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Elliott Abrams, the early years

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elliottRegular visitors to this site are familiar with Elliott Abrams, the neoconservative former Bush administration official, apologist for Greater Israel, and scourge of Jewish intermarriage. But younger readers may not know that he established his public reputation as a liar much earlier, in a different part of the world.

During the Reagan administration, Abrams had key responsibility for U.S. policy in Central America, first as assistant secretary of state for Human Rights, and then as assistant secretary for Inter-American Affairs. In both posts, he covered up for the murderous right-wing forces in the region that the U.S. was funding with hundreds of millions of dollars. My own recent research into a period during which I spent time in Central America has reminded me just how dishonest Abrams was:

* In December 1981, two outstanding American journalists, Ray Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto, reported that the U.S.-backed military in El Salvador had slaughtered 1000 civilians in and around the hamlet of El Mozote. Abrams said back then "the numbers. . .were not credible" and suggested the anti-regime FMLN guerrillas had "significantly misused" the story for propaganda. (In 1993, a United Nations Truth Commission belatedly but completely confirmed the Bonner/Guillermoprieto account.)

* Bonner, in his excellent 1984 book about El Salvador,Weakness and Deceit, pointed out other Abrams lies: ". . . [Abrams] assured Congress that ‘several hundred [Salvadoran military] officers’ had been dismissed or jailed for human rights abuses. Again the truth was that few, if any, had. To a House Committee in 1983, he asserted that ‘we don’t know who the death squads are.’ By that date the CIA and [U.S.] embassy in El Salvador had sent numerous cables identifying the leaders."

* Even after these and other revelations, Abrams continued to insist the Reagan policy in El Salvador had been a "fabulous achievement." The death toll during the 12-year civil war there was at least 75,000, the equivalent of 4 million Americans. Despite the astonishing figure of $5 billion in American military and economic aid, the U.S.-supported regime could not defeat the highly motivated FMLN guerrillas. Nor did the U.S.-sponsored economic policies help; in fact, the poverty level rose from 47 percent in 1989 to 51 percent by 2004. This March, the FMLN’s candidate, a simpatico journalist named Mauricio Funes, won the Salvadoran presidency – without any measurable threat to American "interests," or any apparent squawking from Abrams.

* Abrams was also mixed up in the Iran-Nicaragua contra scandal in the late 1980s. He was criminally convicted on two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress, until George Bush I pardoned him.

* But the Abrams saga is not without a touch of humor. As part of Iran-contra, he had solicited a $10-million contribution from the Sultan of Brunei, a Southeast Asian oil mini-state, to circumvent Congress and keep funding the contras. (Brunei is a hereditary sultanate, presumably no model for the democracy the Reagan administration insisted it wanted for Central America.) But Oliver North’s secretary transposed two numbers – and the sultan’s money was transferred into the wrong Swiss bank account! Apparently, the lucky recipient never gave it back.

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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