Spy's retreat a win for the Israel lobby
By Daniel Luban and Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - Ambassador Chas Freeman withdrew from consideration for a top
intelligence post in the Barack Obama administration on Tuesday, following a
vitriolic battle that pitted Republican lawmakers and pro-Israel hardliners
opposed to his appointment against liberals and members of the intelligence and
diplomatic communities who had come to his defense.
Freeman's withdrawal came as a surprise to many in Washington, particularly
since it came only hours after Dennis Blair, the administration's director of
national intelligence (DNI) who made the appointment, issued a strong defense
of Freeman during his testimony before the US Senate.
His withdrawal is likely to be viewed as a significant victory for
hardliners within the so-called "Israel lobby”, who led the movement to scuttle
his appointment, and a blow to hopes for a new approach to Israel-Palestine
issues under the Obama administration.
A brief notice posted late on Tuesday on the DNI website stated that "Director
of National Intelligence Dennis C Blair announced today that Ambassador Charles
W Freeman Jr has requested that his selection to be chairman of the National
Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman's
decision with regret."
The DNI did not provide any further reason for Freeman's withdrawal.
Senator Chuck Schumer, a critic of Freeman who privately conveyed his concerns
to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel last week, released a statement
taking credit for the withdrawal, according to Greg Sargent of the Plum Line
"Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position," Schumer's statement
read. "His statements against Israel were way over the top and severely out of
step with the administration. I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him,
and I am glad they did the right thing."
The battle over Freeman began in late February, soon after Blair appointed him
as chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC). The NIC, among other
responsibilities, is tasked with producing National Intelligence Estimates,
which are consensus judgments of all 16 intelligence agencies.
Freeman was reportedly Blair's hand-picked choice. He is a polyglot with
unusually wide-ranging foreign-policy experience - his previous jobs have
included chief translator during president Richard Nixon's historic 1972 trip
to China, ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and assistant secretary of defense for
international security affairs.
But Freeman is also known for his outspoken and often caustic political views.
He has been especially critical of the George W Bush administration's conduct
of the "war on terror" and of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories.
Initial resistance to the appointment came from neo-conservatives and other
pro-Israel hardliners who were opposed to Freeman's critical views of Israeli
policies. The campaign against Freeman was spearheaded by Steve Rosen, a former
official for the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who
is currently facing trial for allegedly passing classified information to the
It was quickly taken up by neo-conservative commentators in the Wall Street
Journal, the Weekly Standard and the New Republic, among other places.
However, Freeman's critics soon shifted their focus from his views on Israel to
his ties with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royal family has provided funding to the
Middle East Policy Council, a think-tank that Freeman headed, leading to
allegations that he was "on the Saudi payroll" or even a "Saudi puppet”.
Last week, 11 congressional representatives - including several with major
financial ties to AIPAC and other right-wing pro-Israel groups - called on the
DNI's inspector-general to investigate Freeman's financial ties to Saudi
Later in the week, Blair sent the representatives a letter offering his "full
support" for Freeman and praising the appointee's "exceptional talent and
experience”. The letter also discussed Freeman's financial ties to Saudi
Arabia, stressing that "he has never lobbied for any government or business
(domestic or foreign)" and that he "has never received any income directly from
Saudi Arabia or any Saudi-controlled entity”.
Blair's letter appeared to have defused the case against Freeman based on his
On Monday, the seven Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee
sent their letter of concern to Blair, but they made no mention of the Saudi
charges that formed the backbone of their House colleagues' letter from the
previous week. Instead, the senators focused on Freeman's alleged intelligence
inexperience and his "highly controversial statements about China and Israel”.
It was the China issue that had become the central attack against Freeman in
recent days. Critics pointed to a leaked e-mail that he sent to a private
listserv about the Chinese government's 1989 repression of demonstrators in
Tiananmen Square, in which he appeared to argue that the Chinese authorities'
true mistake was not the violent repression but their "failure to intervene on
a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud”.
Blair and others countered that the e-mail was taken out of context, and that
Freeman was not describing his own views but what he referred to as "the
dominant view in China".
One member of the listserv who did not wish to be identified said that
Freeman's e-mail came in the context of an extended conversation about what
lessons the Chinese leadership took from the Tiananmen Square events, and that
Freeman himself has always regarded the events as a "tragedy".
Regardless, the leaked e-mail became the focal point of the debate over
Freeman. On Thursday, 87 Chinese dissidents and human-rights activists released
a letter conveying their "intense dismay" at his appointment and asking Obama
to withdraw it.
But others stepped in to defend Freeman's record on human rights in China.
China scholar Sidney Rittenberg told James Fallows of the Atlantic that Freeman
was "a stalwart supporter of human rights who helped many individuals in need"
during his diplomatic career in Beijing. Jerome Cohen, an expert in Chinese
law, told Fallows that the allegations that Freeman endorsed the Tiananmen
Square repression were "ludicrous".
Fallows was one of several prominent media figures - including Joe Klein of
Time and Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic - who came to Freeman's defense in
recent days. While many of them disagree with Freeman's outspoken views, they
warned against what Fallows calls the "self-lobotomization" of US foreign
policy that results from shutting out dissenting voices.
Diplomatic and intelligence professionals in the foreign policy bureaucracy -
in which Freeman was seen as enjoying strong support - also rallied to his
Last week, 17 former US ambassadors - including former ambassador to the United
Nations Thomas Pickering and former ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis - wrote a
letter to the Wall Street Journal praising Freeman as "a man of integrity and
high intelligence who would never let his personal views shade or distort
On Tuesday, seven former senior intelligence officials wrote to Blair in
support of Freeman. They called the attacks on him "unprecedented in their
vehemence, scope and target" and perpetrated by "pundits and public figures ...
[who are] aghast at the appointment of a senior intelligence official able to
take a more balanced view of the Arab-Israel issue".
These endorsements by figures with solidly establishmentarian credentials
appeared to have strengthened Freeman's position. This made Tuesday's
announcement especially unexpected, since many felt that Freeman had succeeded
in riding out the storm.
Despite the Saudi and Chinese angles of the Freeman controversy, many still saw
it as part of a neo-conservative campaign to shut out critics of Israel from
positions of power.
"The whole anti-Freeman effort was engineered by the people who fear that Obama
will abandon current policies toward Israel from acceptance of the occupation
to forceful opposition to it," M J Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum wrote
on the Huffington Post.
The timing of Freeman's withdrawal is likely to prove especially bad for the
Obama administration, since it came after Blair had committed a significant
amount of political capital to defending his appointee.
In his testimony before the Senate on Tuesday, Blair responded to concerns
raised by Lieberman by praising Freeman's "inventive mind" and argued that his
critics "misunderstand the role of the development of analysis that produces
"I can do a better job if I'm getting strong analytical viewpoints to sort out
and pass on to you and the president than if I'm getting pre-cooked pablum
judgments that don't really challenge," Blair told Lieberman.
Lieberman seemed unsatisfied with Blair's answer. "OK, I guess I would say, 'to
be continued'," he replied.
As it turned out, Lieberman did not have to wait long to get the response he
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.