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Source: The Guardian

Jul 8, 2023

Biden to nominate Elliott Abrams, who lied over Iran-Contra, to key panel

President’s pick for bipartisan public diplomacy commission, 75, convicted of unlawfully withholding information from Congress

BY Mary Yang

Joe Biden intends to nominate Elliott Abrams, a former Trump appointee on Venezuela and Iran who was famously convicted for lying to Congress over the Iran-Contra affair, to the bipartisan US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

The announcement came wrapped in a list of eight Republican picks for bipartisan boards and commissions released in a White House statement on Monday.

“It’s definitely a way to reach out to neoconservatives, and to throw them a bone,” said the historian and journalist Eric Alterman, who has written about Abrams since the 1980s. “It’s a risky move on Biden’s part.”

Abrams, 75, has held senior positions in three Republican administrations, rising to prominence during a controversial run as assistant secretary of state under Ronald Reagan.

During Reagan’s second term, a congressional investigation found that senior administration officials secretly facilitated the sale of arms to the Iranian government and used the money to support the Contras, a rightwing rebel group in Nicaragua – the Iran-Contra affair.

Abrams, who was assistant secretary of inter-American affairs from 1985 to early 1989, later pleaded guilty to two charges of illegally withholding information from Congress – including his role in soliciting $10m from Brunei – during two October 1986 hearings, one before the Senate foreign relations committee and a second before the House intelligence committee.

Biden, then a Delaware senator, was a member of the Senate foreign relations committee at the time.

Abrams has drawn backlash for his support for the El Salvadoran government, whose army in 1981 massacred nearly 1,000 civilians in the village of El Mozote during its civil war against a coalition of Soviet-backed leftwing groups.

A 1992 Human Rights Watch report said Abrams, as assistant secretary of state for human rights, “distorted” information to discredit public accounts of genocide. Abrams also backed US aid to the Guatemalan military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who was later convicted for genocide and crimes against humanity, during the Guatemalan civil war.

“We only have, really, this example of legally defined genocide where the United States was complicit – and Elliott Abrams was the person who made that policy,” said Alterman, referring to US support for the Guatemalan government under Ríos Montt.

Congressional Republicans likely pushed Biden to tap Abrams to the commission, said Brett Bruen, the president of media company the Global Situation Room and a former US diplomat.

“It would be seen as interference should Biden not accede to those recommendations,” he said.

A White House official said: “It’s standard for Republican leadership to put nominees forward for these boards and commissions, along with President Biden’s own nominees.”.

There are seven seats on the diplomacy panel, four of which were vacant as of March, according to a state department notice. It is housed within the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, a post that sat empty until Biden nominated Elizabeth Allen to lead the office in January. She began in June.

Bruen said: “The vacancies on the commission underline a major missing piece in Biden’s early pledge to restore America’s image on the international stage.”

Nick Cull, a public diplomacy professor at the University of Southern California, said Biden was not alone in neglecting key posts, citing a report by former executive director of the commission Matthew Armstrong that found the under-secretary job has been vacant for nearly half the time since it was created in 1999.

Most recently, Abrams was appointed by Trump to serve as a special envoy for Venezuela as the state department ramped up its efforts to force out Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Trump also appointed Abrams as special envoy to Iran in 2020.

Abrams was reportedly in the running to be Trump’s deputy secretary of state before being cut from the list of contenders over his criticism of Trump during the campaign trail.

He also served in senior national security roles during George Bush’s administration, and is currently a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Washington-based thinktank Council on Foreign Relations.

Once nominated, Biden’s appointees must be confirmed by the Senate. But recent picks have languished. A floor vote to confirm Julie Su, the acting secretary of Labor, to the official cabinet post has been delayed for months.

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