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The Tragic Life of the War Criminal Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams was once an innocent child. And then he decided to spend the rest of his life covering up brutal atrocities and defending right-wing dictatorships.

Ronald Reagan's Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams being sworn in at Iran-Contra hearings. (Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images)

Elliott Abrams once said the animating force behind his and Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was that the world is “an exceedingly dangerous place.” And this is true, largely because men like Elliott Abrams exist in it.

Last month, Abrams was tapped by Trump to serve as his special envoy to Venezuela, to essentially help steer the Trump administration’s slow-burn effort to topple that country’s government — or as Mike Pompeo put it, “restore democracy” in the country.

It should go without saying that the idea the Trump administration is pursuing regime change in Venezuela for the sake of democracy and human rights is as laughable as calling Jamal Khashoggi’s murder a surprise party gone wrong. But in case you need to explain this to politically confused friends and relatives, here are eight good reasons why the appointment of Abrams, in particular, makes a mockery of any such high-minded rhetoric.

1. He was knee-deep in human rights atrocities

Let’s start with the most obvious point, which is that Abrams’ chief claim to fame is his role in Ronald Reagan’s blood-soaked foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s, for which he earned the nickname, “contra commander-in-chief.” The contras were the brutal right-wing paramilitary groups in Nicaragua who terrorized civilians throughout the decade, cutting a swath of torture, rape, and murder aimed at everyone from the elderly to children. Their methods were similar to those of right-wing paramilitaries in the other countries of the region, including El Salvador and Guatemala, all of which were supported by the Reagan administration. If you have the stomach to read about them, there’s no shortage of sources that outline their barbarity.

To Abrams, however, they were “freedom fighters,” their work in El Salvador was a “fabulous achievement,” and he mocked critics of Reagan as people forced to “run the risk” of arguing that such groups were “doing something wrong and ought to stop it.” He himself had no illusions about what it is that the contras were doing. “The purpose of our aid is to permit people who are fighting on our side to use more violence,” he said in 1985.

How involved was Abrams? “Sure, there was excessive micromanagement [of the contras],” he told Policy Review in 1989; “and I was one of the people who engaged in it. But I’m not going to go around trying to assess blame, because the contras were an enormous success.” The contras would have floundered and faded away were it not for the tens of millions of dollars Abrams helped funnel to them, including personally soliciting $10 million from the Sultan of Brunei for their cause (that money never made it because Abrams gave the Sultan the wrong account number).

This “micromanagement” at one point also involved Abrams secretly delivering military equipment to the contras under the guise of humanitarian aid. As commentators have noted, this is particularly relevant now, when the Trump administration attacks Maduro for refusing to let humanitarian aid from the US into Venezuela.

2. He covered up brutal acts of terror

Key to Abrams’ role under Reagan was playing down and denying the copious human rights abuses being committed by the forces and governments he and the administration supported.

As Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar pointed out in her grilling of Abrams earlier this week, part of the Reagan administration’s “fabulous achievement” in El Salvador was the horrific El Mozote massacre, which took place shortly before Abrams took up his post. In his attempt to convince the Senate to certify that El Salvador’s government was improving its human rights record — a precondition for receiving US aid — Abrams testified that the massacre had been “publicized when the certification comes forward to the committee,” and was “being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.” He claimed he had sent military officers to investigate the reports, and that the massacre couldn’t be confirmed.

Another incident was the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed on the orders of Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, one of the administration’s partners in the country. “Anybody who thinks you’re going to find a cable that says that Roberto d’Aubuisson murdered the archbishop is a fool,” said Abrams. In fact, two such cables existed. Abrams would later insist that any criticism of the Reagan administration’s activities in El Salvador were simply “a post-Cold War effort to rewrite history.”

Meanwhile, as Guatemalan dictator Ríos Montt embarked on a campaign of genocide in the country, Abrams said he had “brought considerable progress” on human rights. He defended Reagan’s lifting of a military aid embargo on Montt’s government, claiming the slaughter of civilians was “being reduced step by step” and that it was “progress” that had to be “rewarded and encouraged.”

3. He’s an unrepentant liar

Abrams told Omar that it is “always the position of the United States” to protect human rights, including in Venezuela, and he stressed the US didn’t want to arm anti-Maduro forces. Besides his well-documented record of doing exactly the opposite, Abrams’ words are even less relevant when you consider his history of outright lying.

We’ve already seen how Abrams regularly lied to cover up or play down abuses by the right-wing forces he supported. This practice would ultimately land him in trouble when he misled Congress about the Iran-Contra affair with statements that ranged from outright lies (“we’re not in the fund-raising business”), to lawyerly parsing of the truth (“I said no foreign government was helping the contras, because we had not yet received a dime from Brunei,” he would write later).

Abrams would forever maintain he did nothing wrong, later writing a sanctimonious book that painted himself as the victim of an unjust, vindictive system that had criminalized “political differences.” “This kind of prosecution is something new in America, and it is wrong,” he wrote, before bleating about the “bloodsuckers” and “filthy bastards” who wanted to do him in.

Abrams rained ire upon Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor tasked with investigating the Iran-Contra scandal: “You, Walsh, eighty years old, and nothing else to do but stay in this job till the grim reaper gets you. Is this your idea of America?” Abrams insisted the independent counsel law under which Walsh (along with Watergate prosecutor Archibold Cox) served was unconstitutional, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had upheld it 7-1, with even the conservative chief justice Rehnquist affirming (Scalia dissented). It didn’t matter anyway, because the late George H. W. Bush pardoned him.

Abrams managed the trifecta of showing contempt for the truth, the constitution’s separation of powers, and the concept of checks and balances, all in one fell swoop. There’s no reason to believe any of his assurances now.

4. He hates democracy

Abrams has also shown a lifelong contempt for the very thing he’s now meant to be advancing: democracy.

When the Uruguayan military government imprisoned Wilson Ferreira, the country’s most popular politician and a fierce liberal opponent of its rule, Abrams defended the Reagan administration’s meek response, which the New York Times had called “stunning.” Abrams explained that “the transition [to elected government] itself is more important than the immediate situation of any individual politician.” Abrams had earlier insisted there was no evidence the Uruguyan military was stifling political freedom, even as it closed newspapers, arrested its opposition, and continued to ban political leaders, among other things.

Around this same time, Abrams was one of a number of Reagan officials who supported Oliver North’s call to pardon Honduran general Jose Bueso Rosa, despite his having received a relatively lenient sentence. Rosa had been convicted after being caught in Florida plotting to overthrow the Honduran government.

In 2002, Abrams reportedly “gave a nod” to the military coup that attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to remove the democratically elected Hugo Chavez from power. The Observer, which broke the story, called Abrams “the crucial figure around the coup.” Abrams has had his eye on toppling Venezuela’s government for some time.

When Hamas defeated Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election, Abrams, then the point man for George W. Bush’s Middle East policy, helped implement a scheme to nullify the results by fomenting a Palestinian civil war which, they hoped, would remove Hamas from power. When the plan backfired, with Hamas emerging victorious and in full control of Gaza, Abrams accused Hamas of staging a “coup.”

5. His only political principle was anticommunism

Abrams’ disregard for democracy is part and parcel of his general philosophy, which views left-wing governments uniformly as threats to be stamped out.

Abrams, who once told a reporter that he’s “been a counterrevolutionary for a long time,” cut his teeth opposing student protesters at Harvard in the 1960s. He believes the idea that human rights extend past the political and into the economic realm to be “nonsense” and “old Soviet bromides.” As such, he viewed defeating the Soviet Union as the greatest US priority, telling one interviewer that “the greatest threat to human rights is the Soviet Union, not Guatemala or the Philippines.”

In 1984, Abrams quite candidly explained to Policy Review that his human rights policy was one of double standards: fierce opposition to communist rights abusers, and coddling of oppressors friendly to the US.

“Liberalization for purposes of letting out steam always involves line drawing,” he said. “How much steam should you let out? At what point do you risk anarchy and destabilizing the regime?” He went on to explain that “the line drawn varies from country to country,” and that “even a highly imperfect regime may well give a much better prospect of democratization than would the Communist regime that might follow.”

In other words, no matter how brutal or outright fascist a government, it was by default preferable to a communist one, a philosophy he applied in obvious ways to his work in the Americas. It was also evident in his treatment of Cuba, whose prisons he denounced in 1984 as “barbaric” and whose leader, Fidel Castro, he labeled “oppressive” and accused of “betrayal.” He attacked human rights groups, politicians, reporters, and church groups who praised Cuba as “apologists” who “will never take off their rose-colored glasses” and had spent “years defending tyrants” and “years obfuscating the truth.”

At literally the same time he was doing this, Abrams publicly defended Turkey, a key regional ally, from criticism of its human rights record. Abrams praised Turkey, which had recently been pilloried in an Amnesty International report for widespread torture of its people, for “extraordinary progress,” charging that “some who criticize Turkey’s human rights situation have no interest in human rights in Turkey or anywhere else,” but “simply use this issue as a weapon with which to attack a vital member of the Western alliance.” He dismissed Amnesty’s claims as “false history,” criticized human rights groups for “an appalling shallowness of analysis” that ignored social, political, and historical context, and charged that the Turkish people “resent the activists’ shrill and uninformed criticisms of their country.”

As Abrams had earlier said, “the line drawn varies from country to country.” If you played nice with the Reagan administration, your human rights record was tempered by nuance and context, and it was getting better anyway. And if you didn’t, you were beyond redemption.

6. He dislikes journalists and accountability

Abrams no doubt sympathized with Turkey’s rulers because he himself had first-hand experience dealing with pesky journalists and human rights groups.

He said critics of Reagan’s support of the contras would have “blood on their hands,” and accused human rights groups of having communist sympathies. He hopped aboard the Reagan administration’s McCarthyite attempt to shame congressional critics into giving him a blank check in Latin America, claiming that there was an “elaborate and skillful” campaign by Nicaragua’s Sandinista government to “manipulate Congress and the press.” When the GAO released a report alleging contra corruption that was inconvenient for the administration’s attempts to secure aid, Abrams dismissed it as a “smear campaign” cooked up by Democrats.

While Abrams didn’t have a police state at his disposal, that didn’t prevent him from lobbing heavy-handed broadsides against reporters he didn’t like. He refused to be questioned by or debate certain journalists he perceived as critical. Most infamously, from 1986 to 1987, Abrams accused left-wing Colombian journalist Patricia Lara of being a “Cuban agent” and “an active liaison” between Colombian terrorist organization M-19 and “the Cuban secret police.” In October 1986, Lara was stopped by New York immigration officials and imprisoned, before being sent back home, without explanation.

Abrams claimed to have “concrete evidence” that Lara was “heavily engaged” with M-19, but when challenged to reveal evidence, claimed it was based on “intelligence information” that he couldn’t reveal. The Colombian Defense Ministry, then battling M-19, categorically denied they had any such information, and assigned her a bodyguard because Abrams’ accusation had put her in danger. The country’s foreign minister said “we don’t know where the US government obtained” such information.

Abrams also granted a “meritorious honor” award on the Office of Public Diplomacy, a government body responsible for waging an illegal domestic propaganda campaign, in which Iran-Contra architect Oliver North was closely involved, that disseminated Abrams’ preferred narrative about the region. Abrams praised it for “setting out the parameters and defining the terms of the public discussion on Central America policy” and countering the “formidable and well established Soviet/Cuban/Nicaraguan propaganda apparatus.”

7. He’s a fan of regime change

Like any neoconservative worth his salt, Abrams has an abiding faith in the US government’s ability to simply remove world leaders it dislikes at will. (He’s also continued the neocon tradition of never personally fighting in any war, avoiding Vietnam thanks to a hurt back that happened to clear up once the war was over.)

When Abrams wanted to remove former ally Manuel Noriega from power in Panama, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Reagan wrote, he threatened sanctions, then actually imposed sanctions, then established a Panamanian government-in-exile on a US military base. Abrams finally called outright for the US military to topple Noriega, in an op-ed titled “Noriega Respects Power. Use It,” which is what George H. W. Bush ultimately did. It was a chilling preview of where US policy on Venezuela may now be heading if Maduro stays in power.

Reflecting on the mistakes of Reagan’s Latin American policy in 1989, Abrams’ regret was that it hadn’t been more forceful. “You can make a very good argument that after the successful rescue mission in Grenada the president should simply have said, ‘Look, we have to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, we cannot have a Communist government in Nicaragua,’ and done whatever we needed to do to get rid of it, including a naval blockade or possibly even an invasion,” he said.

In 2007, Abrams blessed Bush’s plan to launch a covert operation to destabilize Iran’s government. Two years later, he mused about what should happen if Iran develops a nuclear weapon. “Responsible leadership cannot allow this to happen,” he said. “Preventing it through military action perhaps is the second worst decision we could make. The only worse one being to say it’s all right now, it’s acceptable, we will not act.” But this wouldn’t involve regime change or the killing of civilians, he stressed; just a strike on nuclear facilities. Iran, Abrams warned, was one to three years away from developing a nuclear weapon.

In 2013, Abrams told a House Armed Services Committee hearing that the US had to get militarily involved in Syria. Why? Because “a display of American lack of will power in Syria will persuade many Iranian officials that while we may say ‘all options are on the table,’ in reality they are not — so Iran can proceed happily and safely toward a nuclear weapon.” Two years later, he said at a Council of Foreign Relations event that Netanyahu had two options: either strike Iran right then, or wait two years and see if an administration willing to take a tougher line, or sanction an Israeli strike, would be elected. Abrams, it seems, got his wish.

8. He’s beloved by the Right

In case anyone still believes the fiction that “anti-Trump” conservatives actually oppose Trump, Abrams is a living reminder that there’s no daylight between Trump and the establishment Right that pretends to dislike him.

Abrams was once an “anti-Trump” Republican who signed a letter opposing his candidacy in 2016. He tutored Paul Ryan in foreign policy when he was Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, and served on Marco Rubio’s so-called National Security Advisory Council in 2016. It’s no surprise the Florida senator, long viewed as an establishment-friendly, “sensible” conservative alternative to Trump, is now all but directing Trump’s Latin American policy, sounding virtually indistinguishable from Abrams.

Abrams has now served in every Republican administration since he first entered government bar one. In between, he’s worked at the Heritage Foundation (whose head of Latin American policy just called him “a patriot and dedicated voice for repressed communities”), helped found “anti-Trump” Bill Kristol’s Project for the New American Century, was a fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations, and was a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the US government’s arm for foreign political meddling.

Meanwhile, just look at who came to Abrams’ defense after his grilling by Rep. Omar. The National Review — which not long ago put out a much-celebrated “Against Trump” issue whose purpose, according to its editor, was to say, “He’s not one of us. He’s not a conservative, and he’s not what conservatism is” — just published an editorial calling Abrams “one of the wisest, most experienced foreign-policy heads in this country,” and “a steadfast advocate of freedom, democracy, and human rights.”

A former Bush administration official and current Harvard professor defended Abrams as “a devoted public servant who has contributed much of his professional life to our country.” The newly rebranded neocon Max Boot, who very publicly proclaims he’s seen the error of his ways and broken with the ugliness he now sees in the GOP, deemed him “a leading advocate of human rights and democracy.” Unfortunately, it’s not just the Right; the Center for American Progress’ vice president of National Security and International Policy called him “a fierce advocate for human rights and democracy” who simply “made serious professional mistakes.”

That someone like Abrams, who’s now leading Trump’s regime change efforts in Venezuela, is warmly embraced by the coterie of establishment and “never-Trump” conservatives should tell you everything you need to know about these groups.