Abrams received his B.A from Harvard College, a Master's degree in international relations from the London School of Economics, and his J.D from Harvard Law School. He practiced in New York and Washington, DC, and spent four years in the 1970s working for the US Senate as special counsel and then as chief of staff to Senator Daniel Moynihan.
Abrams first came to national prominence when he served as Reagan's Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in the early 1980s and later as Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs.
During this time, Abrams clashed regularly with mainstream church groups and human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who accused him of covering up horrendous abuses committed by US-backed governments, such as those in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and rebel forces, such as the Contras and Angola's Unita, while at the same time exaggerating abuses by insurgency groups which the US opposed. Records show, for example, that a special intelligence unit of the Honduran armed forces, Battalion 3-16, trained by the CIA and Argentine military, kidnaped, tortured and killed hundreds of people, including US missionaries. Critics charge that the US ambassador to Honduras, John Negroponte and the Reagan administration knew about these human rights violations and yet continued to collaborate with the Honduran military while deceiving Congress.
In early 1982, when reports of the El Mozote massacre -- thought to be the worst atrocity in modern Latin American history -- began appearing the US 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". Abrams implied that reports of a massacre were simply FMLN propaganda. He later claimed Washington's policy in El Salvador a "fabulous achievement."
When Congress stopped shut down funding for the Contras with the 1982 Boland Amendment, the Reagan administration began looking for other avenues for funding the group. As part of this strategy, Abrams flew to London using a fake name to solicit a $10 million contribution from the Sultan of Brunei.
Abrams was indicted by the Iran-Contra special prosecutor for giving false testimony about his role in the illicit money-raising schemes, but he pleaded guilty to two lesser offenses of withholding information to Congress in order to avoid a trial and a possible jail term. President George H.W. Bush pardoned Abrams along with a number of other Iran-Contra defendants shortly before leaving office in 1992.
In 1993, members of a Salvadoran Truth commission testified about the El Mozote massacre in a congressional hearing of the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee. Chairman Robert Torricelli, Democratic Senator from New Jersey, vowed to review for possible perjury "every word uttered by every Reagan administration official" in congressional testimony on El Salvador. Abrams denounced Torricelli's words as "McCarthyite crap." Eventually documentation emerged proving that the Reagan administration had known about El Mozote and other human rights violations all along.
During the 1990s, Abrams worked for a number of think tanks and eventually became head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) where he wrote widely on foreign policy issues. He remained an integral part of the tight-knit neoconservative foreign policy community in Washington that revolved around one of his early mentors, Richard Perle, and former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick at the American Enterprise Institute.
Like Perle, Abrams favors a Mideast strategy based on the overwhelming military power of both the United States and Israel and on a military alliance between Israel and Turkey against what are considered "hostile" Arab states, such as Syria and Iran, in order to create a "broader strategic context" that would ensure whatever state might emerge on Palestinian territory would be friendly to US and Israeli interests. Abrams is a staunch defender of Israel, and has publicly assailed the "land-for-peace" formula that has guided US policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict since the 1967 war.
James Zogby, the director of the Arab-American Institute (AAI), said Abrams' appointment sendt "a very dangerous message to the Arab world" and adds to the "lock that the neocon set now has on all the major instruments of decision-making except for the State Department."
In 1997, Abrams published a book, Faith or Fear , which warned American Jews that assimilating within the secular US culture posed the danger of a gradual loss of Jewish identity.