Freeman Withdrawal Marks Victory for Israel Lobby
The resignation of Obama's pick for National Intelligence Council Chair is a blow to hopes for a new approach to Israel-Palestine issues.
WASHINGTON - Amb. Chas Freeman
withdrew from consideration for a top intelligence post in the 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.
came as a surprise to many in Washington, particularly since it came
only hours after Adm. 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 U.S. Senate.
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.
notice posted late 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.
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 blog.
"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 (NIEs), which are consensus judgments of all 16 intelligence
Freeman was reportedly Blair's hand-picked choice for
the job. 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
But Freeman is also known for his outspoken
and often caustic political views. He has been especially critical of
the Bush administration's conduct of the "war on terror" and of Israeli
policies in the occupied territories.
Initial resistance to the
appointment came from neoconservatives 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 Israeli government.
It was quickly taken up
by neoconservative commentators in the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly
Standard, and the New Republic, among other places.
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
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 Arabia.
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 Saudi ties.
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 email 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
email 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."
member of the listserv who did not wish to be identified said that
Freeman's email 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
Regardless, the leaked email 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 President Obama to withdraw it.
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."
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 U.S. 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 defense.
week, 17 former U.S. ambassadors - including former ambassador to the
U.N. 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 intelligence estimates."
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".
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 heart a
neoconservative campaign to shut out critics of Israel from positions
"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.
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.
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 policy."
"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 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 wanted.
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/