The Slatest

Watch Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Tense Exchange with Elliott Abrams Over U.S.-Supported War Crimes in Latin America

A screenshot from the video of the exchange. Omar is speaking from her seat on the committee.
C-SPAN/YouTube

On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Elliott Abrams as the United States’ special envoy to Venezuela, tasked with handling “all things related to our efforts to restore democracy” in the country.

Abrams has years of experience working on U.S. policy in Latin America, which means he’s been involved in a number of controversial American actions. Most notably, he pleaded guilty in 1991 of two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress related to the Iran-Contra affair.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, did not waste her opportunity to press Abrams on his tenure in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.

“I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful,” she said, to protests from Abrams.

“I’m being attacked,” Abrams said. “It was an attack. … It is not right that members of this committee can attack a witness who is not permitted to reply.”

But Omar pressed on, moving to one of the more shameful moments in America’s history of intervention in Latin American affairs. “On Feb. 8, 1982, you testified before the Senate Foreign Relations committee about U.S. policy in El Salvador. In that hearing, you dismissed as communist propaganda the reports about the massacre at El Mozote.”

The massacre Omar was referring to remains the largest single massacre in recent Latin American history. In December 1981, the Salvadoran military, trained and armed by the U.S., killed nearly 1,000 unarmed people in and around a number of small village in hopes of squelching an uprising. In that massacre, an operation to locate guerillas in the nearby hills began with an aerial bombardment of the village and proceeded with a mass interrogation and execution of the villagers. Men were separated from women and children; women and girls—some as young as 10—were raped; and children were herded into a small building that the soldiers then riddled with bullets and set on fire. According to the New York Times, at least 143 victims, with an average age of 6 years old, died in that building.

The U.S. was accused of ignoring the rampant human rights abuses conducted by the Salvadoran government and military out of support for their fight against leftists guerrillas. In 1993, a U.N. commission found that out of 22,000 reported atrocities, 85 percent could be blamed on the Salvadoran security forces or right-wing death squads, rather than the guerrillas. As many as 85,000 civilians were killed or disappeared in the conflict during the time, according to the Times.

Omar isn’t wrong in accusing Abrams of dismissing reports from El Mozote. After reports of the massacre were published in the Times and the Washington Post, Abrams told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that because of the reports, they were likely propaganda: “It appears to be an incident which is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas,” according to the Post. A Human Rights report from the time concluded Abrams had “artfully distorted several issues in order to discredit the public accounts of the massacre” and “lavished praise” on a battalion that participated in the massacre.

Abrams, in the wake of the commission’s report a decade later, called the attacks on the Reagan administration’s record in El Salvador “a post-Cold War effort to rewrite history.”

Omar repeated Abram’s words from the 1990s to him. “You later said the U.S. policy in El Salvador was a ‘fabulous achievement,” she said. “Yes or no, do you still think so?

“From the day that President Duarte was elected in a free election to this day, El Salvador has been a democracy,” Abrams replied. “That’s a fabulous achievement.”

“Yes or no,” Omar pressed. “Do you think that massacre was a fabulous achievement that happened under our watch?”

“That is a ridiculous question, and I will not respond to it,” Abrams said. “I’m sorry, Mr. Chairman, I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.”

“Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide if you believed they were serving U.S. interests as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua?” she asked Abrams.

“I am not going to respond to that question,” Abrams said. “I’m sorry. I don’t think this entire line of questioning is meant to be real questions and so I will not reply.”

Omar continued to press Abrams for a statement on the prioritization of human rights. Abrams told her it was “always the position of the United States” to prioritize human rights.

But as Omar had just noted, Abrams has been accused of more than involvement in the Iran-Contra affair (he was later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush) and rallying to defend war criminals in El Salvador. In Guatemala, Abrams argued for support of President Efraín Ríos Montt, who was found guilty in 2013 of genocide against Guatemala’s indigenous Mayans, as the Intercept noted in a roundup of Abrams’ misdeeds. At the time, according to the Intercept, Abrams argued that the U.S. should disregard the Guatemalan state’s atrocities because “if we take the attitude ‘don’t come to us until you’re perfect; we’re going to walk away from this problem until Guatemala has a perfect human rights record,’ then we’re going to be leaving in the lurch people there who are trying to make progress.”