Dupe or co-conspirator? That’s the choice facing President Reagan and dozens of top officials as they describe their roles in the Iran- contra scandal. No one is squirming more than Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. As investigators close in, Abrams is asking the public to believe he knew little about the Administration’s massive, secret and illegal effort to aid the contras --although he was the most prominent contra crusader.
Unlike the President, Abrams can’t act the convincing fool. He is far more plausible in the role of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North’s favorite extra-constitutional bureaucrat. To those who take Abrams’ avowals of intellectual integrity and democratic ideals at face value, this will seem harsh. To those who have followed Abrams’ career trajectory, it is not surprising. From young New York intellectual to budding Washington policy-maker to master of war in Central America, Abrams steadily put aside scruples in the search for power.
In Washington, Abrams’ indiscretions never hurt him much--until the Tower Report. Not that the commission was so tough. When Abrams insisted that he and other top officials who met regularly with North “did not engage in nor did we really know anything about this private aid network,” he was spared cross-examination. But the report did establish a long record of frolicking with North and that is damning enough.
The Tower Commission noted that after Abrams solicited a $10-million donation for the contras from the sultan of Brunei last July, he immediately consulted North. North gave Abrams the number of a Swiss bank account (probably the same account where Iranian arms-sale profits were deposited). Abrams also had access to the Central Intelligence Agency’s legitimate covert account for the contras. Abrams chose North’s account. He told the commission that North’s account “looked cleaner.” No doubt it did. If the money was intended to purchase arms, a purpose forbidden by Congress, involving the CIA would have been damaging.
The commission also discovered that Abrams approved, and North paid for, construction of a contra air field in Costa Rica in the summer of 1985. Abrams knew enough about this scheme to contend that the air strip “had never quite gotten into operation.” Then Costa Rican authorities shut it down in September, 1986, and North promptly asked Abrams to pressure for reconsideration. Abrams claims he wondered if all this activity was legal but then explained, “I think most of us were careful not to ask a lot of questions.”
Abrams’ nervous evasions are still treated respectfully in Washington, because he has a keen instinct for the culture of the capital and the way vanities and weaknesses shape the political agenda.
Abrams was the prototypical Washington intellectual. After Harvard and Harvard Law School, he worked for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), the intellectual-as-politician. In the late 1970s, he wrote for Commentary, the neo-conservative journal. When Reagan was elected in 1980, Abrams was awarded a minor State Department post. Within a year his aggressiveness won him a promotion to assistant secretary of state for human rights.
Abrams had a shrewd sense of how to use the post to influence the foreign-policy debate. The Reagan Administration’s original impulse had been to jettison the whole concept of human rights as a species of Carter-esque foolishness. He recognized that human rights was a term of resonance with the American public, one that could, with some wiggling, be put in the service of Reagan’s foreign policy.
He understood, too, that what the job lacked in actual power it made up for in media exposure. Human-rights violations are a media staple and the assistant secretary is responsible for identifying them worldwide. Among Washington journalists, Abrams soon won a reputation as a good interview.
Abrams became adept at casting himself as a fair-minded official, a tactic that put liberal critics on the defensive. In support of a particularly misleading 1982 Administration report on human rights in El Salvador, Abrams demanded, “Is it not possible for purposes of our debate . . . to leave aside a word like ‘dishonest?’ I really think we are going to get a lot further if we can say to each other that you are right on this and wrong on that.” This preemptive strategy enabled him to dominate the conventions of Washington debate--epitomized on talk shows with speakers pro and con. Knowing these shows need federal officials, Abrams regularly refused to appear with selected opponents of Administration policy. He usually got his way. In declining to appear, Abrams labeled his critics, including respected diplomats, as “vipers” beyond “the borders of responsible criticism.”
Abrams relied on the post-post-Watergate mentality. With the ascent of Reagan, this attitude reflected a feeling that the press should be less adversarial. Abrams took advantage.
In early 1985, for example, Abrams said on “Nightline” that two alleged massacres of civilians by the Salvadoran army had been investigated by the State Department and found to have never taken place. In fact, the State Department had not investigated either massacre and both were documented by reliable witnesses.
Abrams was promoted again in July, 1985, to assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, and Congress approved with scarcely a murmur. In his new position Abrams both publicly and privately helped North conduct a real war in Central America. Congress had cut off military aid to the contras and Abrams’ forceful polemics won him backing from conservatives. His support for reformist factions within the contras placated moderates on the Hill. His criticisms of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile defused liberal criticism.
The beginning of the end came on Oct. 5, 1986, when the Sandinistas shot down a contra supply plane carrying three Americans. Abrams was quick to claim the Administration was not involved. But the evidence was otherwise and Abrams’ assertions didn’t work. He retreated, saying he had been misinformed by unnamed higher officials.
Abrams’ style left him badly exposed. In early November, when was asked about overseas donations to the contras, he said he was “really confident that nobody in this building (the State Department) had any idea about any contribution coming from a foreign government.” Two days later, The Times revealed the sultan of Brunei’s donation.
Still, Abrams has faced far less public criticism than other officials. In late November he neglected to tell the Senate Intelligence Committee that he was the one who had solicited the sultan’s money. Under oath two weeks later, Abrams admitted that his earlier testimony had “left a misleading impression.” The Washington press buried the story.
It is as if Abrams’ 1982 admonition “to leave aside a word like ‘dishonest’ ” has been accepted by Congress and the press. But with the Tower Report, Abrams was obliged to say he would not resign--a sure sign that some officials are trying to force him to do just that.
As Abrams’ future hangs in the balance, we might reconsider reluctance to apply the word “dishonest.” Who is fooling whom?.