Congressmen: Probe new US intel council head

Urge investigation into Charles Freeman's ties to Saudi Arabia, criticism of Israel.

Dennis Blair 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
Dennis Blair 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Both Democratic and Republican members of Congress are calling for an investigation into the new chairman of the National Intelligence Council over his ties to Saudi Arabia and criticism of Israel. Charles Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia who served as president of the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council think tank until his recent appointment, was tapped by new Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. The council chairman oversees the production of America's National Intelligence Estimates, among other duties. In a letter to DNI Inspector-General Edward Maguire, Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York asked for an investigation into Freeman's ties with Saudi Arabia. "In a position as critical as this, we need to ensure that American interests are being served and that no one in the position has established ties to other governments or entities materially supported by foreign governments," he wrote. Israel also stressed the need to keep the National Intelligence Council "free of political influence" and said that he was "discouraged by seemingly prejudicial public statements Freeman has made regarding the Middle East." He cited Freeman's comments on Israel's "efforts to bomb Lebanon into peaceful coexistence with it and to smother Palestinian democracy in its cradle," and his conclusion that "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." Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois wrote his own letter to the DNI inspector-general calling for a review of whether Freeman had any conflicts of interest with Saudi Arabia, noting the money the Middle East Policy Council had received from Saudi King Abdullah. The DNI inspector general is currently reviewing the case, and an intelligence official told The Jerusalem Post that all appointees to intelligence posts were well vetted for conflicts of interest during a thorough background check of their life history, character, trustworthiness, reliability and judgment. Freeman does not need to be confirmed by the Senate, and it is unclear what effect an investigation by the DNI inspector-general would have on his functioning in his new position. Last week, Freeman's criticisms of Israel abounded in the blogosphere as word of his impending appointment made the rounds. Supporters of Israel jumped on his statements that the Jewish state was "the driving factor in the region's radicalization and anti-Americanism" and that "demonstrably, Israel excels at war; sadly, it has shown no talent for peace," as well quotations from a school textbook put out by the Middle East Policy Council stating that the Koran "synthesizes and perfects earlier revelations" and that Jerusalem's Old City is "Arab." His views in the realist school of foreign policy, including his perceived support for the "overly cautious behavior" of the Chinese government in its attack on students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, also took a pounding in an op-ed by Jon Chait of the New Republic in this Saturday's Washington Post. And on the "Jews for Obama" list-serve, members debated Freeman's appointment and whether to call for his removal. "This is a strong, strong Arabist who in some of his comments has strongly skewered his analysis of the region," maintained Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. "It's not a pick I would have made." He added, however, that Freeman would not be "a policy person" and that his views were in contrast to many of the new administration's other picks on national security and foreign policy. The White House declined to comment on Freeman's selection, with spokesman Robert Gibbs saying Thursday, "I will talk about personnel announcements when we make personnel announcements, and we haven't done so in that." It was Blair - rather than US President Barack Obama - who made the appointment, which was announced on the DNI Web site. The announcement quoted Blair describing Freeman as "a distinguished public servant who brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise in defense, diplomacy and intelligence that are absolutely critical to understanding today's threats and how to address them." He highlighted Freeman's experience as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs and director of Chinese affairs at State Department, as well as his service as ambassador to Saudi Arabia. In response to the criticisms raised by the Congressman, DNI spokeswoman Wendy Morigi told the Post, "Ambassador Freeman has served the United States in difficult, demanding challenges. His focus has been and will continue to be our national interest, not that of the various countries and cultures he understands." In the announcement, Blair also noted the chairman's responsibility in overseeing the National Intelligence Estimates, compiled from America's various intelligence agencies on threats facing the country. The NIE released at the end of 2007 said that Iran was not actively working on a nuclear weapons program despite continuing to enrich uranium, significantly changing the debate over Teheran's nuclear program. In a speech to Middle East Policy Council, Freeman once used the phrase, "Assuming, as we must, in light of the results similar US policies toward North Korea have produced, that Iran will eventually acquire a nuclear deterrent," before asking how regional neighbors "plan to deal with Iran as a nuclear power." He also assailed the Bush administration's policy of not talking to Iran, arguing, "Iran is emerging as yet another proof that diplomacy-free foreign policy does not work." In comments to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 2002, some listeners felt Freeman shed doubt on who was behind September 11 when he said, "I accept that al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden almost certainly perpetrated the September 11 attacks."