Elliott Abrams: The true believer agrees to sing On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

October 11, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- ANOTHER justification for the seemingly endless Iran-contra investigation of special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh -- perhaps the most significant justification yet -- occurred the other day.

One of the truest of true believers in the Reagan administration's fixation on ousting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua by force in the 1980s, then assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams copped a plea to save his own skin.

Abrams admitted he had withheld information from Congress on what he did to solicit foreign governmental aid for the contras at a time of a congressional ban on contra aid, and in doing so avoided two felony counts against him. He agreed to plead guilty to a pair of misdemeanor charges that at most can cost him two years in the slammer and $200,000. The chances are, however, that the always defiant Abrams, to whom contempt of Congress seemed an article of his aggressively conservative faith, will not serve anywhere near that time or pay anything like that penalty, by virtue of agreeing to play canary for Walsh.

Abrams insisted even as he was copping the plea that he had merely withheld information "related to activities of the U.S. government in Central America which at that time I believed proper and lawful." That is, he had clung to the Reagan administration argument that the Boland amendment, specifically prohibiting covert aid to the contras, was an infringement on presidential power to conduct foreign policy.

Just as did other administration figures charged by Walsh, including former White House national security adviser John Poindexter and his loose-cannon aide, Oliver North, Abrams operated on the premise that not believing a law was valid was ample justification not only for disobeying it, but for dissembling about disobeying it.

But the courage of Abrams' convictions apparently melted when he was faced with the prospect of pounding large rocks into small ones, or whatever it is that passes for punishment at the kind of country-club detention center at which Abrams no doubt will be enrolled if he doesn't escape imprisonment altogether.

Abrams as a Walsh songbird could yet salvage the excruciatingly long Walsh investigation, after the insistence of the House and Senate Iran-contra committees on granting limited immunity to both Poindexter and North ended up killing the criminal case against North and threatens to do the same to the case against Poindexter. Abrams by any reckoning is a big fish, not only because of his high former ranking in the State Department but also because he came to symbolize the contra cause more than anyone else at that level with his zealous defense of all administration actions.

The question now is whether he has a truly revealing song to sing to Walsh, and whether he will sing it. Although the Iran-contra prosecutors claim they are after nothing but the objective truth, there is a presidential election year coming up and many Democrats are still looking to the Walsh investigation to provide them with a breakthrough issue with which to dent President Bush's sky-high popularity.

The key figure in this regard remains Donald Gregg, who served as Bush's national security adviser when Bush was vice president and now as ambassador to South Korea. Gregg had important links to individuals later found to be involved in the contra resupply effort and he eventually acknowledged that he knew, months before the Reagan administration disclosed the fact, that North was up to his ears in it. But Gregg insisted he never informed Bush because he didn't think it was sufficiently "of vice-presidential level" to tell his boss.

Ever since then, some Democrats have clung to the hope that it can be shown that Bush, contrary to repeated denials, knew about and took part in the resupply in defiance of Congress. They will hope now that Abrams, as part of his neck-saving deal, will provide another piece of the Iran-contra puzzle that will somehow implicate Bush. At this late date, however, that seems a long shot.

In the meantime, members of Congress who for so long suffered Abrams' arrogance and contempt can console themselves that he has finally gotten his come-uppance, although probably not while wearing pants on which the stripes run in a different direction from those they wear at the State Department.

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