Elliott Abrams Seems Poor Choice to Pronounce on Benghazi

by Jim Lobe

As Republican lawmakers and Fox News have been claiming that the Benghazi “cover-up” scandal will prove even bigger than the Iran-Contra and Watergate scandals combined, Elliott Abrams — who, faced with a slew of felony charges by the Iran-Contra special prosecutor while serving as Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs (1985-89), quickly pled guilty to two counts of misleading Congress — seemed to be a particularly poor choice by the Wall Street Journal to comment on this week’s hearings by the House Oversight Committee and decry the partisanship and viciousness of “Washington politics.”

It’s not just that Abrams has a rather dubious reputation for truth-telling dating back to even before Iran-Contra, to his service as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights (1981-5), when his efforts to downplay or cover up serious human rights atrocities (some of which certainly match or even exceed the worst attributed to Assad’s forces in Syria) committed by “friendly authoritarians” in South and Central America were routinely denounced by human-rights activists and their supporters in Congress. As for his lying about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, it’s quite something when a lawmaker as gentle and bipartisan as former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell threatens to eject you from a hearing room if you even try to testify because of your performance at previous hearings. (During one exchange in Dec 1986, after Iran-Contra hit the headlines after it had become clear that Abrams had lied to Congress about his role in fund-raising for the Contras, Sen. Tom Eagleton ended an exchange with Abrams by saying “I’ve heard [your testimony], and I want to puke.”)

It’s also that if you’re going to complain about the “vicious political culture of Washington,” your own contribution to that culture and its conventions should somehow be acknowledged. It was Abrams, after all, who repeatedly argued recently that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was an anti-Semite (or, more precisely, has “a thing about ‘the Jews'”). During the Reagan administration, he, like Jeane Kirkpatrick, was not shy about accusing human-rights activists, pro-poor clerics, and sympathetic Democratic lawmakers with whom he clashed on Central America of being fellow-travelers or dupes. As noted by Jefferson Morley back in 1987, he also adopted a more-sophisticated PR strategy designed to

dominate the conventions of Washington debate — epitomized on talk shows with speakers pro and con. Knowing these shows need federal officials, Abrams regularly refused to appear with selected opponents of Administration policy. He usually got his way. In declining to appear, Abrams labeled his critics, including respected diplomats, as ‘vipers’ beyond ‘the borders of responsible criticism.’

“Vipers” was also a word he reportedly used to describe foreign service officers who he felt were insufficiently loyal to the Reagan administration’s policies. Which brings me to the passage that really stuck out in Abram’s op-ed in the Journal, entitled “Benghazi Truths vs. Washington Politics.” The article concluded:

This hearing did not ascertain where the buck should stop, but it was a step forward in getting the facts. And it was a reminder that in Washington we should not permit people with political motives to blight the careers of civil servants and blame them for failures of management and policy at the top.

Of course, I personally couldn’t agree more with this appeal. But I find Abram’s invocation of it particularly ironic (not only because of the fact that neo-conservatives, including Abrams, and other hawks who marched the U.S. to war in Iraq are now finding it ever-so-convenient to blame the intelligence agencies for what was the worst debacle in U.S. foreign policy since the Vietnam War). It was also ironic because, during the Reagan administration, Abrams did not hesitate to retaliate against career officers who, in his opinion, failed to align their views with his own political interests. Consider these excerpts from a March 7, 1987, New York Times article, entitled “Abrams Under Fire at Senate Hearing.”

Just before [Abrams] was questioned, the subcommittee heard testimony from Francis J. McNeil, a former Ambassador to Costa Rica and 31-year-veteran of the State Department, who acknowledged under questioning that he quit his job because he was ”fed up” with being undermined by Mr. Abrams.

Mr. McNeil said that when as Deputy Director of Intelligence he gave discouraging assessments of the ability of the Nicaraguan rebels, Mr. Abrams translated that into ”not being on the team.” He said Mr. Abrams then made clear his belief that ”I was untrustworthy and a leaker.”

He said that Department investigators cleared him of the charge that he leaked a document to The Washington Post and that on resigning he wrote Mr. Abrams saying he had conducted an ”exercise in McCarthyism.”

When Mr. Abrams replaced Mr. McNeil at the witness chair, he appeared to try to face him as if to nod in recognition. But Mr. McNeil sought to avoid that by walking away with his head averted.

Under questioning from Senator Paul Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, Mr. Abrams acknowledged that the investigators were unable to show that Mr. McNeil had leaked any documents. ”Well, they never discovered any leaker,” Mr. Abrams said.

Mr. Abrams characterized Mr. McNeil’s letter of resignation as ”character assassination” and said he did not respond because ‘I consider it to be a nasty note of a personal nature.”

He acknowledged interceding to prevent Mr. McNeil from being named Ambassador to Peru. He said that when assistant secretaries take such actions, Foreign Service officers object. ”They hate our guts,” he said.

I don’t know if Abrams’ views of foreign service officers and other career civil servants have changed since then, although the neo-conservative disregard for — not to say hatred of — “Arabists” in the State Department and the intelligence community was certainly evident during the Bush administration in which Abrams served as the senior Near East staffer on the National Security Council. Who can forget Pat Lang’s retelling of his interview with Doug Feith, an Abrams protege, to head up the Pentagon’s Office of Special Operations?

So, it’s especially ironic to read Abrams’ denunciation of the “chasm between the culture of career civil servants ready to risk their lives and the vicious political culture of Washington” to which he has contributed so much over the past several decades.

But for more on what Abrams’ really thinks about the relationship between politics and the career civil service (and their feeding and care), you should read his recent essay, “The Prince of the White House.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.