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.
Observers 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.
Freeman 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.
In 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 Israel to rally public support for military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities before Bush left office.
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.”
The campaign against Freeman began shortly after rumors of his appointment surfaced two weeks ago. It was initially confined to neoconservative 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.
They 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 appointment.
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 neoconservative 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.
Four 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.
Freeman’s 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.”
His defenders have also noted that his critics have not raised similar objections to other officials whose organizations have accepted Saudi donations.
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.
Former 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.
More 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 defense.
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.
“(I)f 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 name.”
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.