Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams was warned by members of Congress on Wednesday that he seems to have been selected as one of the Reagan Administration's "designated fall guys" who will be forced to resign to pay for the Iran- contra scandal.
In Abrams' second day of questioning by the Iran-contra committee, several members suggested that the brash assistant secretary for Latin American affairs was being "hung out to dry" by Administration officials. And Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, urged Abrams to resign.
"We have to rebuild trust" so that Congress and the executive branch can work together to put U.S. Central American policy back together, Boren said, and "I'm afraid there's too much in the record at this point for you to be able to effectively play that role."
And Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), the powerful chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Abrams that Congress' doubts about his credibility would "make it very difficult . . . if you indeed now are and still are charged primarily with driving the policy on contra assistance."
Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) said he believes that Abrams, the chief spokesman for the Administration's Central American policy, had been treated "shabbily" by the Administration--particularly in light of his testimony that he was never told that U.S. officials were running a private contra supply network at a time when military assistance to the rebels was prohibited by Congress.
"Baseball has a designated hitter, this committee has a designated questioner, and it looks to me like you're one of the Administration's designated fall guys," Mitchell said.
In response, Abrams indicated that he, too, fears that he might be sacrificed by the Administration for his role in the Iran-contra affair, but he insisted that he still has the support of Secretary of State George P. Shultz and that "it is not his view or mine that I am the fall guy."
Aides to Abrams said he intends to stay in his job "until the last day of the Administration." In addition, after the hearing, Shultz issued a statement pledging full support for the combative assistant secretary.
"I have complete confidence in Elliott Abrams," Shultz said. "He has done a sensational job as assistant secretary for inter-American affairs and, despite the difficult situations in which he was put, has handled himself extremely well . . . . He is a man of integrity and candor, and his record demonstrates this clearly. He was and remains my selection to be assistant secretary for inter-American affairs."
But Mitchell replied that Abrams' demise as an Administration official appears "truly inexorable and inevitable." And Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) added: "I can't see how you can survive as assistant secretary of state."
Even Rep. William S. Broomfield (R-Mich.), ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the Administration's most loyal supporters in Congress, suggested that Abrams' resignation may be necessary to salvage the President's Central American policy.
"I really think there are problems for him," Broomfield said after the hearing. "There's no question that the Administration is going to have to evaluate (whether it wants Abrams to continue as assistant secretary of state) very carefully."
Jobs Lost by Three
So far, three other Administration officials--former White House aides Oliver L. North, John M. Poindexter and Johnathan S. Miller--have lost their jobs as a direct result of the disclosure of the Iran-contra affair. The departure of former White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan also was related to the scandal.
There were also strong warnings to Abrams that the Iran-contra affair may deprive the Administration of congressional approval of its expected request for $105 million for the contras in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
"I have many reservations about how this policy is being driven and will be driven in the next several months," said Fascell, a longtime proponent of contra aid. "I am not convinced that, without broad bipartisan and public support and support in Congress, that you're going to be able to accomplish it. What we've done . . . is almost destroy the contras."
Boren, in a statement issued after the hearing that called for Abrams' resignation, said: "It is my honest belief that it would be in his own best interests, and the best interests of the country, for him to step down as assistant secretary of state, so that we can begin with a clean slate as we work to restore trust and build a bipartisan Central American policy."
Throughout his testimony, Abrams clung to a story that many committee members clearly found implausible: that he was aware of a private supply network aiding the Nicaraguan resistance but never suspected that it was being run by government officials in violation of a congressional ban on U.S. military aid.
Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), vice chairman of the Senate investigating committee, indicated he does not believe Abrams' claim that he never questioned North, then on the staff of the National Security Council, about the private aid network--even after one of the supply planes crashed in October, 1985. The lone survivor of the crash was Eugene Hasenfus.
"I find an incomprehensible lack of curiosity on the Hasenfus affair," Rudman said. " . . . If you are anything, you are savvy, you are tough, you are bright, you showed a remarkable lack of curiosity with North, as to ask him not just, 'Ollie, do you know?' but to close the door and figuratively put him up against the wall and say: 'North, I have to know what the truth is here.' "
But members of the committee were generally more sympathetic to Abrams' plight Wednesday than they had been the previous day, when many of them expressed strong skepticism about his testimony and Brooks had branded him a "lying son of a bitch."
Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.) was the first questioner to suggest that Abrams was being victimized by the Administration. Judging from Abrams' testimony, Cohen said, he was betrayed by the CIA, the White House, the Defense Department and others in the Administration.
Fascell agreed with Cohen that Abrams was not being treated fairly by the Administration. "It looks like to me that they hung you out to dry," he said.
But even Cohen did not entirely absolve Abrams from all blame, especially when it came to his admission that he had misled congressional committees.
"Since last December," Cohen said, "I have been dismayed to listen to a string of witnesses who suffer from either accommodating amnesia, bland indifference or deliberate ignorance about a program of fundamental importance to this Administration."
Brooks was even more blunt in outlining Abrams' apparent failures.
"I'm very troubled with the job that you did, because you would have us believe that you just had no idea about private fund-raising, about solicitation to foreign governments for a few million dollars, you had no idea about how the contras were operating or where they were getting their supplies, you had no idea about a large number of people who were commuting almost daily between the United States and your area of surveillance," he said.
"And I can only conclude after this that you're either extremely incompetent or that you are still, as I say, deceiving us with semantics or, three, maybe the Administration has intentionally kept you in the dark on all these matters so then you could come down and blatantly mislead us."
Some of the most pointed criticism of Abrams came from the chairman of the House investigating committee, Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who in his former role as Intelligence Committee chairman had repeatedly questioned Abrams about whether foreign governments were being asked to aid the contras.
"You looked the other way," the normally low-key Democrat said. "You did your thing; Col. North did his." He added: "The object here is not to avoid a perjury indictment . . . . The object is to make the Constitution of the United States work."
Abrams contended that he had not told the committees about his solicitation last August of a $10-million contribution from the Sultan of Brunei because he wished to protect the confidentiality that the sultan had requested.
"I really do not see why we in the United States should let a foreign sultan dictate the requirements of our foreign policy," Hamilton said. "We simply cannot let a sultan or a king undermine the established constitutional processes of our government."
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate committee, said he was struck by the stark contradictions between Abrams' testimony and that of previous witnesses such as former U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Lewis A. Tambs and retired Army Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub.
"I don't think we can stand many days like this," Inouye said. "I don't know whether to believe you or Gen. Singlaub, to believe you or Ambassador Tambs."