Who's believable -- Elliott Abrams or Patricia Lara?

In a months-long campaign that is reaching the proportions of a crusade to save the Northern Hemisphere, Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, accuses Lara, a reporter for the leading newspaper in Bogota, Colombia, of terrorism and espionage. Lara denies it.

Abrams, making his charges on television and newspapers, claims that he has "concrete evidence" that Lara was "heavily engaged" in the Colombian M-19 terrorist organization. The group, according to Abrams, "is in the business of murdering people." Abrams' assaultiveness omits the usual proprieties of due process that a lesser man might invoke. Lara is not allegedly a terrorist. She is one, period. And "heavily" engaged. Abrams is not one for prissy qualifiers. His evidence against Lara does not suggest she is an M-19 killer. He has "concrete evidence."

For someone who glories in his bare-knuckles skills, Abrams plays the coward when asked to back up his aggresso talk with a fact or two. He runs away. He has "intelligence information." It's enough, apparently, to sway every impartial observer that Lara is worse than Lenin, Che Guevara and Daniel Ortega combined. "Unfortunately," says Abrams, "we are unable to make most of that information public without harming sources and methods of intelligence gathering." Yes. How unfortunate -- for everyone but Abrams. He pledges that the "concrete evidence" against Lara will continue to be withheld.

The tone and style of this attack -- trust us, we're the Reagan administration -- is that of the 1950s Joe McCarthy witch hunts: "I have here in my hands ..." McCarthy said in hearings. If Abrams has the damning evidence of Lara's murderous work in Colombia, it has yet to be provided to, or uncovered by, the Colombian government. Last week, it sided with Lara.

Lara had written to the Colombian Defense Ministry asking whether its security forces had evidence of her alleged involvement with the M-19 group. The government replied with a categorical "no." It also said that no record of past investigations of Lara was found.

Short of coming to Washington to be strapped to a Reagan administration lie detector, Lara has done all that's possible to repudiate Abrams. She went to the Colombian military for help, the one power in the country that would presumably be eager to uncover a link between the press and terrorists. This is the Ministry of Defense cited by Amnesty International as creating in 1986 "a significant increase in extrajudicial executions and disappearances." Instead of the Colombian military joining forces with Abrams, their kind of anticommunist guy, it offered Lara a bodyguard. She has had the protection since late November, the necessity arising, the government said, because of Abrams' charges.

Abrams has his protection -- the duck blind of "national security" from which, with consummate sneakiness, he can shoot at people's reputations and not be held accountable. When "60 Minutes," the CBS News program, asked him to appear on a segment about Lara, he agreed: "This decision," he said, "was made only after careful consideration within the government about what information could be declassified without endangering the national security."

For sure. In his high-danger mission of appearing on "60 Minutes," let just one syllable of classified information slip out and Patricia Lara will be toppling America. Perhaps she will be in the front row of Sandinistas who Ronald Reagan said will be storming through Brownsville, Tex.

Some in the administration -- the Norths, the Buchanans -- fight stupidly. Abrams fights dirty. He hits, runs and then hides. Then if you say that he hits, runs and hides, he comes back, first with the preposterous national-security line and, second, with the charge that you have "blind faith" in Lara's "protestations of innocence." The latter is the accusation made by Abrams against the media, the dopes who still think you're innocent until proven guilty. In October, Lara was jailed in New York after immigration officials stopped her at the airport. She was then sent home, never knowing the reasons for her imprisonment, much less having the chance to respond.

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, a New York group, is defending Lara. Its options include taking action to enforce the Freedom of Information Act, a defamation suit against Abrams and a suit against immigration officials. Meanwhile in Colombia, Lara works as a respected reporter. She never intended to be a story herself. But now that she is, unlike the bully Abrams, she is not running or hiding.