After Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair announced the appointment of Chas Freeman as chairman of the National Intelligence Council on February 26, one might have thought that the Israel lobby would be ready to concede defeat. They put up a fight and they lost. They surely have many more battles up ahead. But maybe not. Maybe this is actually the battle royal that will determine whether the lobby can retain its vice grip on Washington’s approach to the Middle East. Freeman may have been appointed, but the fight to unlodge him is far from over.
On Tuesday, Jake Tapper provided a roundup of the ongoing efforts to have Freeman’s appointment reversed:
Today a group of Congressmen, including Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote to President Obama expressing concern about Freeman. (Read the letter here [PDF].)
“Given his close ties to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia we request a comprehensive review of Amb. Freeman’s past and current commercial, financial and contractual ties to the Kingdom to ensure no conflict of interest exists in his new position,” the members of Congress wrote. “As you may know, Amb. Freeman most recently served as president of the Middle East Policy Council, a think-tank funded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The board of directors includes Dr. Fuad Rihani, a consultant to the Saudi Binladin Group — a multinational construction conglomerate and holding company for the assets owned by the bind Laden family.”
Other critics say Freeman is anti-Israel. Rep. Steve Israel, D-NY, recently asked the Inspector General for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to look into Freeman’s ties to the Saudis, noting that Freeman in 2006 said:
“For the past half decade, Israel has enjoyed carte blanche from the United States to experiment with any policy it favored to stabilize its relations with the Palestinians and its other Arab neighbors, including most recently its efforts to bomb Lebanon into peaceful coexistence with it and to smother Palestinian democracy in its cradle. The suspension of the independent exercise of American judgment about what best serves our interests as well as those of Israelis and Arabs has caused the Arabs to lose confidence in the United States as a peace partner. … left to its own devices, the Israeli establishment will make decisions that harm Israelis, threaten all associated with them, and enrage those who are not … Tragically, despite all the advantages and opportunities Israel has had over the fifty-nine years of its existence, it has failed to achieve concord and reconciliation with anyone in its region, still less to gain their admiration or affection.”
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., has said that “Freeman’s past associations and positions on foreign policy are deeply alarming. His statements about the U.S.-Israel relationship raise serious concerns about his ability to support the Administration’s attempts to bring security, stability and peace to the Middle East. As director of the NIC, Freeman would be in charge of drafting the National Intelligence Estimate and evaluating the strategic outlook of our nation. This selection threatens to politicize the intelligence community. I urge President Obama to reconsider this decision.”…
Perhaps most controversially, under Freeman’s direction, the Middle East Policy Council was the first outlet in the U.S. to publish the working paper of the controversial paper “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” by University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer and Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University Professor Stephen Walt. Many critics suggested the paper was shoddy academically and anti-Semitic, but Freeman was proud MEPC published it.
“No one else in the United States has dared to publish this article, given the political penalties that the Lobby imposes on those who criticize it,” he said.
Every lobby in Washington is engaged in an effort to exert influence — that’s what lobbying means. But the Israel lobby goes much further. It has become used to enjoying the power of an indomitable force and as such it may well regard defeat on the Freeman appointment as being of such symbolic importance that it cannot be accepted. This is now a loyalty test.
The Washington Times now reports:
An independent inspector general will look into the foreign financial ties of Chas W. Freeman Jr., the Obama administration’s pick to serve as chairman of the group that prepares the U.S. intelligence community’s most sensitive assessments, according to three congressional aides.
The director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, last Thursday named Mr. Freeman, a veteran former diplomat, to the chairmanship of the National Intelligence Council, known inside the government as the NIC. In that job, Mr. Freeman will have access to some of America’s most closely guarded secrets and be charged with overseeing the drafting of the consensus view of all 16 intelligence agencies.
His selection was praised by some who noted his articulateness and experience as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a senior envoy to China and other nations. But it sparked concerns among some members of Congress from both parties, who asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s inspector general, Edward McGuire, to investigate Mr. Freeman’s potential conflicts of interest.
Mr. Freeman has not submitted the financial disclosure forms required of all candidates for senior public positions, according to the general counsel’s office of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Nor did Mr. Blair seek the White House’s approval before he announced the appointment of Mr. Freeman, said Mr. Blair’s spokeswoman, Wendy Morigi.
“The director did not seek the White House’s approval,” Ms. Morigi said. “In addition to his formal background security investigation, we expect that the White House will undertake the typical vetting associated with senior administration assignments.”
Among the areas likely to be scrutinized in the vetting process are Mr. Freeman’s position on the international advisory board of the China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC). The Chinese government and other state-owned companies own a majority stake in the concern, which has invested in Sudan and other countries sometimes at odds with the United States, including Iran.
Mr. Freeman is also president of the nonprofit educational organization Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), which paid him $87,000 in 2006, and received at least $1 million from a Saudi prince. He also has chaired Projects International, a consulting firm that has worked with foreign companies and governments.
Lindsay Hamilton, a spokeswoman for Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York who sits on the House Appropriations Committee’s select intelligence oversight panel that funds the classified budgets for the intelligence community, said her boss had been in touch with Mr. McGuire, who was appointed by the first director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte.
“Congressman Israel spoke with DNI inspector McGuire. The inspector said he would look into the matter. And the congressman is pleased with his response.” Two other congressional aides also said the inspector general would start his inquiries soon.
Ms. Morigi said only that Mr. McGuire was “reviewing the letter.”
Clearly there is at least one test that Chas Freeman should be expected to be able to pass: is he at the very least no more susceptible to the appearance of conflicts of interest as, let’s say, Hillary Clinton or Dennis Ross. Am I setting the bar too low?
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.
As Stephen Walt correctly points out, the fight against Freeman is designed to send a message to the whole foreign policy community in Washington:
…attacking Freeman is intended to deter other people in the foreign policy community from speaking out on these matters. Freeman might be too smart, too senior, and too well-qualified to stop, but there are plenty of younger people eager to rise in the foreign policy establishment and they need to be reminded that their careers could be jeopardized be if they followed in Freeman’s footsteps and said what they thought. Raising a stink about Freeman reminds others that it pays to back Israel to the hilt, or at least remain silent, even when it is pursuing policies — like building settlements on the West Bank — that are not in America’s national interest.
If the issue didn’t have such harmful consequences for the United States, the ironies of this situation would be funny. A group of amateur strategists who loudly supported the invasion of Iraq are now questioning the strategic judgment of a man who knew that war would be a catastrophic blunder. A long-time lobbyist for Israel who is now under indictment for espionage is trying to convince us that Freeman — a true patriot — is a bad appointment for an intelligence position. A journalist (Jeffrey Goldberg) whose idea of “public service” was to enlist in the Israeli army is challenging the credentials of a man who devoted decades of his life to service in the U.S. government. Now that’s chutzpah.
Evidence that the lobby’s message is resonating in the desired way can be seen in the fact that there are only a handful of bloggers who are giving this serious coverage and even worse they include some who are already willing to raise the white flag.
Matthew Yglesias writes: “I’m not thrilled to see things take this turn, but at the same time I don’t think this is the hill I want to die on.”
That’s exactly what the lobby wants to hear.