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The war criminal Elliott Abrams and the liberals who love him

Elliott Abrams, who is steering Trump’s Venezuela policy, has a long track record of war crimes. Yet a number of liberal commentators are rushing to his defense.

by Paul Heideman

Part 3 - The Reagan years

Abrams first came to major prominence in the Reagan administration, where, in late 1981, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. However, Abrams was not the administration’s first choice. Reagan had previously nominated the conservative political thinker Ernest W. Lefever, but his nomination had not gone smoothly. In 1979, Lefever had testified before the House that all human rights standards should be repealed. Questioned about this statement in 1981, he admitted that he had “goofed.” His nomination was finally sunk, however, when two of his brothers claimed that Lefever believed black people to be genetically inferior. This was too big a goof even for the Reagan administration, and in October, Abrams’ nomination was announced.

Abrams started his career at the State Department with a lot to do. The day before he came on board, U.S.-trained forces had committed a massacre in the town of El Mozote, El Salvador, torturing, raping and slaughtering over 800 civilians. The killing was performed by the Altacatl Battalion, assembled and trained at Fort Bragg, and later described by the New York Times as having been “the pride of the United States military team in San Salvador.

The El Mozote massacre was but one moment in the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, when in country after country, poor peasants confronted their countries’ traditional military and economic elites, who responded with savage, American-backed violence. Abrams played a key role in directing American support for these regimes as well as running interference when evidence of their atrocities became too obvious for the corporate media to ignore. The main sites of action were as follows:

El Salvador

In 1979, amid mounting protests against an undemocratic government, El Salvador’s military leaders dispensed with the fig leaf of civilian rule and installed a military junta to crush the rising left-wing insurgency. The result was a civil war in which some 80,000 people died in a country with a population of less than 5 million. Later, a United Nations investigation estimated that 85 percent of civilian killings in the war were perpetrated by the military and its death squads. Atrocities such as El Mozote were commonplace. Less than a year later, the military killed over 200 civilians at El Calabozo.

One of Elliott Abrams’ main jobs was to deny, distract from, or excuse these atrocities. When news of El Mozote reached the United States, Abrams testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there was reason for doubt, claiming “We find … that it is an event that happened in mid-December [but it] is then publicized when the certification comes forward to the committee.” Even a decade later, after irrefutable evidence had accumulated about the scale of the horror in El Mozote, Abrams still tried to obfuscate the truth, protesting, “If it had really been a massacre and not a firefight, why didn't we hear about it right off from the F.M.L.N.? I mean, we didn't start hearing about it until a month later.

When questioned by Rep. Omar last week, Abrams defended his record in El Salvador, proclaiming, “From the day that President Duarte was elected in a free election to this day, El Salvador has been a democracy. That’s a fabulous achievement.” Indeed, in 1984, José Napoleón Duarte became president after elections in which parties of the left could not campaign for fear of assassination. He defeated death squad leader Roberto d’Aubuisson. Though Washington supported Duarte in that election, Abrams had previously defended D’Aubuisson, contending that he was not an extremist and claiming that “anybody who thinks you’re going to find a cable that says Roberto d’Aubuisson murdered the archbishop [Oscar Romero] is a fool,” when in fact, cables showing precisely that had arrived in Washington from the U.S. embassy almost immediately after the assassination.

Nonetheless, d’Aubuisson was indeed an embarrassment to the United States as it attempted to defend Salvadoran oligarchs. Along with his extravagant brutality in El Salvador, he was also far too undisciplined in talking to the press, telling some European reporters, “You Germans were very intelligent. You realized that the Jews were responsible for the spread of communism, and you began to kill them.” This kind of language was an embarrassment, and so Washington judged that Duarte would be a more effective point man for coordinating the war on the Salvadoran peasantry. Duarte’s verbal promises to restrain the excesses of the military, for Abrams and company, counted as a win for human rights, even as his “moderation” provided a fig leaf that would allow the U.S. government to continue backing the Salvadoran military until the Left had been sufficiently exterminated that “normal” politics could resume.

Despite Abrams’ theatrics, the truth of the American intervention in El Salvador was told in rather plainer terms by the liberal New Republic in 1984, which explained that “there are higher American priorities than Salvadoran human rights,” and that “military aid must go forth regardless of how many are murdered, lest the Marxist-Leninist guerrillas win.


To El Salvador’s southeast, Nicaragua was also going through a political transformation in the early 1980s. In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the notoriously corrupt U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. The coalition government the Sandinistas created immediately undertook vigorous campaigns in the areas of literacy and healthcare, expanding social service access to the Nicaraguan poor to an unprecedented degree. The government also provided aid to the peasant revolutionaries in El Salvador, and quickly established a close alliance with the Soviet Union and Cuba.

This the Reagan administration could not abide. Shortly after coming into office, Reagan officials invited anti-Sandinista exiles to a meeting in Honduras, where the administration forced anti-Somoza opponents of the government to submit to the leadership of elements of the dictator’s hated National Guard. Troops were immediately assembled across the border in Honduras, with U.S. aid helping to put everything in motion. The anti-Sandinista army, popularly known as the Contras, soon accosted government targets, with special attention reserved for government social service locations, like schools and hospitals. Soon, evidence of Contra atrocities began to accumulate.

In 1982, this evidence was so abundant that the U.S. Congress become convinced that funding for the Contras needed to be cut off. Abrams, fulminating over the tying of the United States’ hands in its battle against communism, immediately began looking for ways to overcome the ban on funding. One avenue came through soliciting funds from the Sultan of Brunei, whom Abrams convinced to donate $10 million to stopping communism in Nicaragua. But Oliver North’s secretary at the time fudged the transaction by copying the wrong numbers for the Swiss bank account to which the funds would be transferred, and the money ended up in the hands of an unusually virtuous Swiss businessman, who returned it, with interest.

For the rest of the 1980s, Abrams essentially ran interference for Oliver North and the other Iran-Contra spooks. For this role, he was eventually indicted, and plead guilty to withholding information from Congress in 1991. At a time when the drug war was in full swing, and draconian sentences were all the rage, Abrams was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. President George H.W. Bush then pardoned him, completing Abrams’ official redemption.

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