By July 24, 2009, the US government was totally clear about the basic facts of what took place in Honduras on June 28, 2009. The US embassy in Tegucigalpa sent a cable to Washington with the subject, "Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup," asserting that "there is no doubt" that the events of June 28 "constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup." The embassy listed arguments being made by supporters of the coup to claim its legality, and dismissed them thus: "None ... has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution." The Honduran military clearly had no legal authority to remove President Manuel Zelaya from office or from Honduras, the embassy said, and their action - the embassy described it as an "abduction" and "kidnapping" - was clearly unconstitutional.
It is inconceivable that any top US official responsible for US policy in Honduras was not familiar with the contents of the July 24 cable, which summarized the assessment of the US embassy in Honduras on key facts that were politically disputed by supporters of the coup regime. The cable was addressed to Tom Shannon, then assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs; Harold Koh, the State Department's legal adviser; and Dan Restrepo, senior director for western hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council. The cable was sent to the White House and to Secretary of State Clinton.
But despite the fact that the US government was crystal clear on what had transpired, the US did not immediately cut off all aid to Honduras except "democracy assistance," as required by US law.
Instead, a month after this cable was sent, the State Department, in its public pronouncements, pretended that the events of June 28 - in particular, "who did what to whom" and the constitutionality of these actions - were murky and needed further study by State Department lawyers, despite the fact that the State Department's top lawyer, Harold Koh, knew exactly "who did what to whom" and that these actions were unconstitutional at least one month earlier. The State Department, to justify its delay in carrying out US law, invented a legal distinction between a "coup" and a "military coup," claiming that the State Department's lawyers had to determine whether a "military coup" took place, because only that determination would meet the legal threshold for the aid cutoff.
Question: And so - sorry, just a follow-up. If this is a coup - the State Department considers this a coup, what's the next step? And I mean, there is a legal framework on the US laws dealing with countries that are under coup d'etat? I mean, what's holding you guys [back from taking] other measures according [to] the law?
Senior State Department Official: I think what you're referring to, Mr. Davila, is whether or not this is - has been determined to be a military coup. And you're correct that there are provisions in our law that have to be applied if it is determined that this is a military coup. And frankly, our lawyers are looking at that exact question. And when we get the answer to that, you are right, there will be things that - if it is determined that this was a military coup, there will be things that will kick in.
As you know, on the ground, there's a lot of discussion about who did what to whom and what things were constitutional or not, which is why our lawyers are really looking at the event as we understand them in order to come out with the accurate determination.
But the July 24 cable shows that this was nonsense. The phrase "military coup" occurs nowhere in the document, a remarkable omission in a cable from the embassy presenting its analysis of the June 28 events' constitutionality and legality one month after the fact, if that were a crucial distinction in assessing US policy. And indeed, initial press reports on the statements of top US officials in response to the coup made no such distinction, using the descriptions "coup" and "military coup" interchangeably.