Jul 21, 2023

The Strange Rehabilitation of Elliott Abrams

Photograph Source: U.S. Department of State – Public Domain

Democratic presidents have a way of reaching out to undeserving Republicans to protect their domestic flanks on the right. Bill Clinton appointed James Woolsey to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1993 in order to gain standing among national security conservatives. Barack Obama retained Robert Gates as secretary of defense in 2009 in order to appease Pentagon professionals. And now President Joe Biden has named Elliott Abrams to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Why in the world would anyone want to resurrect Elliott Abrams?

The Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy is hardly a well-known bureaucracy, not even to hard-core policy wonks. But it was created in 1948 to ensure that policy experts would provide honest assessments to improve U.S. public diplomacy. One should never use “honest” and “Elliott Abrams” in the same sentence. And the same could be said for Jim Woolsey, who was a bizarre choice, and Bob Gates, who was known for politicizing intelligence for the Reagan administration throughout the 1980s. It is particularly risible that Abrams would be appointed to a position charged with maintaining integrity in U.S. public diplomacy.

Abrams’ involvement in Iran-Contra is the obvious starting point for any discussion of his qualifications. He was convicted in 1991 of two misdemeanor counts of unlawfully withholding information from Congress, but received a pardon from President George H.W. Bush. Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel who investigated Iran-Contra, prepared multiple felony counts against Abrams, who eventually admitted that he knew more than he acknowledged in congressional testimony. Several years later, he was publicly sanctioned by the District of Columbia Bar for giving false testimony to Congress about Iran-Contra.

As Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs in the 1980s, Abrams regularly covered up atrocities committed by U.S.-backed military forces in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. He did the same for the Contras in Nicaragua, and, as a result, was heavily criticized by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The Lawyers Committee, Americas Watch, and Helsinki Watch collaborated on a report in the mid-1980s that charged Abrams with “undermining the purpose of the human rights bureau in the State Department.”

A cursory look at Abrams’ track record in Central America reveals an archetype Cold War functionary from a sad era. As an assistant secretary of state, he promoted aid to the Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who came to power via a coup and was found guilty of a campaign of mass murder and torture of indigenous people. Abrams defended the human rights record of the El Salvador government, even in the wake of the El Mozote massacre of hundreds of civilians by the CIA-backed El Salvador military. He dismissed reports of the massacre as left-wing propaganda and denounced U.S. investigative reports as misleading. As late as 2019, Abrams was still defending the human rights record of the Reagan administration in Central America.

After the Boland Amendment shut down U.S. funding for the Contras’ efforts to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, Abrams flew to London and met secretly with the Bruneian defense minister to secure an illegal $10 million contribution for the Contras. Abrams was the point man in the cover-up of an incident in which a plane loaded with lethal supplies for the Contras was shot down in Nicaragua by the Sandinistas. The plane’s records linked national security staffer Oliver North to CIA’s William Casey, who directed the illegal operation. Casey’s fingerprints were all over the Iran-Contra scandal, but his sudden death in 1986 saved him from prosecution.

In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Abrams to the post of Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Human Rights at the National Security Council. In this position, Abrams reportedly had advance knowledge of, and “gave a nod to,” the coup attempt against Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. In 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wanted to name Abrams deputy secretary of state, but Trump blocked that move because of Abrams’ criticism of Trump during the 2016 campaign.

Bob Gates also lied to the Congress about his knowledge of these activities, which cost him possible confirmation as CIA director in January 1987 following the death of Bill Casey. Casey was North’s supervisor in the Iran-Contra operation and was personally responsible for convincing President Reagan to commit funds and intelligence support to Central America. When Gates was nominated a second time in 1991, I tried to convince the Senate intelligence committee to look harder at Gates’ role in Iran-Contra, but the CIA refused to release sensitive documents to the committee. Senator Warren Rudman (R/NH) attacked me for even raising the issue of Iran-Contra, accusing me of “McCarthyism.” Rudman also had been part of the cover-up effort.

When presidents such as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden nominate individuals who clearly lack integrity, it creates cynicism at the very institutions these individuals are asked to lead. This was certainly true at the CIA in the cases of Woolsey, Gates, and Gina Haspel, and it will be true at a less well-known institution such as the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

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