Former assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams, once the Reagan administration's outspoken "tough guy" on Central America, pleaded guilty in federal court yesterday to two charges of illegally withholding information from Congress about covert U.S. support for the contra rebels in Nicaragua.

The only State Department official, past or present, to face criminal charges thus far for covering up key aspects of the Iran-contra affair, Abrams, 43, admitted testifying untruthfully before two congressional committees in October 1986, within a fortnight of the crash of a contra resupply plane in Nicaragua.

The misdemeanor charges were filed just a few days before they would have been blocked by a five-year statute of limitations.

Standing before U.S. District Chief Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr., Abrams admitted he withheld material information from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 10, 1986, about official U.S. support for the anti-Sandinista guerrillas, and from the House intelligence committee on Oct. 14, 1986, about foreign funding for the rebels.

Among the details he held back, Abrams said, was the fact that he had solicited a $10 million contribution from the sultan of Brunei and, at the time of the hearing, had been informed by State Department cable that the money was on its way to a Swiss bank account.

Robinson said he would impose sentence Nov. 15. In entering the pleas, Abrams averted the threat of felony charges and agreed to cooperate with independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh in the final stages of Walsh's investigation of the Iran-contra scandal. The misdemeanors each carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

"This is clearly an important development that should enable us to move more quickly and with thoroughness to the conclusion of our investigation," Walsh said in a brief statement.

Iran-contra prosecutor Craig Gillen, Walsh's top aide, declined to say whether further indictments are likely as a result of Abrams's decision. But Gillen said the fact that Abrams pleaded guilty was "significant on the face of it" because of the high office he held.

In a brief statement on the courthouse steps, Abrams, who was assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1985 to early 1989, said the information he withheld "related to activities of the U.S. government in Central America which at that time I believed proper and lawful."

He added that he was proud of his 12 years' service in the government "and very happy to have this entire matter at long last behind me."

In the final phase of his investigation, Walsh has publicly stated that he was moving away from the White House and the National Security Council to concentrate on agencies that either collaborated with or had detailed knowledge of the Reagan administration's secret arms sales to Iran, or its covert resupply network for the contras.

Before yesterday's proceeding, former CIA officials under investigation by Walsh had privately expressed bitterness that prosecutors had not been going after other vulnerable agencies, such as the State and Defense departments.

Abrams's plea suggests that some U.S. diplomats who reported to him from Central America may be subjected to closer scrutiny. But sources said that Abrams so far does not appear to have supplied the prosecutors with any startling new information.

According to the 11-page information, or recitation of charges, filed by Walsh's office, Abrams was a key member of a "Restricted Interagency Group" (RIG) that coordinated U.S. activities in Central America in 1985-86, a period when Congress had banned military aid to the rebels.

Abrams and two other members of the group, then-White House aide Oliver L. North and Alan D. Fiers, chief of the CIA's Central American task force, composed an inner circle within the RIG and they often met to discuss "sensitive matters," the prosecutors said.

North was actively engaged during this period in raising funds for the contras from outside sources, known collectively as "the private benefactors," and in providing arms and other materials for the rebels.

"From at least December 1985 through October 1986," the prosecutors said, and Abrams acknowledged, "North acted as the principal channel of communication between the private benefactors and U.S. government officials, including the RIG."

At one point, on Sept. 4, 1985, as a congressionally approved program of nonlethal assistance for the contras was being organized, Secretary of State George P. Shultz told Abrams that he, Shultz, "had to know how the contras were obtaining their support, including lethal supplies, from sources outside the United States government," the information stated. Abrams summarized the instruction in his notebook as an order to "monitor Ollie."

There was no indication in the court pleadings filed yesterday of what reports Abrams might have made to Shultz. In congressional testimony on that point in 1987, Abrams said Shultz asked him to do this because Shultz regarded North as a "loose cannon."

Abrams testified in 1987 that the label was a "bum rap" against North and that his only monitoring consisted of asking North several times if he was violating the law.

Congress voted to renew full support for the contras in the fall of 1986, but had yet to take final action when the North network began to unravel on Oct. 5 with the shootdown of the contra resupply plane and the capture by the Sandinistas of one of the crew, Eugene Hasenfus.

Called before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 10 and asked about the supply network, Abrams said: "We have been kind of careful not to get closely involved with it and to stay away from it. . . . We do not encourage people to do this. We don't tell them to do this, we don't ask them to do it . . . other than a public speech by the president, that sort of thing, on the public record."

In making those statements, Abrams admitted yesterday, he had "unlawfully withheld material information" because he "then and there well knew that Lt. Col. North had been in contact with people supplying the contras, had conversations with people supplying the contras and had asked and encouraged them to supply the contras."

Prosecutors said that Abrams told them he was worried at the time of his testimony that "disclosure of . . . North's activities . . . would jeopardize final enactment of the {contra} appropriation."

The second charge stemmed from his Oct. 14, 1986, appearance before the House intelligence committee when he was asked about a report in the Los Angeles Times that Saudi Arabia had been helping to supply the contras. Abrams said it was false, and when asked about "other governments as well," he said that was "also false."

In fact, Abrams admitted, he "then and there well knew" that he had asked a representative of the sultan of Brunei for a $10 million contribution, provided the delegate with a Swiss bank account number given to Abrams by North, and on Sept. 26 was told the $10 million "was on its way to the Swiss bank account."

Accompanied by his wife, Rachel, Abrams, currently affiliated with the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank, seemed relaxed and resigned, even joking with prosecutors when fire alarms delayed the start of the hearing. It was just a test, but it forced evacuation of the courthouse for about 20 minutes. As Judge Robinson told everyone to take to the stairs, Abrams smiled and said something that drew a laugh from prosecutor Gillen.

After the hearing resumed, Abrams said twice in a firm voice: "I plead guilty."

Staff researchers Lucy Shackelford and Ralph Gaillard Jr. contributed to this report.

For nearly five years, Lawrence E. Walsh has investigated the diversion of profits from arms sales to Iran to aid the Nicaraguan contras. Some of those involved in the Iran-contra affair were in government service at the time. Others operated in the private sector.

IN GOVERNMENT SERVICE

Elliott Abrams:

Almost three years after leaving office, the former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs pleaded guilty yesterday to covering up the Reagan administration's secret support for the contras. He will be sentenced Nov. 15.

Oliver L. North:

The retired Marine lieutenant colonel was convicted in 1989 of obstructing Congress, unlawfully mutilating government documents and taking an illegal gratuity. He was sentenced in July 1989 to two years' probation and community service, and was fined $150,000. He also was disqualified from holding federal office. U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell dismissed the charges Sept. 16 after an appellate court returned the case to him for further hearings.

John M. Poindexter:

North's boss at the National Security Council was convicted in April 1990 of lying to Congress, obstructing congressional investigators and conspiring to cover up secret arms sales to Iran and the diversion of profits to aid the contras. He was sentenced in June 1990 to six months in prison; his appeal is before the U.S. Appeals Court.

Robert C. McFarlane:

The national security adviser who preceded Poindexter pleaded guilty in March 1988 to four misdemeanor charges. He was sentenced in March 1989 to two years' probation and community service, and was fined $20,000.

Clair E. George:

The former CIA deputy director for operations was indicted Sept. 6 on 10 counts of perjury and obstructing inquiries into the Iran-contra scandal. He has pleaded not guilty. No trial date has been set.

Alan D. Fiers:

The former chief of the CIA's Central American task force pleaded guilty July 9 to two misdemeanor charges as part of a deal in which he agreed to cooperate with WalshUs continuing investigation. He has not been sentenced.

THE OTHERS

Richard V. Secord:

The retired Air Force major general, who served as NorthUs chief operative in the arms deals and contra resupply network, pleaded guilty in November 1989 to lying to congressional investigators. He was sentenced in January 1990 to two years' probation.

Albert Hakim: The businessman who managed the finances for NorthUs network pleaded guilty in November 1989 to a misdemeanor charge. He was sentenced to two yearsU probation, fined $5,000 and agreed to relinquish his claim to $7.3 million from the arms sales.

Thomas G. Clines:

The former CIA agent and partner of Secord and Hakim was convicted in September 1990 on four felony tax counts. He was sentenced three months later to 16 months in prison and fined $40,000. He has appealed.

Carl R. R "Spitz" Channell:

The conservative fund-raiser pleaded guilty in April 1987 to a tax fraud charge. He was sentenced in July 1989 to two years' probation. He died May 7, 1990, after a car accident.

Richard R. Miller: The head of a Washington public relations firm pleaded guilty in May 1987 to conspiring to supply the contras with military equipment financed by tax-deductible contributions. He was sentenced in July 1989 to two years' probation and 120 hours of community service.

NOTE: An indictment against Joseph F. Fernandez, former CIA station chief in Costa Rica, was dismissed in November 1989 when the CIA refused to release classified information deemed necessary for a fair trial.

SOURCES: The Washington Post; Facts on File; Reuter

Compiled by James Schwartz - The Washington Post