WASHINGTON — After denouncing officials who deceived Congress and each other in the Iran- contra scandal, Secretary of State George P. Shultz issued a strong endorsement Friday of Elliott Abrams, an assistant secretary of state who lied to Congress about soliciting aid for the Nicaraguan rebels from Brunei.
"He's a good guy," Shultz told the congressional committees investigating the scandal. ". . . I think he should continue in that job and continue to contribute."
"I personally do not agree with your high regard for him," Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) replied. "I thought you made a fatal error as far as his usefulness to your Administration. But that's your choice. The way I look at it, if you want him--you got him."
Asked $10-Million Donation
Abrams became a target of congressional fury last year when he told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the State Department had not solicited aid for the Nicaraguan rebels from any foreign countries. In fact, Abrams himself had solicited a $10-million contribution from Brunei, an oil-rich sultanate in Southeast Asia.
Abrams later informed the committee of the solicitation--but, in the process, he further annoyed members of Congress by insisting that he had not lied or knowingly misled them.
His attempts at explanations gained him little ground. Brooks, a salty Democrat from Texas' Gulf Coast, publicly declared him "a lying son of a bitch." Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for Abrams' resignation and 129 House Democrats endorsed the demand.
Forced to Swear Oath
Some congressional committee chairmen said they would no longer accept Abrams' word; others have forced him to swear an oath before testifying, even on such issues as U.S. sponsorship of loans to Chile.
White House aides told reporters that they would welcome Abrams' resignation because they feared that he had become a liability to President Reagan in his battle to win renewed funding for the contras from Congress this fall.
But Shultz and Abrams have waged a determined rear-guard battle to save the 39-year-old lawyer's job and so far they appear to be winning.
Shultz appears genuinely fond of his young aide--he referred to him throughout his testimony as "Elliott," a familiarity accorded no other subaltern--and defended his misleading statements as an honest mistake in judgment.
'He's a Fighter'
"I agree that he made a combative apology," Shultz said. "Elliott is a combative person. That's one of his endearing qualities, as far as I'm concerned. He's a fighter."
When asked about Abrams' testimony that he had not been "authorized" to tell the whole truth about the Brunei contribution, Shultz said: "Nobody has to get my permission to tell the truth.
"Now, in this case, Elliott had a piece of information that he could not reveal," he said. "To do so would have been a breach of faith with the country involved. . . . They had said that they would make this contribution on the understanding that it would be a confidential thing.
"I think that a perfectly acceptable thing . . . would have been to say: 'Senator, I don't want to testify on this. I'd like to come back.' Or, to say . . . 'We have made a solicitation that we believe is successful, but I cannot reveal the name of the country because we've given a pledge of confidentiality.' That would have, I'm sure, been quite satisfactory.
"Elliott made a mistake, and he knows it," Shultz said. " . . . He is full of remorse about this. And, in my opinion, he is a first-class person, a person of high character, very able--a person with a real instinct for public service."
Abrams Told of Backing
A State Department official said that Abrams was traveling in South America on Friday but was being informed of Shultz's endorsement by official cable. "I think you can take it for granted that he'll be pleased," he said.
Shultz also confirmed reports that the Administration plans to ask Congress for a commitment to fund the contras for a longer period than one year, but he did not mention a figure for the aid request. Officials have said that figures from $130 million to $300 million over 18 months are being considered.