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“I fail to understand,” the congresswoman said at a hearing Wednesday, “why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.”

The politician in question was freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Her interlocutor was Elliott Abrams, the veteran national security official recently installed by the Trump administration as Washington’s special envoy to Venezuela. Omar, who weathered a storm of controversy this week over her tweets about the financial influence of a pro-Israel lobby group, was now heaping scrutiny on the diplomat’s checkered career.

Abrams, Omar reminded the hearing, had pleaded guilty in 1991 to two counts of withholding information from Congress — essentially lying over the Iran-contra affair in the late 1980s while serving as an official in the Reagan administration. In 1992, though, he was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush and later joined the younger Bush’s National Security Council. Out of office, he has remained a fixture in Washington’s foreign policy establishment as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But Omar was not so impressed. She pushed him on an earlier chapter of his career, when, as a prominent State Department official in the Reagan administration, Abrams led the American coverup of a hideous massacre in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote. In December 1981, the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army, locked in a struggle with leftist guerrillas, slaughtered at least 800 civilians in the town as part of its brutal counterinsurgency. On Wednesday, Abrams balked at Omar’s line of questioning, deeming it “ridiculous.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) grills U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams over the Iran-contra affair and a 1981 massacre in El Salvador. (The Washington Post)

“The back-and-forth refocused a spotlight on controversies that have trailed Abrams, 71, during a half-century in public life,” wrote The Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker. “And it revealed the moral trade-offs involved in the hawkish role that he has advanced for the United States — a global posture that Trump once purported to reject but has increasingly embraced, including by maintaining that military intervention in Venezuela is ‘an option.’ ”

As footage of the exchange went viral on social media, Beltway insiders and foreign policy veterans rallied in defense of Abrams, arguing that a dark chapter nearly four decades ago need not negate a lifetime of public service. “Elliott Abrams is a devoted public servant who has contributed much of his professional life to our country,” tweeted Nicholas Burns, a former senior State Department official. “It’s time to build bridges in America and not tear people down.”

Francisco Toro, a dissident Venezuelan writer, wheeled on Omar for focusing on the death squads of a long-defunct regime, rather than the current abuses of the one in Caracas. “Showcasing astonishing insensitivity to the victims of a human rights catastrophe that is still ongoing today, she disgraced her perch in Congress and scored an invaluable propaganda victory to the regime sponsoring the exact type of human rights abuses she imagines herself to be opposing,” Toro wrote for The Post’s Global Opinions.

Many others, though, commended Omar for raising the ghosts of the past. Abrams’s lengthy career, argued Esquire’s Charles Pierce, seemed proof that in Washington “there is no limit to the number of peasants on your butcher’s bill that would keep you from government work."

“If you are going to appoint someone who has a history of lying to Congress about human rights abuses to be the special envoy for a brewing humanitarian crisis,” noted Dan Drezner in PostEverything, “it is entirely fair to question him about prior acts of bad faith.”

The massacre at El Mozote occurred just before Abrams assumed his post as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs in the Reagan administration. News of the brutal killings and rapes that took place there and in surrounding hamlets — considered some of the worst atrocities in modern Latin American history — reached the United States via the front pages of the New York Times and The Washington Post.

The Post’s Alma Guillermoprieto, who reached El Mozote in January 1982, found “dozens of decomposing bodies,” left to molder for a month in the ruins of the flattened village and adjacent fields. In a central square, she entered a church where many of the village’s men had been taken and executed. “The walls of the smaller sacristy beside it also appeared to have had its adobe walls pushed in,” she wrote. “Inside, the stench was overpowering, and countless bits of bones — skulls, rib cages, femurs, a spinal column — poked out of the rubble.”

Later reports uncovered other acts of barbarism. “We could hear the women being raped on the hills,” one witness told journalist Mark Danner, author of “The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War.” “And then, you know, the soldiers would pass by, coming from there, and they’d talk about it. You know, they were talking and joking, saying how much they liked the 12-year-olds.”

Men were beheaded with machetes, women raped and left to die, children had their skulls crushed in under the boots of soldiers.

At the time, Abrams worked to suppress news of the massacre, dismissing the news reports as not “credible” and enabling the propaganda of the guerrillas. “He was the point of the spear of the Reagan administration in denying a massacre had taken place at El Mozote,” Danner said in an interview with Today’s WorldView. He added that, for Abrams, human rights violations like this “were really nothing” compared with the grave danger perceived by the Reagan administration of left-wing, pro-Soviet victory in Central America.

This Cold War thinking would underlie Abrams’s actions and decision-making in Latin America through the 1980s. He called for the lifting of an arms embargo on Guatemala, supporting the regime of Efrain Rios Montt, who in 2013 was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity against the country’s indigenous Mayan population. In El Salvador, the full details of the massacre at El Mozote would only start to emerge a decade later, in part through the painstaking excavations of forensic scientists. It was just one episode in a hideous decade of violence, carried out largely by the Salvadoran army and right-wing death squads supported by the United States.

“It was a bloody, brutal, and dirty war,” wrote Raymond Bonner, who reported on the massacre for the New York Times, in a recent piece for the Atlantic. “More than 75,000 Salvadorans were killed in the fighting, most of them victims of the military and its death squads. Peasants were shot en masse, often while trying to flee. Student and union leaders had their thumbs tied behind their backs before being shot in the head, their bodies left on roadsides as a warning to others.”

The traumas of that era in Central America, Bonner argued, prefigured the mass exodus of asylum seekers that President Trump now insists amounts to an emergency on the U.S. southern border.

In an email to The Post’s Stanley-Becker, Abrams defended his record and angrily rejected Omar’s interrogation. “It’s a remarkable record of support for Latin democracy, of which Rep. Omar is obviously unaware and in which she is uninterested,” he said. “That was clear from her conduct, which constituted attacking rather than questioning a witness.”

But Danner pointed to the power of amnesia in Washington. “If you stay in D.C. long enough, no matter how dirty your bedsheets, they are going to be bleached clean simply by the corrosive force of forgetfulness,” he said. That is, unless a congresswoman decides to remind everyone.

“Omar performed a public service,” Danner said.

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