The Obama administration's choice to head the
National Intelligence Council (NIC) recently withdrew in the face of a concerted
right-wing attack. Veteran diplomat Chas Freeman would not have had to face
Senate confirmation. Instead, he had to face attacks in the right-wing press
and blogosphere. His withdrawal was a victory for Bush-era neoconservatives
and their allies regarding intelligence and broader Middle East policy.
The NIC chairmanship is structured to offer a skeptical view on U.S. intelligence.
With his broad knowledge and experience in East Asia, the Middle East, Africa,
Europe, and Latin America, Freeman would appear to be an ideal appointee. Fluent
in both major dialects of Chinese, he accompanied President Richard Nixon on
his historic 1972 trip to China. Later, he served as principal deputy assistant
secretary of state for African affairs, assistant
secretary of defense for international security affairs, and as ambassador
to Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War. After retiring from the State Department,
Freeman succeeded former senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George
McGovern as head of the Middle East Policy Council, a centrist Washington think-tank.
Those closest to Freeman have confirmed that his decision was indeed his own.
Neither the president nor Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who
had offered Freeman the position, asked him to withdraw his acceptance of the
NIC post. At the same time, the White House's refusal to come to Freeman's
defense in the face of misleading and defamatory attacks is reminiscent of
the Clinton White House's abandonment of assistant attorney general nominee
Lani Guinier in similar circumstances back in 1993.
The Sin of Being Right on Iraq
Freeman announced his withdrawal just hours after
praised Freeman before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his "wealth
of knowledge and expertise in defense, diplomacy, and intelligence." The seven
Republican members of the committee didn't, however, welcome these attributes
when they spoke out strongly against his appointment. Particularly upsetting
to Freeman's right-wing opponents were his statements acknowledging the disastrous
consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a decision backed not only by Republicans
but by such key Senate Democrats as Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein,
Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), an outspoken supporter of the invasion, kept
pressing Blair on the Freeman appointment during the hearing, to which Blair
replied that such criticism was based on a misunderstanding of the position.
"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 precooked pablum
judgments that don't really challenge," Blair said. Lieberman, clearly unsatisfied
with Blair's response, promised he would continue to press the issue.
Freeman had raised the ire of war supporters in his articles and speeches
exposing the errors of Bush policy in the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
"Al-Qaeda has played us with the finesse of a matador exhausting a great bull
by guiding it into unproductive lunges at the void behind his cape," Freeman
said, noting how invading
Iraq appeared to the world's Muslims as "a wider war against Islam." Freeman
further observed: "We destroyed the Iraqi state and catalyzed anarchy, sectarian
violence, terrorism, and civil war in that country."
Not surprisingly, the bipartisan group attacking the appointment was led
by such staunch supporters of the invasion of Iraq as Representatives Mark
Kirk (R-Ill.), Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), John Boehner (R-Ohio), Shelley Berkley
(D-Nev.), and Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), another outspoken
supporter of the invasion of Iraq, insisted
that "Freeman was the wrong guy for this position." Schumer even tried
to take credit for Freeman's withdrawal, claiming, "I repeatedly urged the
White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing."
By contrast, those supporting intelligence assessments based on the facts
rather than ideology had praised the appointment as an example of a shift away
from the Bush administration policy. Freeman has "spent a goodly part of the
last 10 years raising questions that otherwise might never get answered – or
even asked – because they're too embarrassing, awkward, or difficult," Dan
Froomkin of NiemanWatchdog observed.
"For him to be put in charge of [the NIC] … is about the most emphatic statement
the Obama administration could possibly make that it won't succumb to the kind
of submissive intelligence-community groupthink that preceded the war in Iraq."
James Fallows of The Atlantic noted
how "anyone who has worked in an organization knows how hard it is, but
how vital, to find intelligent people who genuinely are willing to say inconvenient
things even when everyone around them is getting impatient or annoyed. The
truth is, you don't like them when they do that. You may not like them much
at all. But without them, you're cooked."
In the days following Blair's appointment of
Freeman, the attacks grew more and more bizarre. For example, since the Middle
East Policy Council had received some grants from some Saudi-based foundations,
Freeman was accused of thereby being "on the Saudi payroll" and even being
a "Saudi puppet." In The
New Republic, Martin Peretz insisted that Freeman was "a bought man."
But it's certainly not unprecedented for presidential appointees to have worked
with nonprofit organizations that have received support from foreign governments.
Indeed, Dennis Ross, appointed last month as special adviser for the Gulf and
Southwest Asia, is still listed
as the board chair of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, which is
supported by the Israeli government.
To set the record straight, Blair told the Senate Intelligence Committee that
Freeman had "never lobbied for any government or business (domestic or foreign)"
and that he had "never received any income directly from Saudi Arabia or any
In another irony, the person identified as the principal orchestrator of the
attacks against Freeman – including the charge that he was a Saudi agent –
was Steven Rosen, former director of the right-wing American-Israel Political
Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Rosen currently faces espionage charges for transferring
classified materials to the Israeli government. M.J.
Rosenberg, a former colleague of Rosen who now serves as policy director
of the Israel Policy Forum, said "you couldn't have picked anyone less credible
to lead the charge" against Freeman. But Rosen's smear campaign was apparently
credible enough to force Freeman to turn down the position.
Another line of attack was that Freeman, in the words of the Wall
Street Journal, was a "China apologist." Critics cited quotes allegedly
made by Freeman, many taken out of context, that appeared to justify repression
by the Beijing regime, including the 1989 crackdown against pro-democracy activists.
According to Blair,
however, Freeman – who has spoken of the Tiananmen Square massacre as a "tragedy"
– wasn't describing his own views but was simply observing what he considered
to be "the dominant view in China." Similarly, a number of leading China experts
came to Freeman's defense
as well, with Jerome Cohen noting that claims of Freeman endorsing the 1989
repression were "ludicrous" and Sidney Rittenberg observing that as a U.S.
diplomat in Beijing, Freeman was "a stalwart supporter of human rights who
helped many individuals in need."
Yet Peretz falsely claimed that Freeman had "made himself a client of China"
and was a man with "no humane or humanitarian scruples" who wanted the United
States to "kowtow to authoritarians and tyrants." Nor did it stop National
Review from claiming that Freeman's appointment proved "you can go
directly from effectively working for the Saudis and Chinese to being the country's
top intelligence analyst."
None of those attacking Blair's appointments on the grounds of supposedly
supporting authoritarian regimes has ever raised concerns about Adm. Blair
himself. Blair served as the head of the U.S. Pacific Command from February
1999 to May 2002, as East Timor was finally freeing itself from a quarter-century
of brutal Indonesian occupation. As the highest-ranking U.S. military official
in the region, he worked to undermine the Clinton administration's belated
efforts to end the repression, promote human rights, and support the territory's
right to self-determination. He also fought against congressional efforts to
condition support for the Indonesian military on improving their poor human
When human rights activists raised concerns about having a defender of death
squads as the director of national intelligence, the Obama White House rushed
to Blair's defense, something they were clearly not willing to do for Chas
Criticizing Israeli Policies
Freeman's rightist critics also claimed that
Freeman was "anti-Israel." For instance, Freeman rejected the Bush administration's
policy of defending Israeli violence against Palestinians while insisting that
the Palestinians had to unilaterally end their violence against Israelis. A
number of Freeman's critics cited in horror Freeman's observation
[.pdf] that until "Israeli violence against Palestinians" is halted, "it is
utterly unrealistic to expect that Palestinians will stand down from violent
Freeman has been concerned for some time that U.S. policy is radicalizing
the Palestinian population to the point of jeopardizing Israel's security interests.
The United States had "abandoned the role of Middle East peacemaker to back
Israel's efforts to pacify its captive and increasingly ghettoized Arab populations,"
he observed. "We wring our
hands while sitting on them as the Jewish state continues to seize ever more
Arab land for its colonists. This has convinced most Palestinians that Israel
cannot be appeased and is persuading increasing numbers of them that a two-state
solution is infeasible."
Ironically, a number of prominent Israeli academics, journalists, security
analysts, military officers, and political leaders have made similar observations.
Freeman's critics, however, believe that expressing such concerns makes Freeman
– in the
words of the Wall Street Journal – an "Israel basher." House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi, a strident supporter of Israeli government policies, claimed
that Freeman's views were "indefensible" and urged President Barack Obama to
withdraw his appointment.
In his withdrawal
statement, Freeman reiterated his concern that "the inability of the American
public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for U.S. policies
in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed
that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence
of the state of Israel." He went on to observe that this "is not just a tragedy
for Israelis and their neighbors in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage
to the national security of the United States."
A number of diplomats and other State Department
professionals who had known Freeman as a colleague spoke up in favor of his
nomination and challenged the defamatory and libelous attacks against him.
For example, a letter
signed by former UN ambassador Thomas Pickering, former ambassador to Israel
Samuel Lewis, former ambassador to Afghanistan Samuel Neumann, and more than
a dozen other current and former ambassadors noted: "We know Chas [Freeman]
to be a man of integrity and high intelligence who would never let his personal
views shade or distort intelligence assessments."
Similarly, a group of prominent
former intelligence officials called the attacks against Freeman "unprecedented
in their vehemence, scope, and target," noting how they were perpetrated by
"pundits and public figures … aghast at the appointment of a senior intelligence
official able to take a more balanced view of the Arab-Israel issue."
Yet despite so many mainstream officials coming to his defense, the Obama
White House chose to remain silent.
Most pundits, as well as Freeman himself, have blamed the so-called Israel
Lobby for forcing him out. While AIPAC itself was apparently not involved in
the smear campaign, many of Freeman's harshest critics were among the strongest
supporters of the Israeli Right. However, the battle over Freeman's appointment
was about a lot more than simply his views on Israel – or Saudi Arabia or China;
it was about the integrity of our nation's intelligence system. Those who most
exploited the false claims about nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction"
in order to frighten the American public into supporting the U.S. invasion
of Iraq were the most eager to deny Freeman the chairmanship of the NIC.
And Freeman's willingness to ask the big questions frightened many on the
Right. For example, following 9/11, Freeman shared
his disappointment that "instead of asking what might have caused the attack,
or questioning the propriety of the national response to it, there is an ugly
mood of chauvinism."
His ability to look inward instead of simply attack "the other" is what apparently
made him unworthy in the eyes of his critics.
Prior to Freeman's decision to withdraw, Chris Nelson of the influential Nelson
Report, a daily private newsletter read by top Washington policymakers,
wrote, "If Obama surrenders to the critics and orders [Director of National
Intelligence Dennis Blair] to rescind the Freeman appointment to chair the
NIC, it is difficult to see how he can properly exercise leverage, when needed,
in his conduct of policy in the Middle East. That, literally, is how the experts
see the stakes of the fight now under way."
Obama apparently didn't order Freeman's appointment to be rescinded. But Obama's
refusal to come to Freeman's defense will make it all the more difficult for
the president to challenge future right-wing attacks on his administration's
policies in the Middle East and beyond. Smelling victory, the Right will only
become bolder in challenging any progressive inclinations in Obama's foreign
As Joe Klein so aptly put it in his Time
blog, "Barack Obama should take note. The thugs have taken out Chas Freeman.
They will not rest. Their real target is you, Mr. President."
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in