Yesterday, just hours after he defended his pick of former Amb. Chas Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and just shy of two weeks after he had notified Congress of his intention to make the appointment, Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair (ret.) sent out a terse, two-line statement saying he'd accepted Freeman's decision to withdraw from the position "with regret."
In short, Freeman came to believe that he couldn't do the job that he had agreed to do for Blair, given the controversy. Instead of helping the NIC, he came to believe, his presence would hurt it. And so he withdrew.
Freeman's purpose in accepting, a source familiar with his thinking said, "was to raise the quality and the credibility of the intelligence community's output." But by the time Freeman spoke with Blair Tuesday, it had become clear to both men that Freeman's presence at the NIC would engender sharp attacks on anything the intelligence community said, and that the credibility of the intelligence product would suffer, not be enhanced. Under the circumstances, Freeman felt that the best thing for the NIC and the country was to withdraw.
Freeman "only accepted the job because he was schooled to put his country's interests ahead of his own," the source familiar with his thinking said. He "withdrew for the same reason."
(He expressed his decision more fully in a statement to colleagues Tuesday.)
After the reports of Freeman's withdrawal of his candidacy, several legislators suggested that expressing their opposition to it to the White House had played a role -- among them House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who was said to be incensed on behalf of Chinese human rights issues, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Rep. Steven Israel (D-NY). Freeman told Foreign Policy it was between him and Blair.
For its part, the White House said it would have no comment on the matter. "I don't have anything to add from what Admiral Blair discussed yesterday in accepting Mr. Freeman's decision that his nomination not proceed and that he regretted it," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said at Wednesday's press briefing.
A U.S. official who asked for anonymity said that the White House had not pulled the plug. Freeman, the source said, decided that the criticism was never going to go away, and that therefore he couldn't do the job.
As for Blair? His office said he wouldn't have more on the matter than was in his statement.
A former Hill foreign-policy hand speculated that career military officials such as Blair, however brilliant, may not be fully attuned to Beltway political realities -- such as how Freeman's writings on the Middle East might have made him a lightning rod for a "no-drama Obama" administration that has become anxious to avoid more troubles over its political appointments. "They don't know how the game is played," he said, referring to military officials.
A former colleague of Blair's, who asked to speak on background, said the former Pacific commander and former Rhodes Scholar is "intellectually brilliant" but "not a Leon Panetta." The CIA director and former Clinton chief of staff, he said, "is a creature of the Washington establishment -- a former member of Congress who understands the political nuances of the Beltway."
"Blair," he continued, "is what we in the military call an operator. Meaning that he has a bias for action. He believes in doing things... His strong suit is he is intellectually brilliant. He was a classmate of Bill Clinton at Oxford; they were Rhodes scholars; he was way up in his class at the Naval Academy. He can think -- faster than anybody in town -- he can absorb and process information" like a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama, an attribute also ascribed by many of his former diplomatic colleagues to Freeman.
Blair's former colleague also said that like all new administrations, and many high-level figures on the Obama team, Blair is "clearly handicapped now by lack of staff."
But on Wednesday afternoon, Blair's staff sent three press e-mails, announcing three new staff members: Arthur House, a former White House fellow and Fletcher School Ph.D. and dean as the DNI's first director of communications, Wendy Morigi, former spokesperson for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, as the DNI's director of public affairs, and Lt. Gen. John F. "Jeff" Kimmons, a deputy chief of staff and top intelligence officer at the Pentagon, as the new director of the ODNI intelligence staff. (An ODNI official notes that Morigi had been on the job since mid-February, House since the beginning of February, and Kimmons since the beginning of this month.)
"I told you," his former colleague said in response to the moves. "He moves fast."
Photo: TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
Did Sen. Charles Schumer, as the New York Democrat seems to imply here, kill the appointment of Chas Freeman to chair the NIC?
Not so, said Freeman by e-mail: "Schumer deserves no credit. This was between me and [DNI Adm. Dennis] Blair and for the reasons stated."
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images News
Retired Amb. Chas Freeman, who said today that he no longer accepts an offer to chair the National Intelligence Council, has just sent this message:
You will by now have seen the statement by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair reporting that I have withdrawn my previous acceptance of his invitation to chair the National Intelligence Council.
I have concluded that the barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office. The effort to smear me and to destroy my credibility would instead continue. I do not believe the National Intelligence Council could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack by unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country. I agreed to chair the NIC to strengthen it and protect it against politicization, not to introduce it to efforts by a special interest group to assert control over it through a protracted political campaign.
As those who know me are well aware, I have greatly enjoyed life since retiring from government. Nothing was further from my mind than a return to public service. When Admiral Blair asked me to chair the NIC I responded that I understood he was “asking me to give my freedom of speech, my leisure, the greater part of my income, subject myself to the mental colonoscopy of a polygraph, and resume a daily commute to a job with long working hours and a daily ration of political abuse.” I added that I wondered “whether there wasn’t some sort of downside to this offer.” I was mindful that no one is indispensable; I am not an exception. It took weeks of reflection for me to conclude that, given the unprecedentedly challenging circumstances in which our country now finds itself abroad and at home, I had no choice but accept the call to return to public service. I thereupon resigned from all positions that I had held and all activities in which I was engaged. I now look forward to returning to private life, freed of all previous obligations.
I am not so immodest as to believe that this controversy was about me rather than issues of public policy. These issues had little to do with the NIC and were not at the heart of what I hoped to contribute to the quality of analysis available to President Obama and his administration. Still, I am saddened by what the controversy and the manner in which the public vitriol of those who devoted themselves to sustaining it have revealed about the state of our civil society. It is apparent that we Americans cannot any longer conduct a serious public discussion or exercise independent judgment about matters of great importance to our country as well as to our allies and friends.
The libels on me and their easily traceable email trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East. 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. The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.
There is a special irony in having been accused of improper regard for the opinions of foreign governments and societies by a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government – in this case, the government of Israel. I believe that the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence of the state of Israel. It is not permitted for anyone in the United States to say so. This is not just a tragedy for Israelis and their neighbors in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage to the national security of the United States.
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. I regret that my willingness to serve the new administration has ended by casting doubt on its ability to consider, let alone decide what policies might best serve the interests of the United States rather than those of a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government.
In the court of public opinion, unlike a court of law, one is guilty until proven innocent. The speeches from which quotations have been lifted from their context are available for anyone interested in the truth to read. The injustice of the accusations made against me has been obvious to those with open minds. Those who have sought to impugn my character are uninterested in any rebuttal that I or anyone else might make.
Still, for the record: 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. I have never lobbied any branch of our government for any cause, foreign or domestic. I am my own man, no one else’s, and with my return to private life, I will once again – to my pleasure – serve no master other than myself. I will continue to speak out as I choose on issues of concern to me and other Americans.
I retain my respect and confidence in President Obama and DNI Blair. Our country now faces terrible challenges abroad as well as at home. Like all patriotic Americans, I continue to pray that our president can successfully lead us in surmounting them.
More to come.
In a letter today responding to 10 congressmen led by Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) who have raised concerns about the appointment of Chas Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council, Edward Maguire, the inspector
general of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has written
that he is reviewing the matters they have raised.
"We are examining the matters you have raised and will respond upon
completion," Maguire wrote (pdf).
In response, Kirk and Rep. Steven Israel (D-NY) wrote another letter to Maguire, asking him to examine Freeman's role on the board of directors of the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company, which is owned by the People's Republic of China. "Ambassador Freeman's service on the Board of Directors of a company owned by a foreign government seems to constitute an obvious conflict of interest -- especially given his service to a company owned by the People's Republic of China with significant investment in the Islamic Republic of Iran," congressmen Kirk and Israel wrote. "Your attention to whether Ambassador Freeman is an inappropriate candidate to participate in this independent review would be appreciated."
"The DNI welcomes the IG's review," said Wendy Morigi, director of public affairs for the ODNI. "In addition to the security clearance process and public financial disclosures, Director Blair believes that the IG report will put to rest any questions about Ambassador Freeman's suitability, character and financial history. He looks forward to Ambassador Freeman assuming his new role."
The Director of National Intelligence notified Congress today that he has selected former diplomat Chas Freeman to serve as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Politico reports. Here is the notification to Congress (.pdf).
A spokesman for the office of the DNI said they would have a statement shortly.
UPDATE: ODNI news release:
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair has selected Charles W. Freeman, Jr. to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC). As Chairman, Ambassador Freeman will be responsible for overseeing the production of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) and other Intelligence Community (IC) analytic products.
“Ambassador Freeman is 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,” Director Blair said. “The country is fortunate that Ambassador Freeman has agreed to return to public service and contribute his remarkable skills toward further strengthening the Intelligence Community’s analytical process.”
As a former United States negotiator, Freeman has worked with more than 100 foreign governments in East and South Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and both Western and Eastern Europe. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires in Bangkok and Beijing, Director of Chinese Affairs at U.S. State Department, and Distinguished Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the Institute of National Security Studies. Freeman received his J.D. from the Harvard School of Law.
Ambassador Freeman will report to DNI Blair and the Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, Dr. Peter Lavoy.
The Cable reported last week that former U.S. diplomat Chas Freeman was up for the chairmanship of the National Intelligence Council. Since confirmed, the story has set off something of a media firestorm.
Reports from Politico and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, along with commentary and blog posts from The New Republic's Marty Peretz, the Witherspoon Institute's Gabriel Schoenfeld (in the Wall Street Journal), and former AIPAC official Steve Rosen have conveyed the charge that, in the judgment of some pro-Israel activists in the United States, Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is too sympathetic to Riyadh's worldview and has frequently spoken outside the traditional Washington discourse on Israel.
In conversations with The Cable, some Washington foreign-policy types have argued that the controversy may be more about the president than about Freeman himself.
A source close to Freeman said that among the critics taking shots at the would-be appointee, several "opposed Obama on the spurious ground that he wanted to do in Israel. He doesn't." The source noted that some critics of Obama's appointments had also targeted national security advisor James L. Jones, who previously served as a U.S. envoy charged with strengthening the Palestinian Authority and its security forces, as being too even-handed. "It seems to be the president these guys are after," the source said.
Freeman, like many up for administration jobs, is not in a position to publicly defend himself until an appointment, should it happen, is announced. Even then, he would have to operate under the restrictions that handcuff government officials. The Cable has confirmed that he is indeed Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair's hand-picked choice to get the job.
Some reports noted comments by Freeman seeming to indicate that the think tank of which he was until recently president, the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), has accepted funding from the Saudi government, among other sources. MEPC receives funding from a number of sources, some of it Saudi, a person familiar with the group said, adding that it was "a fact ... true before Ambassador Freeman became president of MEPC, even before he was appointed ambassador to Saudi Arabia."
A report by the Jewish Telegraph Agency said that the MEPC contributed to the financing of the publication of a textbook for U.S. classrooms on the Arab world that, according to the agency, contained text critical of the pro-Israel lobby and claimed Jerusalem was an Arab capital. An official familiar with the book told The Cable the offending quote was from the wrong answer of a multiple choice question taken out of context from the textbook.
Other writers and commentators -- including the Israel Policy Forum's M.J. Rosenberg, Nieman Watchdog's Dan Froomkin, IPS's Jim Lobe, The Nation's Robert Dreyfuss, Washington insider Chris Nelson, FP contributor David Rothkopf, the Center for American Progress's blog ThinkProgress, and the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons -- have leapt to Freeman's defense. "Few people would be better for these tasks than Chas Freeman," Rothkopf wrote on ForeignPolicy.com. "Part of the reason he is so controversial is that he has zero fear of speaking what he perceives to be truth to power. You can't cow him and you can't find someone with a more relentlessly questioning worldview."
Some sources noted that among Freeman's most outspoken critics, are those who have accused many other administration officials of being insufficiently pro-Israel or too even-handed, such as NSC senior director for multilateral affairs Samantha Power, U.S. Middle East peace special envoy Sen. George Mitchell, and indeed, during the election campaign, Obama himself.
Several former senior U.S. government officials familiar with Freeman's work as a diplomat (he was from 1986-1989 principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Chet Crocker, and, previous to that, in 1972, a fluent Chinese speaker who translated for Nixon) and public intellectual spoke about his professionalism and high intellectual capacities. "I do think really, really highly of him," said one former senior State Department official. "The guy is incredibly smart and incredibly articulate on an amazingly deep and broad range of issues, not just the Middle East, but Africa and East Asia." When Freeman was working for the State Department on Africa in the 1980s, the former senior State Department official said, he was struck that "this is guy who is an extraordinarily impressive thinker and analyst. When I saw your article I thought, 'My God, they made a great appointment.'"
"Chas is a highly experienced, perceptive, and well-regarded U.S. diplomat," said former senior NIC official Paul Pillar, now a professor at Georgetown. "I think he brings excellent understanding on a wealth of topics in world affairs to the job of the chairman of the council.
"I would trust that Mr. Freeman would exhibit integrity in addressing issues on the Middle East as they may pertain to Israel or any other Middle Eastern country," Pillar continued. "The kind of 'anti-Israeli' perspective getting criticized is of course not new criticism or by no means unique to this particular target."
"I think what is being missed" by the commentariat, Pillar added, "Is the whole concept that a public servant ... and foreign affairs professional with a long career under different administrations ... can do his job in the best and most objective way he thinks is possible and isn't necessarily going to be working one policy slant vs. another policy slant."
The source close to Freeman said that the former ambassador was recruited for the post by Admiral Blair and had not been seeking a return to government service, which Freeman had retired from in 1994. In this person's view, Freeman would be brought in "not to reverse the polarity of U.S. intelligence analysis but to de-gauss it." (The term apparently refers to removing magnetic interference in order to enhance clarity). He also disputed that Freeman's views were anti-Israel, noting a 2000 New York Times op-ed by Freeman entitled, "A U.S. Role is Crucial for Peace."
But two former AIPAC officials said that Freeman's views were at least perceived to fall outside of what has become the traditional pro-Israel tilt in Washington. "The term 'even-handed' has become a pejorative," said one former AIPAC official, on condition of anonymity. "It does not mean fair-minded in all things, but that the U.S. should take a neutral view towards the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is not going to happen."
Another former AIPAC official said that the mere fact that Freeman had been U.S. ambassador to Riyadh implies a too-close relationship with Saudi Arabia. "The Saudis want someone politically connected who will do their bidding."
What the United States and Saudi Arabia have in common, the second former AIPAC official added, "is [that] we don't like the communists or the Iranians. What we don't have in common is everything we have in common with the British, French, Germans and Israelis. If one is a tool of the French, British or Israelis, one is a tool of democracy, pluralism ... liberal enlightenment."
Previous criticism from right-leaning pro-Israel activists of former Obama Middle East advisors such as Rob Malley, who quit the campaign after it was reported he had attended a meeting with Hamas officials, and former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer "is all within the realm of people on the extreme right having a hard time with anybody who deviates only slightly," the second former AIPAC official said. "I would draw a line between people who don't agree with the mainstream [like Malley] and someone like Freeman who worked as the head of an organization" that received funding from the Saudi government.
Former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller said he doesn't know Freeman and didn't have an opinion about Freeman's views. But he said the idea that Washington Middle East policymakers are divided into pro-Israel or pro-Saudi axes is an outdated way of looking at the issue, one he said had become largely irrelevant since the 1970s.
Others noted the close relationship between the Saudis and both Bush administrations, the second of which was nonetheless judged by Israel and some of its U.S. supporters to be extremely sympathetic to Israel's interests.
A former Hill source said that there is some congressional opposition to the Freeman appointment. But because the NIC chairmanship is not a congressionally confirmable post, it was not clear whether it would be enough to sway the administration against the appointment.
A White House official declined to comment, directing questions to the office of the DNI, which said it wouldn't comment on possible appointments.
Sources tell The Cable that Chas W. Freeman, Jr., the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, will become chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the intelligence community's primary big-think shop and the lead body in producing national intelligence estimates.
Freeman (shown above shaking hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao) has told associates that in the job, he will occasionally accompany Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair to give the president his daily intelligence briefing. His predecessor, Thomas Fingar, wore a second hat as deputy director of national intelligence for analysis (a job held since December by Peter Lavoy); sources thought it unclear whether Freeman would have that title as well.
Associates say that at a recent board meeting of the Middle East Policy Council, of which he has been president, Freeman said that he was resigning to take a job in the administration. He said his post was not in the State Department and did not require confirmation, but did not specify what the job was.
Former NIC official Paul Pillar said the council has occasionally had chairmen who came from outside of the intelligence community -- mostly from academia, such as Harvard Kennedy School dean emeritus Joseph S. Nye.
Freeman, who was Richard Nixon's principal translator in Beijing in 1972, has been traveling in China and could not be reached. A spokesman for ODNI said the office would not comment on possible appointments.
Photo: JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.