Freeman blames 'Israel lobby' for ouster

Former ambassador withdraws NIC bid; business ties more concerning than his opinions, critics say.

charles freeman 88 (photo credit: AP)
charles freeman 88
(photo credit: AP)
Charles Freeman blamed the Israel lobby, "clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government," for stoking the controversy that led him to withdrew his name as chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) on Tuesday. "The tactics of the Israel lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth," Freeman charged in a message posted on the Foreign Policy blog The Cable, which broke the story of his selection by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. "The libels on me and their easily traceable e-mail trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired," he wrote. Critics of the selection of the former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia - among them members of Congress - cited statements he had made harshly criticizing Israel, praising Saudi Arabia and seeming to side with the Chinese government over democracy advocates, as well as business and financial ties to China and Saudi Arabia, in calling for Freeman to be denied the position overseeing the compilation of the US intelligence community's National Intelligence Estimates. In his statement, Freeman also said, "The outrageous agitation that followed the leak of my pending appointment will be seen by many to raise serious questions about whether the Obama administration will be able to make its own decisions about the Middle East and related issues." Those questions, which rebounded through the blogosphere Wednesday, have led some to argue that Israel advocates who believe they helped their cause by seeing Freeman shut out have only scored a Pyrrhic victory. "The perception, almost universally held, that he was brought down because he is a strong and vocal opponent of Israel's West Bank and settlement policies, is not good for the Jewish community and the pro-Israel community in particular," M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum, wrote on his blog, pointing out that criticism of Freeman first surfaced in the pro-Israel community. He told The Jerusalem Post that the community has been trying to argue that its alleged power is a myth, yet it will now be perceived as "bringing down" a top government appointee. Prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan, not known to be a harsh Israel critic, called Freeman's "cardinal sin" his willingness to blame Israel for the situation it finds itself in in the Middle East. "This is the third rail no one is allowed to touch and have access to real power in Washington," he wrote. "I find the hysterical bullying of this man to be repulsive." Even some mainstream media outlets have picked up on this theme. Reuters called the controversy a "a test case for the strength of Washington's right-wing pro-Israel lobby" since remarks critical of Israel have previously been "virtually taboo in official Washington, whose elected leaders - or those running for office - tend to stress unflagging support for the Jewish state." Still, pro-Israel groups who opposed Freeman's appointment openly welcomed the news that he would not be taking the post. Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that Freeman's comments blaming the Israel lobby only proved that he was ill-suited for the job. "I understand someone being upset if people oppose an appointment, but to lash out at what appeared to be a conspiracy in his mind was not the type of temperament one would hope for in someone in such a position," he said. Forman was also not concerned that the incident would harm the image of Jewish groups in Washington, arguing Freeman and his defenders had presented "a cartoonish view of the Israel lobby, and I'm not sure their minds will be changed one way or the other." New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer also didn't shy away from putting out a statement, also quoted on The Cable, blasting Freeman's Israel views and praising his withdrawal from consideration. "Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position. 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," Schumer said. But Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican who had urged the Director of National Intelligence's inspector-general to open an investigation into Freeman, claimed that it was his business ties that were the issue, rather than his views. He pointed to his work at the Middle East Policy Council, a think tank funded in part by the Saudi royal family, and as a board member for a Chinese national oil company that has dealings with Iran. "There's a real lack of disclosure of his personal finances and connection to foreign interests," Kirk told The Jerusalem Post, adding that he had had no contact with pro-Israel advocates during his campaign against Freeman. Freeman, in his statement, denied any improper conduct. "I have never sought to be paid or accepted payment from any foreign government, including Saudi Arabia or China, for any service, nor have I ever spoken on behalf of a foreign government, its interests, or its policies," he said. Working at think tanks with foreign contributions and consulting for foreign energy companies are the types of positions former government officials often pursue, and it remains unclear how problematic, if at all, Freeman's past was. Greg Treverton, a former NIC vice chairman, said that while Freeman's pursuits were typical for former government workers, it was "unusual" to try to re-enter government with such a resume, particularly the intelligence corps. Still, Treverton backed the idea of bringing in an outsider for NIC chair, saying, "It's meant to be the part of intelligence that's most in touch with the outside," including think tanks and Wall Street. He added that a professional should be able to put aside such past associations and that he believed Freeman would have. "This shouldn't be a disqualifying characteristic," he said. At the same time, Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy and intelligence expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said the questions raised about Freeman's ties to Saudi Arabia and China were reasonable ones, citing ethical as well as security considerations. He noted that these are not "hard or fast rules" but ones that rely on personal judgment. In this case, he pointed out, the inspector-general judged there to be enough questions about Freeman to open an investigation. Even if the inspector-general had done so at Congress's behest, Aftergood said, "there has to be a basis in fact to proceed." Aftergood also pointed out that other appointments have been derailed because of "whispering campaigns" about the candidate's background. He pointed to John Brennan, widely expected to head the CIA until activists complained that he was too close to controversial Bush administration policies, though he noted that case hadn't sparked questions about the loyalties or relative power of those behind the criticism. Another observer, Jake Tapper of ABC News, made the same point. "What's perplexing about this is that so much of what critics objected to were Freeman's statements, in full context. His record was picked apart like that of any other controversial nominee - sometimes fairly, sometimes not so - but only in Freeman's case does the nominee make an allegation that a foreign power was lurking nefariously somehow behind it all," he wrote on his blog. Aftergood noted that since Freeman's appointment didn't require Senate confirmation, there was no process for him to address the criticism against him in a way that could have put it to rest. "It's clear from his e-mail notice that he feels victimized and, meanwhile, his opponents are tarred as bigots or extremists, and the real questions at the center of the controversy are left unanswered," Aftergood said. "That's a pity."