Integrity in the White House?

Elliott Abrams lied to Congress about the Iran-Contra scandal and acted as an enabler to those who perpetrated mass murder in El Salvador. So why is he Bush's point man for human rights?

July 9 2001

Of all the events of ex-President Bush's political career, his participation in the Iran-Contra affair proved to be the most ignominious. The discovery by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh Jr. that former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's diaries implicated Bush himself almost certainly contributed to his defeat in the 1992 election. When Bush subsequently pardoned Weinberger and his fellow Iran-Contra conspirator, Elliott Abrams, he was, in fact, pardoning himself, since Walsh appeared closing in on Bush's role at the time of the last-minute pardons. His son, now president, seems intent on erasing these events from public memory by appointing these same figures to high-profile jobs. In doing so, he is staining his own administration with the association of some of the most nefarious characters ever to participate in the making of U.S. foreign policy.

GEORGE W. BUSH has chosen Elliott Abrams, a man who has admitted to lying repeatedly to Congress and to the nation about his own role in the contra scandals, to be director of the National Security Council's office for democracy, human rights and international operations. When Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked about this Orwellian choice, he insisted that Abrams' crimes were "a matter of the past. " The same might be said of the activities of Timothy McVeigh or Slobodan Milosevic or just about anyone in human history. Everything that has ever happened is "a matter of the past." What Fleischer was really saying was "We know and we don't care." (Conveniently, the job requires no Senate confirmation.)

Before President Bush pardoned him, Abrams was forced to plead guilty to two counts of lying to Congress about the Reagan Administration's contra program. He was also expelled from the D.C. Bar Association. The charges were inspired by events that began on Oct. 5, 1986, when Nicaragua downed a small plane piloted by three Americans, hired by U.S. government agents to ferry weapons to the U.S.-backed anti-government "contras" - something that Congress had explicitly outlawed. The plane's two American pilots were killed in the crash, but its cargo kicker, Eugene Hasenfus, parachuted out to survival. Captured by the Sandinistas, he quickly implicated his employers. Abrams, who headed the Latin American bureau for the State Department, lied not only to Congress and to the nation about the government's role in the flights. Secretary of State George Shultz explained that the flight was the work of "private people" who "had no connection to the U.S. Government at all." He based this assertion, he later said, on assurances from Abrams. Abrams soon showed up on CNN and told its gullible reporters, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, that no one connected to the U.S. government had been associated with the flights because "that would be illegal. We are barred from doing that and we are not doing it. This was not in any sense a U.S. government operation. None." He then went on to blame his congressional opponents for the pilots' deaths.

Next, Abrams appeared before the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs and lied that that "the flight in which Mr. Hasenfus took part was a private initiative. It was not organized, directed, or financed by the U.S. Government." Abrams repeated his assurances to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee in ensuing days. Each time, however, Abrams gave the same sweeping denial, speaking for the "government as a whole." Each time, he lied. Oliver North's office had hired the men and Abrams knew it. Abrams also lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee during that same month about his role in raising millions for the contras from the Sultan of Brunei. Abrams himself had flown to London under an assumed name, set up the donation, which never actually arrived owing to a transcription mistake by Oliver North's secretary, Fawn Hall. When Abrams was directly questioned about this subject by Senator Bill Bradley at Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, he replied, "I don't think I know anything that wasn't … in the newspaper… We're not, you know, we're not in the fund-raising business. We don't engage, I mean the State Department's function in this has not been to raise money, other than to raise it from Congress." This lie also formed part of Abrams' eventual plea-bargain. It was also what led one committee member, Democratic Thomas Eagleton, to note for the record that Abrams' excuses for lying made him "want to puke."

These repeated acts of perfidy on the part of a man sworn to uphold the laws of the Constitution of the United States actually pale in comparison to Abrams' unconscionable role in apologizing for, and enabling the acts of Central America's most notorious mass murderer. When, in 1982, two reporters from competing news organizations - the New York times and the Washington Post - discovered evidence of a horrific massacre of women and children by U.S.-backed military forces in El Salvador, Abrams sought to discredit the reports and cast suspicions, instead, on the reporters, whom he implied, were tools of communist guerrillas. A decade later, in November 1991, following the establishment of a Salvadoran Truth Commission and full official investigation was the truth of the massacre uncovered. Following more than three days of digging through a gruesome mixture of decomposed bodies, bones, skulls and bullet cartridges, the number of deaths in El Mozote and its surrounding villages were put at 767, (aged between two days and 105). This figure proved to within the range reported by both reporters than nine years earlier. Three hundred fifty-eight victims were deemed to be infants and children under thirteen.

Abrams has insisted, "The [Reagan] Administration's record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement." Here is the achievement. According to figures assembled by the human rights office of the Catholic Archdiocese in San Salvador, in the period between 1980 to 1989, government-sponsored or government-assisted death squads killed 41,048 citizens. The equivalent figure for the left-wing guerillas, whom the US sought to defeat, was 776, including kidnappings Elliott Abrams is a liar and an apologist for mass murderers. That is not opinion, it is fact. While apologists ask us to forget his past, the citizens of those nations who suffered for his dishonesty and amorality cannot asked to be quite so generous. Moreover, Abrams' return stains the honor of all Americans. With his appointment to the National Security Council, Abrams joins Bush appointees John Negroponte and Otto Reich, both of whom played significant roles in these same shameful events, as part of a propaganda campaign to convince Americans that his father and Ronald Reagan did nothing wrong when they put the United Sates of America on the side of genocidal killers in Latin America and then lied about it.

One can only hope that enough people in Congress and the media remember the truth well enough to prevent them from succeeding.