Former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, a prime architect of the Ronald Reagan Administration’s support of Nicaragua’s Contras, pleaded guilty Monday to two counts of withholding information from congressional committees on secret efforts to fund them.
Abrams, 43, who entered the pleas as part of an agreement with prosecutors, could be sentenced to a maximum of two years in jail and fined $200,000 on the misdemeanor convictions. He showed no contrition on entering his guilty pleas or when reading a statement on the courthouse steps.
Instead, Abrams strode briskly to the bank of microphones, nodded to reporters, and said that he believed at the time that the activities on which he testified in 1986 were “proper and lawful.” “I take full responsibility for my actions,” he said, adding that he is “proud to have given 12 years serving the United States government and of the contributions I made in those years.”
Abrams’ pleas came only days before the five-year statute of limitations would have barred his prosecution on the charges. He became the second ranking official to plead guilty since investigators turned their attention to prosecuting those involved in attempts to cover up the military assistance to the Contras, aid that Congress had specifically outlawed.
Last July, Alan D. Fiers, former chief of the CIA’s Central American task force, entered a similar plea and his cooperation led to the indictment of Clair E. George, former head of CIA covert operations, on 10 felony counts of lying and obstructing investigations of the Iran-Contra scandal.
Under his plea agreement, Abrams, the only State Department official convicted because of Iran-Contra events, promised to cooperate in independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh’s nearly five-year-old investigation of the worst scandal to ensnare the Reagan Administration. U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. set sentencing for Nov. 15.
Abrams is believed to have information that could incriminate other officials who served in Central America during the effort to bolster the Contras.
But Craig A. Gillen, chief prosecutor in the case, declined to discuss the areas in which Abrams might prove helpful. Instead, he contended that “it is significant on the face of it” that a former assistant secretary of state admitted purposely withholding information from Congress.
“This is clearly an important development that should enable us to move more quickly and with thoroughness to the conclusion of our investigation,” Walsh said.
Both of Abrams’ admissions dealt with questions he was asked about articles in the Los Angeles Times detailing an elaborate, secret network set up to supply the Nicaraguan rebels. On Oct. 10, 1986, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, looking into the shooting down by Nicaragua of a Contra resupply plane on which the only survivor was an American, questioned Abrams about The Times’ article on the supply network.
Abrams said that “we have been kind of careful not to get closely involved with it and to stay away from it,” referring to the network. He added: “We do not encourage people to do this. . . . We don’t have conversations. We don’t tell them to do this. We don’t ask them to do it.”
Actually, “Abrams then and there well knew that Lt. Col. (Oliver L.) North had been in contact with people supplying the Contras, had conversations with people supplying the Contras and had asked and encouraged them to supply the Contras,” according to the criminal charges to which Abrams pleaded guilty.
North was a National Security Council aide at the White House who played a central role in the secret sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of proceeds from the transactions to fund the Contras. His convictions were set aside by a federal appeals court and charges against him were dropped after Walsh said that it would be too difficult to establish that they were not tainted by North’s own congressional testimony .
In court papers submitted with the charges against Abrams, prosecutors said: “It was the opinion of Mr. Abrams that disclosure of Lt. Col. North’s activities in the resupply of the Contras would jeopardize” final congressional enactment of a $100-million Contra-aide package in October, 1986.
In the second count, Abrams admitted withholding information from the House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 14, 1986, when he was asked about a Times’ report that Saudi Arabia was helping supply the Contras.
“That story about the Saudis to my knowledge is false,” Abrams responded.
Asked whether it was false “with respect to other governments as well,” Abrams answered: “Yes, it is also false.”
Actually, the criminal charge specified, Abrams had learned Sept. 16, 1986, of a State Department cable reporting that the Sultan of Brunei had agreed to contribute $10 million to the Contras and that 10 days later he learned of a second cable reporting that the money had been sent to a Swiss bank account set up for Contra support.
It was later established that the Saudis had contributed more than $30 million to the secret Contra resupply effort, but Abrams has contended he was unaware of their contribution.