Elliott Abrams (born January 24, 1948) is a former American diplomat, lawyer and political scientist who served in foreign policy positions for U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Abrams was convicted of withholding information from Congress about the Iran-Contra affair while serving for Reagan, but was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush.
He is currently a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Additionally, Abrams holds positions on the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf (CPSG), Center for Security Policy & National Secretary Advisory Council, Committee for a Free Lebanon, and the Project for the New American Century. Abrams is a current member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and teaches foreign policy at Georgetown University as well as maintaining a CFR blog called "Pressure Points" about the U.S. foreign policy and human rights. In February 2014, Abrams, a commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, gave testimony before a House congressional committee that Christians globally are the most persecuted of the world religions.
During the Reagan administration, Abrams gained notoriety for his involvement in controversial foreign policy decisions regarding Nicaragua and El Salvador. During Bush's first term, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director on the National Security Council for Near East and North African Affairs. At the start of Bush's second term, Abrams was promoted to be his Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy, in charge of promoting Bush's strategy of advancing democracy abroad. His appointment by Bush was controversial due to his conviction in 1991 on two misdemeanor counts of unlawfully withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra Affair investigation.
Abrams was born into a Jewish family in New York in 1948. His father was an immigration lawyer. Abrams received his Bachelor of Arts from Harvard College in 1969, a master's degree in international relations from the London School of Economics in 1970, and his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1973. He practiced law in New York in the summers for his father, and then at Breed, Abbott and Morgan from 1973 to 1975 and with Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand from 1979 to 1981.
Abrams worked as an assistant counsel on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1975, then worked as a staffer on Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson's brief campaign for the 1976 Democratic Party presidential nomination. From 1977 through 1979, he served as special counsel and ultimately as chief of staff for the then-new senator Daniel Moynihan. Growing dissatisfaction with President Carter's foreign policy led Abrams to support Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.
Through Senator Moynihan, Abrams was introduced to Rachel Decter, the stepdaughter of Moynihan's friend Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary. They were married from 1980 until her death in June 2013. The couple had three children: Jacob, Sarah, and Joseph.
Assistant Secretary of State, 1980s
Abrams first came to national prominence when he served as Reagan's Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs in the early 1980s and later as Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs. His nomination to Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs was unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on November 17, 1981. Abrams was Reagan's second choice for the position; his first nominee, Ernest W. Lefever, had been rejected by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 5, 1981.
During this time, Abrams clashed regularly with church groups and human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch. According to the Washington Post article, in a 1984 appearance on the program Nightline, Abrams clashed with Aryeh Neier, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch and with the leader of Amnesty International, over the Reagan administration's foreign policies. They accused him of covering up atrocities committed by the military forces of US-backed governments, such as those in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and the rebel Contras in Nicaragua.
In early 1982, when reports of the El Mozote massacre of hundreds of civilians by the military in El Salvador began appearing in U.S. media, Abrams told a Senate committee that the reports of hundreds of deaths at El Mozote "were not credible," and that "it appears to be an incident that is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas." The massacre had come at a time when the Reagan administration was attempting to bolster the human rights image of the Salvadoran military. Abrams implied that reports of a massacre were simply FMLN propaganda and denounced U.S. investigative reports of the massacre as misleading. In March 1993, the Salvadoran Truth Commission reported that over 500 civilians were "deliberately and systematically" executed in El Mozote in December 1981 by forces affiliated with the Salvadoran government.
Also in 1993, documentation emerged suggesting that some Reagan administration officials could have known about El Mozote and other human rights violations from the beginning. However, in July 1993, an investigation commissioned by Clinton secretary of state Warren Christopher into the State department's "activities and conduct" with regard to human rights in El Salvador during the Reagan years found that, despite US funding of the Salvadoran government that committed the massacre at El Mozote, individual US personnel "performed creditably and occasionally with personal bravery in advancing human rights in El Salvador." Unrepentant Reaganite Abrams claimed that Washington's policy in El Salvador was a "fabulous achievement."
When Congress shut down funding for the Contras' efforts to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government with the 1982 Boland Amendment, members of the Reagan administration began looking for other avenues for funding the group. Congress opened a couple of such avenues when it modified the Boland Amendment for fiscal year 1986 by approving $27 million in direct aid to the Contras and allowing the administration to legally solicit funds for the Contras from foreign governments. Neither the direct aid, nor any foreign contributions, could be used to purchase weapons. Guided by the new provisions of the modified Boland Amendment, Abrams flew to London in August 1986 and met secretly with Bruneian defense minister General Ibnu to solicit a $10-million contribution from the Sultan of Brunei. Ultimately, the Contras never received this money because a clerical error in Oliver North's office (a mistyped account number) sent the Bruneian money to the wrong Swiss bank account.
Iran-Contra affair and convictions
During investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair, Lawrence Walsh, the Independent Counsel tasked with investigating the case, prepared multiple felony counts against Abrams but never indicted him. Instead, Abrams cooperated with Walsh and entered into a plea agreement wherein he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors of withholding information from Congress. He was sentenced to a $50 fine, probation for two years, and 100 hours of community service. However, Abrams was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush, in December 1992 (as he was leaving office following his loss in that year in the U.S. presidential election).
On February 5, 1997, the D.C. Court of Appeals publicly censured Abrams for giving false testimony on three occasions before congressional committees. Although a majority of the court voted to impose a public censure, three judges in the majority would have imposed a suspension of six months, and a fourth judge would have followed the recommendation of the Board on Professional Responsibility that Abrams be suspended for a year.
Special Assistant to President Bush
President George W. Bush appointed Abrams to the post of Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations at the National Security Council on June 25, 2001. Abrams was appointed special assistant to the President and the NSC's senior director for Near East and North African Affairs on December 2, 2002. Some human rights groups and commentators considered his White House appointment repugnant due to his conviction in the Iran-Contra Affair investigation and his role in overseeing the Reagan administration's foreign policy in Latin America which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. In this capacity, Abrams played an important role in US-Israel relations. In an unannounced visit to Ariel Sharon in Rome in 2003, Abrams was the first member of the US government to discover that Israel planned to pull out of Gaza. Abrams was also witness to the growing tension between the two governments on account of the US effort to find a comprehensive peace settlement. As Abrams puts it, "What was not in the newspapers is the tension that is growing between the U.S. and Israel over this. Because we are constantly asking in my view for Israeli concessions, to kind of oil this mechanism of peace. And the Israelis are getting tired of it. And they think, you know, this is not the way an ally should act. Bush is kind of above this with the Prime Minister, so this is really Condi with the Israeli cabinet and the Prime Minister."
2002 Venezuelan coup
The Observer has claimed that Abrams had advance knowledge of, and "gave a nod to," the Venezuelan coup attempt of 2002 against Hugo Chávez. However, a review by the State Department's inspector general made the following conclusion: "Our government's opposition to the use of undemocratic or unconstitutional means to remove President Chávez was repeated over and over again during the relevant period by key policymakers and spokespersons in Washington and by our representatives in Caracas in both public and private forums. And, far from working to foment his overthrow, the United States alerted President Chávez to coup plots and warned him of an assassination threat that was deemed to be credible." Yet the U.S. government gave tacit approval to the coup initially, refusing to condemn the coup until after the president installed by the coup had already been forced to resign by the people.
Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy
On February 2, 2005, President George W. Bush appointed Abrams deputy national security adviser for Global Democracy Strategy, where he served until the end of his administration on January 20, 2009. In his new position, Abrams became responsible for overseeing the National Security Council's directorate of Democracy, Human Rights, and International Organization Affairs and its directorate of Near East and North African Affairs.
Abrams accompanied Condoleezza Rice as a primary adviser on her visits to the Middle East in late July 2006 in the course of discussions relating to the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict.
- American Committee for Peace in Chechnya: Member
- American Jewish Committee: Former member, National Advisory Council
- Center for Security Policy: Former member, National Security Advisory Council
- Committee for the Free World: Member of 1985 conference on Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting in Geneva
- Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf: Former Member (1998)
- Committee on U.S. Interests in the Middle East: Former Member
- Council on Foreign Relations: Member
- Counter Extremism Project: Advisory board member
- Ethics and Public Policy Center: President, 1996–2002
- Francisco Marroquin Foundation: Former chairman
- Heritage Foundation: Alumnus of Heritage Foundation Resource Bank
- Hudson Institute: Senior Fellow, 1990–96
- Independent Task Force on Colombia: Former member
- Middle East Forum: Signatory of 2000 report urging military action against Syria
- National Endowment for Democracy: Board of Directors
- NGO Monitor: member of the International Advisory Board
- Nicaraguan Resistance Foundation: Former chairman
- Project for the New American Century: Signatory of 1997 Statement of Principles and various other statements
- U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: Former member
- National Review: Former contributing author
- Policy Review: Former contributing author
- Beliefnet: Columnist
- U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: Chairman, 2000–2001; Commissioner, 1999–2001
- Inter-American Foundation: nominated as member of Board of Directors for the 1985–90 term
- "Leadership". Counter Extremism Project.
- "National Endowment for Democracy Adds Four to Board of Directors". ned.org.
- "International Advisory Board". ngo-monitor.org.
- Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Cambridge University Press. 2013. ISBN 1107031192.
- Democracy How Direct?: Views from the Founding Era and the Polling Era. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2002. ISBN 0-7425-2318-7.
- Abrams, Elliott and Johnson, James Turner, eds. (June 1998). Close Calls: Intervention, Terrorism, Missile Defense, and "Just War" Today. Ethics and Public Policy Center. ISBN 0-89633-187-3.
- Abrams, Elliott and Kagan, Donald, eds. (April 1998). Honor Among Nations: Intangible Interests and Foreign Policy. Ethics & Public Policy Center. ISBN 0-89633-188-1.
- Security and Sacrifice: Isolation, Intervention, and American Foreign Policy. Hudson Institute. January 1995. ISBN 1-55813-049-7.
- Shield and Sword: Neutrality and Engagement in American Foreign Policy. The Free Press. 1995. ISBN 0-02-900165-X.
- Undue Process A Story of How Political Differences are Turned into Crimes. Free Press. October 1992. ISBN 0-02-900167-6.
- The Influence of Faith. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2001. ISBN 0-7425-0762-9.
- Abrams, Elliott, ed. (June 2004). International Religious Freedom (2001): Annual Report: Submitted by the U.S. Department of State. Diane Pub Co. ISBN 0-7567-1338-2.
- Abrams, Elliott and Dalin, David, eds. (February 1999). Secularism, Spirituality, and the Future of American Jewry. Ethics & Public Policy Center. ISBN 0-89633-190-3.
- Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America. Free Press. June 1997. ISBN 0-684-82511-2.