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Abrams Admits Guilt On 2 Counts in Contra Cover-Up (Oct. 8, 1991)

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October 8, 1991, Page 00001The New York Times Archives
Elliott Abrams, the former Assistant Secretary of State who was one of the Reagan Administration's fiercest advocates of armed support for the Nicaraguan rebels, pleaded guilty today to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress about secret efforts to aid the guerrillas.
Mr. Abrams's guilty pleas and his promise to cooperate with Iran-contra prosecutors may open another avenue for investigators as they make what appears to be a final push to broaden their search for wrongdoing at the senior levels of the Reagan Administration.
The independent prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, was forced on Sept. 16 to drop all charges against a main figure in the case, Oliver L. North, but he has made some headway in pursuing efforts to conceal the affair at the Central Intelligence Agency. The Abrams investigation takes Mr. Walsh for the first time into the Reagan State Department. Uncertainty About Knowledge
Today's legal action came in two parts. This morning, prosecutors disclosed the charges against Mr. Abrams, making public the two misdemeanor counts against him. Later, at the hearing in Federal court, the plea bargain was disclosed along with Mr. Abrams's promise to cooperate by agreeing to testify truthfully to the grand jury or in court proceedings in other cases.
The guilty pleas do not make clear whether Mr. Abrams was aware of the Iran-contra affair as it unfolded, including the covert arms sales to Iran. But other Reagan Administration officials in previous testimony to Congress have not included Mr. Abrams among those who knew about the diversion of profits from the Iran arms sales to help the contras and there is no evidence that he was aware of the transfer of funds until it was publicly disclosed in November 1986.
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As the State Department's point man on Latin America, Mr. Abrams headed the Restricted Interagency Group, a panel that coordinated the Administration's Central America policy among officials at the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon.
Other members included Mr. North, the Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and White House aide who managed the day-to-day operations of secretly aiding the Nicaraguan rebels, and Alan D. Fiers Jr., who supervised Central Intelligence Agency activities in Central America.
In this capacity, Mr. Abrams operated as a high-visibility figure who seemed to relish his combative public role in defending Administration policy in Central America, while at the same time working closely with officials who were engaged in secret efforts to supply the rebels with arms after Congress barred direct military assistance in late 1984.
Exactly where Mr. Abrams's admissions can lead the prosecutors is not clear, but he may have been in a position to know if knowledge of the Iran-contra activities -- and efforts to conceal it -- radiated beyond the limited circle of Reagan Administration aides already publicly identified.
Some people closely following the investigation believe that his cooperation may prove highly useful to prosecutors in showing how other State Department officials concealed from Congress their knowledge of the affair.
Prosecutors agreed to file misdemeanor rather than more serious felony charges against Mr. Abrams after he offered to cooperate in their investigation and to plead guilty to the two lesser charges, each of which carries a maximum prison term of one year in prison and a fine of $100,000. Felony charges of making false statements or obstructing Congressional inquiries carry much heavier penalties in the form of fines and a maximum prison sentence of five years on each count.
A misdemeanor charge of witholding information from Congress involves the willful failure or refusal by a witness to provide full and complete testimony. The charge differs from a more serious felony charge of making a false statement, in which a witness knowingly provides false or fictitious information to Congress. Sentencing Is Scheduled
At a 10-minute hearing today, Federal District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. set Mr. Abrams's sentencing date for Nov. 15.
At the hearing, Mr. Abrams was accompanied by his lawyer, W. DeVier Pierson of the firm of Pierson Semmes & Bemis. Twice the judge asked Mr. Abrams how he pleaded, and each time the former State Department official answered unhestitatingly, "I plead guilty."
But outside the Federal courthouse, Mr. Abrams sounded unrepentant as he read a brief statement in which he expressed pride in his Government service. "I take full responsibility for my actions, for my failure to make full disclosure to Congress in 1986," he said.
In large part, the timing of the charges appeared to be driven by the five-year statute of limitations, which expires this month for improprieties related to misleading Congress in the fall of 1986.
One of Mr. Abrams's Congressional appearances was on Oct. 10, 1986, which meant that the accusations against him were filed just four days before the statute of limitations would have lapsed. The other appearance was on Oct. 14, 1986.
After the hearing, Craig A. Gillen, the associate prosecutor in charge of the case, said the pleas by Mr. Abrams were an important advance in the investigation.
Like last month's indictment of Clair E. George, who formerly headed covert operations at the C.I.A. during the affair, the legal action against Mr. Abrams appeared to arise in part from the testimony of Mr. Fiers , who pleaded guilty earlier this year to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress and has been cooperating with Mr. Walsh and his staff.
These prosecutions have come as the conviction against Mr. North collapsed because of adverse appellate court rulings. The rulings forced prosecutors to return to the trial judge to show that witnesses against Mr. North were unaffected by his testimony to the Iran-contra Congressional investigating committees under a grant of immunity from prosecution. Last month, Mr. Walsh abandoned the North case after a hearing in which one prosecution witness, Robert C. McFarlane, the former national security adviser, said he was deeply influenced by watching Mr. North's immunized testimony.
Prosecutors have centered their recent efforts on what Mr. Walsh has described as a cover-up of the affair by senior officials at Government entities outside the White House, like the C.I.A. and the State Department. In recent months, the investigation has mainly focused on the intelligence agency.
Prosecutors said in legal papers today that Mr. Abrams frequently discussed highly sensitive issues with Mr. North and Mr. Fiers, the two other principal members of the Restricted Interagency Group, and it was in this role that prosecutors suggested that Mr. Abrams became familiar with with efforts to aid the rebels despite the Congressional ban.
In one document the prosecutors asserted that Mr. Abrams "knew that Lieut. Col. North had been in contact with people supplying the contras, had conversations with people supplying the contras, and had asked and encouraged them to supply the Contras."
In September 1985, prosecutors said that George P. Shultz, who was then Secretary of State, instructed Mr. Abrams to keep track of how "how the contras were obtaining support, including lethal supplies (arms), from sources outside the United State Government." The prosecutors said that Mr. Abrams noted Mr. Shultz's instructions in his notebook by writing, "monitor Ollie."
But when Mr. Abrams testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the contra supply operation on Oct. 10, 1986, he suggested that his knowledge was limited. Mr. Abrams testified that he and other Government officials "have been kind of careful not to get closely involved with it and to stay away from it." Reagan Plan to Seek Aid
In a statement of facts submitted in support of the guilty pleas, the prosecutors said that Mr. Abrams was unwilling to disclose more details about Mr. North's contra aid efforts because it might have upset President Reagan's efforts to obtain $100 million in aid for the rebels, which was approved by Congress.
"It was the opinion of Mr. Abrams that disclosure of Lieut. Col. North's activities in the resupply of the contras would jeopardize final enactment of the appropriation," the statement said.
Prosecutors also accused Mr. Abrams of withholding information from the House Intelligence Committee in an appearance on Oct. 14, 1986, when he responded to questions about his knowledge of efforts to obtain financial support for the contras from foreign governments.
Mr. Abrams testified that reports of other governments' providing money to the contras were "false," although the prosecutors said that he had personally helped solicit a $10 million contribution from the Sultan of Brunei.
The prosecutors said that Mr. Abrams, with Mr. Shultz's approval, requested the contribution and provided a representative of the Sultan with the number of a Swiss bank account that Mr. Abrams obtained from Mr. North.
Mr. Abrams later apologized to Congress for his failure to acknowledge his role in the Brunei contribution, which never reached the Swiss account because of an apparent clerical error.
In June 1987, during his testimony to the Iran-Contra committees, Mr. Abrams again acknowledged that parts of his past testimony were in error. "I made those statements and I made a similar statement on Oct. 14 to Secretary Shultz and every one of those statements, private and public, was completely honest and completely wrong," he said.
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