Irish Times correspondent in Central America, – very angry listening to the interview he says Mr. Negroponte has a very shady past especially with regard to events in Honduras.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well you know that's just utter nonsense. (Laughter)
QUESTION: Well, you know, you've got a going over as they say.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: That's fine but let me put it this way. The Senate has confirmed me nine times for Presidential appointments. I would have thought if there was some reason to deny me confirmation, the Senate would have found that in the course of reviewing nine different appointments over the past three decades.
QUESTION: Alright. Another one says: It was the USA that sparked and exacerbated a lot of the conflict in Central America during your time in Honduras.
Another one says, from Paula, the USA is such a strong democracy that 5,000 lawyers felt it necessary to be at the Florida count in 2008.
This is airbrushing of history, the Americans will have to leave if the Iraqi's biggest export was broccoli, they would not be over there. Because it's oil, many eminent people have suggested that's really what it's all about, to have a friendly power in the Middle East that could supply massive quantities of oil to the United Stated. It didn't turn out quite that way.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: I got that question last night, of course, at the Philosophical Society. Was it oil or was it as the behest of Israel that we went into Iraq? I said, 'No, it was because first of all we did think they had weapons of mass destruction and also Iraq had been living under a terrible dictatorship. The reasons were political not economic.’
QUESTION: Really was it about George W. just finishing the job that his father did not do in Gulf War One.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, look, let's see how history judges this. Things are getting better in Iraq now. It will be very interesting to look back ten, twenty, thirty years from now. I think a lot of it depends on how this democratic experiment evolves here, but it seems to be – so far so good. And there's an incipient democracy there after having had none at all for a number of decades. It's a hopeful story.
QUESTION: John Negroponte. Thank you very much for joining us in our studio this morning.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Thank you for having me.
Released on November 19, 2008