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When a Radio Host Interviews a War Criminal, Is It Churlish to Ask About His War Crimes?

A letter to New York’s popular WNYC-NPR radio host Brian Lehrer

Dear Mr Lehrer,

I enjoy your programs. I especially appreciate your intelligent and even-handed treatment of guests, which includes providing enough context and background about them to allow listeners a chance to fairly evaluate how much respect and/or credibility their words deserve.

Regrettably, you did not provide such context or background for Elliott Abrams, when you interviewed him on Monday, October 9, about his new book, Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring.

It’s true that you did say, near the end of the interview, that Abrams had been convicted on two counts of “misleading Congress” in 1991, and was then pardoned by George W. Bush. But the reference was cryptic, and you passed over it quickly, since you were only using it as a bridge to the question of whether Abrams’s pardon by Bush might be a precedent that would allow Donald Trump to pardon his own friends and relatives (and possibly himself) if indicted during Robert Mueller’s investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Since a conviction for “misleading Congress” doesn’t sound like much, many of your listeners probably thought it was like getting a traffic ticket — that is, small potatoes. And indeed it was small potatoes, especially in Abrams’s case, because it was the result of a plea bargain in which the Justice Department agreed to close its eyes to Abrams’s complicity in horrendous human rights atrocities, encompassing the rape, torture and murder of tens of thousands of indigenous Central American people during the Contra Wars. In return, Abrams agreed to cooperate in fingering his superiors in the Reagan administration. Sort of like giving immunity to a Mafia hit man with 10 or 12 murders under his belt, in return for having him rat out his capo.

Since Abrams’s crimes occurred more than a quarter of a century ago, many of your listeners may have forgotten them, or been too young at the time to have understood them. Therefore, they may have been unaware that Abrams, in every sense of the term, is a war criminal, and that his involvement in genocidal mass murder, by some of the most brutal dictators in modern history, makes his passionate love song, which he sings  to democracy in his latest book, a cruelly ironic joke.

You might, Mr Lehrer, have legitimately asked Abrams (politely, of course, since he was your guest) about the astonishing advice at the core of his book — that America should support democratic governments because “deals with tyrants will not work.” And that “Islamism is an idea that can only be defeated by a better idea: democracy.” Hasn’t Abrams has spent his entire career arranging “deals with tyrants,” and helping to overthrow democratically elected governments all over the world?

For example, there is Abrams’s well documented support for the bloody Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, and his equally bloody successor, “President” Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, whose U.S.-trained and funded troops “herded the entire population [of one village] into the courthouse, raped the women, beheaded the men, and then took the children outside to smash them to death against rocks,” as recounted in Inevitable Revolutions, by the distinguished Cornell University historian Walter LaFeber.

Abrams also helped the Salvadoran military junta cover up the infamous “El Mozote Massacre” of December 11, 1981, in which Salvadoran troops, also U.S.-trained and funded, raped, tortured and butchered over 800 villagers. As reported by Mark Danner, in The New Yorker, government soldiers dragged the entire population of the village from their homes, separated the men from the women and children, then locked them all up overnight. In the morning, they tortured and executed the men. At noon, they raped the women and then machine-gunned them. After that, they raped the girls, and machine-gunned them, too. Girls as young as 10 were raped, with soldiers reportedly heard bragging how they especially liked the 12-year-old girls. Finally, they killed the little children, first by slitting their throats, then hanging them from trees, one child as young as two years old. After butchering the entire population, the soldiers set fire to the buildings. The next day they marched to the village of Los Toriles and carried out a further massacre. Men, women, and children were lined up, robbed, shot, and their homes then set ablaze.

Faced with international revulsion, the Reagan administration launched a cover-up of its role in the Mazote Massacre. That cover-up was yeomanly orchestrated by Elliott Abrams, then Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. Although evidence for massacre was overwhelming, Abrams insisted that that no such massacre had taken place, and that — to the contrary — the Salvadoran junta had made great strides in human rights. Even as the mass killings continued, Abrams fought in Congress for increased military aid to Ríos Montt’s murderous regime, demanding that Congress provide it with advanced arms because “[its] human rights progress need[ed] to be rewarded and encouraged.” As Abrams deceitfully told a Congressional investigating committee, “it [the El Mozote Massacre] appears to be an incident that is … being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.” (Citation from A Century of Media, a Century of War, by Robin Andersen.)

As the go-to-guy for U.S.-funded terrorism, Abrams helped arrange the overthrow of democratically elected governments throughout Latin America and the Middle East. Operating out of the White House, as George W. Bush’s Senior Director of the National Security Council for Democracy, Human Rights and International Operations, Abrams was, according The Guardian, the crucial figure in the failed 2002 coup against the democratically elected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

As assistant secretary of state for Latin America under President Reagan, Abrams was a prominent theoretician of the school known as ‘Hemispherism’, whose primary goal was to eradicate Marxism from the Americas by any means necessary. He conspired with Henry Kissinger and the CIA during the Nixon administration to overthrow the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973, bringing Augusto Pinochet to power and plunging Chile into 17 years of torture, rape and murder. Abrams also oversaw U.S. funding of military coups and death squads in Argentina, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. And in Nicaragua, Abrams worked directly with Oliver North to fund the Contras and destabilize the democratically elected Sandinista government. Abrams also tried to subvert the results of the 2006 democratic elections in the Palestinian territories, undermining any chance of a democratic peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Today, in 2017, deceitful as ever, Abrams, who is currently Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (and was Trump’s first choice for Deputy Secretary of State), has the chutzpah to write in his new book that America should “reject deals with tyrants” – as if deals with tyrants were not Abrams’s stock in trade — and as if so many of the allies of whom he approves were not murderous tyrants oppressing the populations of countries like Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Brunei, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Rwanda, Singapore, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda and Uzbekistan — to name a handful. Or that one of our dearest allies is Saudi Arabia, a country that often beheads more people in one week (for such crimes as adultery or “insulting the state”) than Al Qaeda and ISIS have beheaded in all their years of existence.

In a New York Magazine article, Eric Levitz aptly commented that having Elliott Abrams oversee the National Security Council directorate responsible for promoting Democracy, Human Rights and International Operations, as he did under George W. Bush, was “a bit like having Hannibal Lecter oversee the directorate of Homicide Reduction and Veganism.” To which I might add that for Brian Lehrer to have interviewed Elliott Abrams, one of the great monsters of our era, without even bringing up any of the above, is like interviewing Hitler without bringing up Auschwitz – or like interviewing Trump without bringing up pussy-grabbing.

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