For as long as Elliott Abrams has promoted the fantasy that U.S. military assistance to El Salvador would create peace, he has also pushed another delusion: Life is fine there, so Salvadoran refugees should be deported, and what's the big worry about persecution when they get back?

Independent human rights groups have said the opposite, that returning refugees are in danger of being killed, tortured or abducted by the same U.S.-backed forces involved in the deaths of more than 50,000 Salvadorans since 1980. Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, has contempt for organizations holding this view.

Members of Congress who believe that Salvadorans deserve protection and haven aren't treated much better. Last September, Rep. Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.), the House sponsor of legislation to temporarily suspend the deportation of Salvadoran refugees -- a similar bill in the Senate is sponsored by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) -- wrote to Abrams for his views on the issue. More than five months passed before Abrams stirred himself to reply. He was busy, understandably, getting his story straight on the role he played in the Iran-contra scandal.

Even after that duration, Abrams did little more than repeat to Moakley the all-is-rosy line: "The situation in El Salvador ... continues to improve dramatically ... Repeated studies of the treatment and condition of deported Salvadorans have disclosed no persecution upon their return to El Salvador, and indicate that few were even victims of random violence."

Abrams and the State Department have been relying on reports from the Intergovernmental Committee for Migration (ICM), an international organization. The department's 1987 country report on El Salvador says that ICM found "no government harassment" of returning refugees.

Earlier this month, the General Accounting Office issued a statement of no confidence in ICM: Its "data cannot provide a meaningful indicator of the extent of violence or persecution experienced by Salvadoran returnees." The collection of data was poor and the documentation of cases weak. Among other flaws, GAO cited a short-term contact with returnees: "ICM's information on 44 percent of returnees who arrived by April 30, 1986, ended three months after their arrival."

ICM itself doesn't claim to have "a scientific data base" on which to build sound conclusions. In other words, Abrams has been doing the building. He argues a case based on facts that the alleged fact-gatherers aren't especially enthused by.

GAO has damaged the administration's credibility on other occasions. In January, it documented the discrimination against Salvadoran refugee applications for asylum. In requests based on fear of torture, Salvadorans had an approval rate of 4 percent. For Polish aliens it was 90 percent, Iranians 64 percent. Compared with citizens of other countries, only Salvadorans were sent home after their asylum was denied.

Manipulation of the asylum standards of the 1980 Refugee Act maintains the fiction that the United States' policy in El Salvador is succeeding. An estimated 1 million Salvadorans are refugees inside their homeland, the fortunate survivors of a civilian death toll of 50,000 in seven years of mostly para-governmental killing. The number could be twice that high and probably not bloody enough for Abrams or Secretary of State George Shultz to have second thoughts.

Whether it's the failure to document violence done to returned refugees or the dismissal of violence that is known, the issue is not numbers but official lawlessness. Aryeh Neier of Americas Watch, a human rights group that supports the Moakley legislation, testified before the House Rules Committee May 13 that El Salvador is pervaded by a "complete absence of military accountability under the rule of law."

Neier told of lawyers, judges and juries being terrified by the army. One case is typical. Several members of the Salvadoran military had killed civilians near the town of Armenia: "According to court officials," Neier said, "the local garrison commander entered the courtroom accompanied by eight soldiers. The defense attorney, gesturing to the commander, urged the five jurors to acquit the soldiers, even though they had confessed to the murders, because this commander believed they were 'good boys.' The jury acquitted the soldiers."

A brazen military was recently given still more reason to think it can rule the country. President Jose Napoleon Duarte was humiliated before his countrymen by a rejection from the Reagan administration. He had asked that the United States give temporary refuge -- on economic grounds -- to as many as 600,000 Salvadorans now here. No deal, said Reagan. Now it's a double hoax. There is "no persecution" and the economy is fine. Send the refugees home to peace and prosperity. What war, what poverty?

1987, Washington Post Writers Group