WASHINGTON - The appointment of a
top-ranking retired diplomat and vocal critic of Israel to a key
intelligence post has triggered an intense backlash from hawkish Israel
supporters in Congress and the media who are pressing the
administration of President Barack Obama to reconsider.
Critics have seized
upon retired Amb. Charles "Chas" Freeman's ties to Saudi Arabia and
views on human rights in China to argue against his appointment as
chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), but Freeman's
defenders charge that their real aim is to impose an ideological litmus
test on top government officials and ensure a continued policy of
reflexive U.S. support for Israel.
are watching the campaign against Freeman, who enjoys strong support
among intelligence professionals and realists in the national-security
bureaucracy, as an early test of how much influence the so-called
"Israel lobby" will be able to exert on the new administration.
was formally appointed NIC chairman last week by Obama's director of
national intelligence (DNI), Adm. Dennis Blair. A polyglot with
unusually wide-ranging foreign policy expertise -he has served as
ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as assistant secretary of defense for
international security affairs, and has shaped U.S. policy in areas
ranging from Asia to the Middle East to Africa - Freeman is reported to
have been Blair's hand-picked choice for the job.
The NIC is the
U.S. intelligence community's (IC) center for mid- and long-term
strategic thinking and analysis on a range of issues facing the United
States. Among other responsibilities, it produces National Intelligence
Estimates (NIEs) - the consensus judgments of all 16 intelligence
agencies - regarding the likely course of future events.
Dec 2007, for example, it published an NIE that found that Iran had
stopped work on one key component of nuclear-weapons development in
2003, a finding that frustrated efforts by Iran to rally public support
for military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities before Bush left
Freeman has been an outspoken critic both of the Bush
administration's "global war on terror" and of Israeli policies in the
occupied territories. In a 2007 speech, he denounced U.S. support for
"Israel's efforts to pacify its captive and increasingly ghettoized
Arab populations (and) ...seize ever more Arab land for its colonists,"
and warned that Israel would soon face "an unwelcome choice between a
democratic society and a Jewish identity for their state."
campaign against Freeman began shortly after rumours of his appointment
surfaced two weeks ago. It was initially confined to neo-conservative
media organs such as the Weekly Standard and Commentary magazines, as
well as liberal but hawkishly pro-Israel figures such as Martin Peretz,
editor of The New Republic.
Steve Rosen, a former staffer at the
powerful America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) who is now
facing trial for passing classified information to the Israeli
government, played a leading role in denouncing Freeman's appointment,
accusing him of "old-line Arabism" and of having "an extremely close
relationship" with Saudi Arabia.
Although the coalition of media
figures lining up against Freeman - such as Rosen, Peretz, The Weekly
Standard's Michael Goldfarb, and The New Republic's James Kirchick -
are known primarily as vociferous defenders of Israel, they have
focused most of their fire on his ties to Saudi Arabia, pointing in
particular to a one-million-dollar donation made by Saudi Prince
Alwaleed bin Talal to the Middle East Policy Council, a think tank
headed by Freeman, as evidence that he was a "puppet" of Riyadh.
also seized upon an email that Freeman sent to a private listserv in
2007, in which he argued that the Chinese government's primary mistake
regarding the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations was its "failure to
intervene in a timely manner to nip the demonstrations in the bud".
Freeman's alleged callousness regarding human rights issues in China
was held up along with his Saudi ties as a reason to scuttle his
The campaign gained a much higher profile this week
when the ranking Republican and former chairman of the House
Intelligence Committee, Peter Hoekstra, called on the administration to
withdraw Freeman's appointment in an interview with the Wall Street
Journal whose neo-conservative editorial page had already denounced the
appointment, and a New York Democrat, Rep. Stephen Israel, urged an
investigation of his ties to Saudi Arabia.
Ten other members of Congress made a similar demand in a letter addressed to the DNI's inspector-general Tuesday.
of the signatories - Republican Rep. Mark Kirk and Democratic Rep.
Shelley Berkley, as well as the top two Republicans in the House of
Representatives, Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric
Cantor - were among the five top recipients in the House of campaign
contributions from pro-Israel political action committees (PACs)
closely tied to AIPAC during the 2007-8 election cycle, according to
figures compiled by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Kirk
himself has been the House's top recipient of Israel-related PAC money
over the past decade, according to the Report.
defenders, most of them veterans of the national-security bureaucracy,
have strongly rejected charges that he would be beholden to Saudi
Arabia or to the Chinese Communist Party and counter that his attackers
are practicing a form of McCarthyism against anyone who might question
the wisdom of unconditional support for Israel.
"They seek to
eliminate from public life all those whom they think are not completely
in the control of 'the lobby,' write Pat Lang, the former senior
Mideast analyst at the Defense Intelligence agency, on his blog.
"Charles Freeman is a man awesomely educated, of striking intellect, of
vast experience and demonstrated integrity... Who could possibly be
better for this job?"
Similarly, David Rothkopf, a former
managing director of Kissinger Associates who has written an
authoritative work on the history of the National Security Council,
charged in his blog on the 'Foreign Policy' website that "there is
something ugly to these attacks on Freeman... The notion... that there
is no room in the U.S. government for people who are skeptical of
Israeli policies or for people who are not in lockstep with one view
of, say, Saudi Arabia, is both absurd and dangerous."
defenders have also noted that his critics have not raised similar
objections to other officials whose organizations have accepted Saudi
In December, for example, shortly before Hillary
Clinton was confirmed as secretary of state, her husband Bill Clinton
disclosed that his foundation had received between 10 and 25 million
dollars from the Saudi kingdom, among other foreign donations. Although
some isolated critics in the media raised concerns about potential
conflicts of interest, she was overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate.
Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, now a top Obama economic advisor,
also accepted a 20-million-dollar donation from Alwaleed bin Talal
himself when he was president of Harvard University in 2005.
generally, donations from foreign donors to think tanks are fairly
common. "Half the think tanks in this town take money from someone
overseas," former U.S. ambassador to Israel Sam Lewis told the Jewish
Telegraphic Agency in Freeman's defence.
M.J. Rosenberg of the
dovish Israel Policy Forum (IPF) also accused those of Freeman's
critics who attacked him for his comments about the Chinese
government's handling of the 1989 pro-democracy movement of hypocrisy.
Freeman was pro-settlement and pro-Likud, and if he was a major donor
to AIPAC and Israeli institutions, if he had a billion dollars worth of
investments in Israel, and was unsympathetic to human rights in China
to boot, would any of these critics have opposed his appointment," he
asked. "The answer is no. We probably would never have even heard his
So far, Blair's office has stood by the appointment,
noting that the NIC post is "one of analysis, not policy." White House
spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday he had "not read" reports about
Freeman's ties to Saudi Arabia or his criticism of Israel.