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Elliott Abrams (born January 24, 1948) is an American diplomat, lawyer, and political scientist who served in foreign policy positions for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.[2] Abrams was convicted of withholding information from Congress about the Iran–Contra affair while serving under Reagan, but was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush.[3] He is currently a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.[4]

Elliott Abrams
Elliott Abrams by Gage Skidmore.jpg
Abrams orating in 2012
Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs
In office
July 17, 1985 – January 20, 1989
PresidentRonald Reagan
Preceded byLanghorne Motley
Succeeded byBernard Aronson
Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs
In office
December 12, 1981 – July 17, 1985
PresidentRonald Reagan
Preceded byPatt Derian
Succeeded byRichard Schifter
Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs
In office
May 13, 1981 – December 1, 1981
PresidentRonald Reagan
Preceded byRichard McCall
Succeeded byGregory Newell
Personal details
Born (1948-01-24) January 24, 1948 (age 70)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Rachel Decter (1980–2013)[1]
EducationHarvard University (BA, JD)
London School of Economics (MA)

During the Reagan administration, Abrams gained notoriety for his involvement in controversial foreign policy decisions regarding Nicaragua and El Salvador. During George W. 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.



Elliott Abrams was born into a Jewish family[5] in New York in 1948. His father was an immigration lawyer. Abrams attended the Little Red School House in New York City, a private high school whose students at the time included the children of many of the city's notable left-wing activists and artists.[6] Abrams' parents were Democrats.[6]

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 practised 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.[7]


Assistant Secretary of State, 1980sEdit

Ronald Reagan and Elliott Abrams, 1981

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.[8] 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.[8]

During this time, Abrams clashed regularly with church groups and human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch.[9] According to the Washington Post article, in a 1984 appearance on the program Nightline, Abrams clashed with Aryeh Neier,[10] the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch[11] 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 U.S.-backed governments, such as those in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and the rebel Contras in Nicaragua.

El SalvadorEdit

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."[12] 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.[13]

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.[14] 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 U.S. funding of the Salvadoran government that committed the massacre at El Mozote, individual U.S. personnel "performed creditably and occasionally with personal bravery in advancing human rights in El Salvador."[15] Unrepentant Reaganite Abrams claimed that Washington's policy in El Salvador was a "fabulous achievement."[16]


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.[17] 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.[18] Neither the direct aid, nor any foreign contributions, could be used to purchase weapons.[18]

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.[19][20] 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.[19]

Iran-Contra affair and convictionsEdit

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.[19] Instead, Abrams cooperated with Walsh and entered into a plea agreement wherein he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress.[21] He was sentenced to a $50 fine, probation for two years, and 100 hours of community service. Abrams was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush in December 1992.[citation needed]

Special Assistant to President BushEdit

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.[22] 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.[23]

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.[24][25] In this capacity, Abrams played an important role in U.S.–Israel relations. In an unannounced visit to Ariel Sharon in Rome in 2003, Abrams was the first member of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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."[26]

The Observer has claimed that Abrams had advance knowledge of, and "gave a nod to," the Venezuelan coup attempt of 2002 against Hugo Chávez.[27]

Advisor for Global Democracy StrategyEdit

On February 2, 2005, President George W. Bush appointed Abrams deputy national security adviser for Global Democracy Strategy,[28] 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.[28]

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.[29]


On May 16, 2016, Abrams wrote a historical piece[30] denouncing Donald Trump in which he drew parallels between the 2016 election to the 1972 election.

On December 23, 2016, Abrams, a strong supporter of Israel, criticized Obama for "undermining Israel's elected government, prevent its action against Iran's nuclear weapons program, and create as much daylight as possible between the United States and Israel."[31]

In February 2017, it was reported that Abrams was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's first pick for Deputy Secretary of State, but that Tillerson was subsequently overruled by Trump.[32] Trump aides were supportive of Abrams, but Trump opposed him because of Abrams' opposition during the campaign.[32]

He is currently a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.[33] 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.[34] 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 U.S. foreign policy and human rights.[3] 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.[35]

Personal lifeEdit

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.[36]



  • Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Cambridge University Press. 2013. ISBN 1-107-03119-2.
  • 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.


  1. ^ "Rachel Abrams, writer and artist, dies". St. Louis Jewish Light.
  2. ^ "Elliott Abrams". Right Web – Institute for Policy Studies. 21 November 2014.
  3. ^ a b "Elliott Abrams". Retrieved 12 October 2011.
  4. ^ "Elliott Abrams Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies". Council on Foreign Relations. 2009. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  5. ^ Sorin, Gerald (March 11, 1997). Tradition Transformed: The Jewish Experience in America (The American Moment). p. 219. ISBN 978-0-8018-5446-0.
  6. ^ a b Sullivan, James (April 24, 2013). "Book Review: 'Little Red' by Dina Hampton". Boston Globe.
  7. ^ "Elliott Abrams on Conversations with Bill Kristol". Retrieved 12 April 2018.
  8. ^ a b Bite, Vita (November 24, 1982). "Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy: Issue Brief IB81125" (PDF). Congressiokal Researce Service Major Issues System. Library of Congress: 5–6. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  9. ^ Dobbs, Michael (May 27, 2003). "Back in Political Forefront: Iran-Contra Figure Plays Key Role on Mideast". Washington Post. p. A01.
  10. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-05-13. Retrieved 2007-05-03.
  11. ^ Neier, Aryeh (November 2, 2006). "The Attack on Human Rights Watch". The New York Review of Books. 53 (57).
  12. ^ Danner, Mark (December 3, 1993). "The Truth of El Mozote". The New Yorker. pp. 4, 50–50. Archived from the original on November 4, 2012. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  13. ^ Whitfield, Teresa (1994). Paying the Price: Ignacio Ellacuría and the Murdered Jesuits of El Salvador. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. p. 389. ISBN 1-56639-253-5.
  14. ^ Krauss, Clifford (March 21, 1993). "How U.S. Actions Helped Hide Salvador Human Rights Abuses". New York Times.
  15. ^ Whitfield, Teresa (1994-11-09). Paying the Price. Temple University Press. pp. 389–390. ISBN 978-1-56639-253-2.
  16. ^ Corn, David (June 1, 2001). "Elliott Abrams: It's Back!". The Nation. Archived from the original on September 15, 2012. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  17. ^ National Security Council internal memorandum, "Options and Legislative Strategy for Renewing Aid to the Nicaraguan Resistance". January 31, 1985. Declassified under FOIA
  18. ^ a b Special to the New York Times (July 10, 1987). "Iran-Contra Hearings; Boland Amendments: What They Provided". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-11-16.
  19. ^ a b c Walsh, Lawrence E. (August 4, 1993). "Final Report of the Independent Counsel For Iran/Contra Matters Vol. I: Investigations and Prosecutions". Chapter 25. U.S. Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  20. ^ Abrams, Elliott (1993). Undue Process: A Story of How Political Differences Are Turned into Crimes. The Free Press. p. 89. ISBN 0-02-900167-6.
  21. ^ Walsh, Lawrence E. (August 4, 1993). "Final Report of the Independent Counsel For Iran/Contra Matters Vol. I: Investigations and Prosecutions". Summary of Prosecutions. U.S. Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  22. ^ Press release (June 28, 2001). "Statement by the Press Secretary". The White House. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  23. ^ Press release (December 2, 2002). "Statement by the Press Secretary". The White House. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  24. ^ Cooper, Linda; Hodge, Jim (August 10, 2001). "Appointees Spark Controversy". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  25. ^ "Editorial: Appointments Insult Human Rights Cause". National Catholic Reporter. August 1, 2001. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  26. ^ Abrams, Elliott. "Conversations with Bill Kristol". Retrieved 6 October 2014.
  27. ^ Vulliamy, Ed (April 21, 2002). "Venezuela coup linked to Bush team". London: The Observer.
  28. ^ a b Press Release (February 2, 2005). "Personnel Announcement". The White House. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  29. ^ Cooper, Helene (August 10, 2006). "Rice's Hurdles on Middle East Begin at Home". New York Times.
  30. ^ Abrams, Elliott (May 16, 2016). "When You Can't Stand Your Candidate". Weekly Standard.
  31. ^ "Obama's Disgraceful and Harmful Legacy on Israel". 23 December 2016. Retrieved 12 April 2018.
  32. ^ a b Gearan, Anne (February 10, 2017). "Trump rejects veteran GOP foreign policy aide Elliott Abrams for State Dept. job". Washington Post.
  33. ^ "Elliott Abrams Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies". Council on Foreign Relations. 2009. Retrieved November 16, 2009.
  34. ^ Wedel, J.R. (2009). Shadow Elite. New York: Basic Books.
  35. ^ "World's Largest Religion Also Most Persecuted". CBN.
  36. ^ Elliott Abrams – Undue Process, p. 80.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

Political offices
Preceded by
Richard McCall
Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs
Succeeded by
Gregory Newell
Preceded by
Patt Derian
Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs
Succeeded by
Richard Schifter
Preceded by
Langhorne Motley
Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs
Succeeded by
Bernard Aronson