From the moment he won the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan began looking for somewhere to fight a proxy war against the Soviet Union. Together with his advisers, he chose the Central American nation of El Salvador, where a civil war was raging between Marxist guerrillas and a military-led dictatorship.
To remain in power, the junta relied on “death squads” to kill not only its opponents but anyone who might even think of supporting its opponents, including nuns, priests, and children. The government claimed the death squads were independent, but in truth, they were just regular government soldiers, often (but not always) out of uniform. In order to justify US involvement in the war, Reagan had to defend the junta in the media. “We are helping the forces that are supporting human rights in El Salvador,” Reagan lied in a 1981 news conference.
Congress, at the time, was much closer to the concerns of the public than now, and war remained deeply unpopular. Many Americans were not only appalled by the junta’s willingness to murder US-based nuns and churchwomen; they also feared US involvement in another anti-guerrilla war in which the country had no clear national interest. The bumper sticker “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam” spoke for these Americans as few slogans manage to do.
Although they had the country behind them, few Democrats were willing to risk taking the blame should El Salvador go communist, as Nicaragua appeared to be doing. To avoid responsibility, they devised a face-saving plan to demand that the Reagan administration undergo a process of “certification” to demonstrate that the Salvadorans were making progress in respecting human rights. In January 1982, just as the Reagan administration was preparing to make its very first certification, the White House found itself faced with reports of a massacre in the village of El Mozote, in the tiny, guerrilla-friendly canton of Morazan.
On the day before the first hearing, January 26, 1982, Raymond Bonner of The New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of The Washington Post simultaneously reported on an incident in which hundreds of unarmed civilians had been summarily murdered by uniformed Salvadoran soldiers. (Bonner put the number of victims between 722 and 926.) Neither reporter had seen the massacre take place, and both noted that their guides to the site had been associated with the guerrillas. Yet the journalists saw the corpses firsthand, and photographer Susan Meiselas documented many of them as well.
Immediately, the administration and its allies went to war with reporters and their publications to try to prevent the story from mucking up their proxy war. It sent out its own investigators, who never reached the area after they refused a guided tour from the guerrillas. As one of them later admitted to the journalist Mark Danner, “In the end, we went up there and we didn’t want to find that anything horrible had happened.” So they didn’t. The assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, Thomas Enders, took their tentative conclusions and insisted that there was “no evidence to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operations zone, or that the number of civilians remotely approached the seven hundred and thirty-three or nine hundred and twenty-six victims cited in the press.” Without any independent confirmation, Elliott Abrams—who, at 33, was Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs—also took up the cause. The El Mozote case “is a very interesting one in a sense,” he remarked to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “because we found, for example, that the numbers, first of all, were not credible, because as Secretary Enders notes, our information was that there were only 300 people in the canton.”
Abrams’s argument was deliberately misleading. News reports had been clear: The mass killing had taken place in several hamlets. This particular argument was of a piece with the rest of the administration’s McCarthyite strategy to discredit the massacre’s existence. “We find…that it is an event that happened in mid-December [but it] is then publicized when the certification comes forward to the committee,” Abrams continued. “So, it appears to be an incident which is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.”
Joining in this campaign was the Reagan administration’s reliable ally in ideological warfare, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, which accused Bonner and Guillermoprieto of being “overly credulous” of the peasants’ accounts and dismissed their eyewitness reporting and interviewing as little more than a “propaganda exercise.” Journal editor George Melloan told a television interviewer that what was really at work here was that the fact that “obviously” Times reporter Raymond “Bonner has a political orientation,” and compared his reporting to that of Herbert Matthews’s “glorification of Fidel Castro in the 1950s” that “became a permanent embarrassment to The New York Times.” Accuracy in Media, then an influential conservative pressure group, treated numerous television talk shows to accusations that Bonner and Guillermoprieto were engaging in a deliberate hoax no less serious than that undertaken in the 1930s by Walter Duranty, the infamous Times correspondent who sought to whitewash Joseph Stalin’s mass murders. In its newsletter, the group charged Bonner with conducting “a propaganda war favoring the Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador.” However badly sourced and ideologically transparent, the campaign of vilification apparently worked. In August 1982, the Times recalled Bonner to New York and assigned him to the financial desk, and he eventually left the paper to pursue a freelance career. Other journalists took his example as a warning.
In the decades since this debacle, two things have become obvious: The first is that the El Mozote massacre was even worse than the reporters were able to determine at the time, and the second is that the US officials at the time, including especially Enders and Abrams, were lying on behalf of the killers. In 1993, after a postwar United Nations–sponsored “truth commission” discovered evidence that more than a thousand people, mostly women (many of whom had apparently been raped), the elderly, and young children, were killed in the massacre, Enders finally admitted to a reporter, “I now know that the materials that we and the embassy passed on to Congress were wrong.” Abrams, however, has never recanted. Ten years after the massacre, he continued to try to obfuscate the truth, demanding to know, “if it had really been a massacre and not a firefight, why didn’t we hear about it right off from the FMLN [then a leftist rebel group]? I mean, we didn’t start hearing about it until a month later.”
Beginning in 2016, a Salvadoran judge reopened the cases against the military men accused of ordering the killings. And now in that trial, in late January, Juan Rafael Bustillo, a former commander of the Air Force, testified, according to Reuters, that the massacre had been conducted “at the behest” of Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, who commanded the elite US-trained and -equipped Atlacatl Battalion.
Bonner and Guillermoprieto have now been thoroughly vindicated. But what is perhaps most significant about this event from the standpoint of US politics is the fact that it helped to launch Elliott Abrams on a career that was literally built on the defense of mass murder and genocide and his willingness to lie on behalf those who carried it out and smear the reputations of anyone who sought to try to stop or expose it. I have written about Abrams’s remarkable ability to escape any sanction for his role as a cheerleader for murderous dictators—no matter how horrific—repeatedly for more than 30 years. (See, for instance, here and here and here and here and here.) It revealed itself most gruesomely in Guatemala, where he supported and defended Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s then-dictator, later convicted of carrying out “acts of genocide” in the legally binding words of Guatemala’s United Nations–backed Commission for Historical Clarification—against the indigenous people in the Ixil region of the department of Quiché, and then again through his participation with Oliver North et al. in Reagan’s illegal shenanigans in the Iran/Contra scandal. (Abrams was eventually convicted of having misled Congress, before being pardoned by George H.W. Bush along with virtually every other convicted Iran/Contra criminal.)
Despite this record, Abrams spent the second Bush administration in the National Security Council, where he worked to subvert the last Palestinian attempt at elections, before retiring to a prestigious position as a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies in the Council on Foreign Relations. There, he continued his brand of McCarthyite-tinged abuse of anyone with whose politics he differed and made himself a regular on the synagogue circuit, supporting the recently indicted Benjamin Netanyahu in everything he said and did. (He received a rare rebuke from the organization’s head, Richard Haas, when, in 2013, he called then–secretary of defense nominee and former Republican senator Chuck Hagel an “anti-Semite” who “seems to have some kind of problem with Jews.”
Mainstream reporters have rarely if ever sought to hold Abrams accountable for any of his actions. Both when then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wished to make Abrams his number two—until this was vetoed by Trump over Abrams’s past criticisms of the president—and more recently, when current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made him US special representative to Venezuela, where the United States is seeking to force the replacement the government of Nicholas Maduro—the reports almost always treat him as a sensible neoconservative Republican who represents the party’s pre-Trump center of gravity. When, early last year, Representative Ilhan Omar tentatively raised his awful human rights record at a hearing on the topic, Abrams, unsurprisingly, called Reagan’s policy in El Salvador “a fabulous achievement.” He enjoyed enthusiastic support from the likes of former undersecretary of state for political affairs and ambassador to NATO, now Harvard professor, Nicholas Burns and Washington Post columnist and CNN regular Max Boot, and few if any journalists made reference to his role as a cheerleader for genocide. (That Abrams is the son-in law of neocon godfather and longtime Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and brother-in-law of his son and successor John Podhoretz is hardly irrelevant to his popularity in this self-seeking crowd.)
Abrams’s ability to fail upward for his entire career is proof that whatever rhetoric presidents, pundits, and others may deploy, neoconservatives and their allies have never cared a whit for human rights and democracy, or even truth. They promoted and embraced a convicted liar who repeatedly ran interference for mass murderers and has never acknowledged, much less apologized, for his crimes and those he helped cover up. That Abrams is treated as a respected member of the foreign policy establishment, rather than a moral leper, is evidence of the deep corruption of both the post-Reagan Republican Party and the neoconservative movement, as well as the willingness of so many in the media to ignore and excuse it.