I introduced myself and told him I was sorry that he resigned. He recoiled only slightly when I mentioned I worked for the Atlantic, then smiled broadly. “Shit happens.” He added a little wistfully: “I wasn’t so eager to go back to the government, anyway.”
I asked him what he thought of his critics. “I don’t pay much attention to the blogosphere. But I did read Jim Fallows. Fallows actually seemed to have read what I said.”
The woman next to me suddenly pieced it together. “Now I know who you are!” She hesitated for a second. “I still disagree with you.” Others on the bus started to look confused, even a little worried.
Freeman smiled again, and laughed. “I guess now I’m a notorious personality.” He went back to reading his novel. A few stops later, he got off the bus.
A new statement from Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair’s office:
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair announced today that Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. has requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret.
Statement from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY): “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.”
,The Cable has a statement from Freeman on his withdrawal. An excerpt:
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.
Chuck Schumer sends out a statement claiming credit for the Freeman firing and citing Schumer’s principled stake in academic IR disputes as the crux of the matter:
“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.”
I assume Freeman’s meeting with Intelligence Committee members actually carried more weight than anything Schumer said, but Schumer likes to take credit for stuff.
Yesterday, a group of Senate Republicans on the Intelligence committee wrote a letter to Blair questioning Freeman’s selection, and distributed it to the press. “Given our concerns about Mr. Freeman’s lack of experience and uncertainty about his objectivity, we intend to devote even more oversight scrutiny to the activities of the NIC under his leadership,” the senators wrote.
This morning, Lieberman amplified the Republicans’ criticisms. “I’m concerned,” Lieberman told Blair, expressing his worries over “statements that [Freeman’s] made that appear either to be inclined to lean against Israel or too much in favor of China.” Blair offered this cogent defense of Freeman:
A mutual friend said about Ambassador Freeman — who I’ve known for a number of years — there is no one whose intellect I respect more and with whom I agree less than Ambassador Freeman. Those of us who know him find him to be a person of strong views, of inventive mind from an analytical point of view – I’m not talking about policy – and that when we go back and forth with him, a better understanding comes out of those interactions. That’s primarily the value that I think he will bring.
“The concern about Ambassador Freeman is that he has such strong policy views,” Lieberman responded. Matt Duss notes that Freeman is “apparently the only person in Washington not allowed to have any” strong opinions.
Max Blumenthal notes that Steven Rosen, “a former director of the American Israel Political Affairs Committee due to stand trial this April for espionage for Israel, is the leader of the campaign against Freeman’s appointment.”
During DNI Dennis Blair’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) pressed a line of questioning on Blair’s choice for chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Chas Freeman. “The concern here,” said Leiberman, is that a number of statements from Freeman “suggest he’s more than an advocate than an analyst.” Lieberman also raised questions about Freeman’s past financial associations (which Blair had responded to yesterday.) Lieberman asked Blair what he was doing “about the concerns that have been expressed” about the selection of Freeman.
Blair responded that “as far as the effects of business associations and the ethics rules, Ambassador Freeman is going through the vetting that is done with anybody joining the executive branch.” Because of concerns expressed by some of members of Congress, “the inspector general is taking a closer look at those associations than is normally done.”
In regard to statements by Freeman that some have regarded as troubling, Blair said that “those have all been out of context, and I urge everyone to look at the full context of what he was saying.” Blair praised Freeman as a skilled and highly intelligent analyst, and suggested that those concerned with how Freeman’s views may impact policy “might misunderstand the role of analysis that supports policy.”
For one, neither I, nor anyone who works for me, makes policy. Our job is to inform it. We’ve found over time that the best way to inform policy is to have strong views held within the intelligence community, and then out of those we come out with the best ideas. And Ambassador Freeman with his long experience and inventive mind will add to those strongly.
The two people whose views I quote below have absolutely unquestionable standing to speak on this subject. One is Sidney Rittenberg, who first went to China with the US Army in 1945 and end up spending 35 years there, 16 of them in solitary confinement for alleged espionage and disloyalty to the Mao regime. The other is Jerome A. Cohen, of NYU Law School and Paul Weiss, who has been tireless in his efforts for legal reform in China and was instrumental in freeing John Downey, who had been held in Chinese prison for two decades after the Korean War.
Both of them strongly support the expansion of individual liberties and civil society in China. Both of them strongly support Chas Freeman and his candidacy for his now-disupted job.
You’ll have to click the link to read the actual letters. Then see Josh Marshall on this. Josh has personal beef with Freeman over an unrelated issue that led Freeman to tag him as a purveyor of “slime journalism.” But also says that “the whole effort strikes me as little more than a thuggish effort to keep the already too-constricted terms of debate over the Middle East and Israel/Palestine locked down and largely one-sided.” You can see Andrew Sullivan’s timeline for more on this.
But for Freeman’s detractors, a loss might still be a win. As Sullivan and others have documented, the controversy over Freeman is fundamentally a question of his views on Israel. Barring a bad report from the inspector general, Chas Freeman will survive and serve. But only because his appointment doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Few, however, will want to follow where he led. Freeman’s career will likely top out at Director of the NIC. That’s not a bad summit by any means. But for ambitious foreign policy thinkers who might one day aspire to serve in a confirmed capacity, the lesson is clear: Israel is off-limits. And so, paradoxically, the freethinking Freeman’s appointment might do quite a bit to silence foreign policy dissenters who want to succeed in Washington.
Still, I would say that would-be government officials have already internalized the lesson that drawing outside the lines on the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the way to get jobs. But the Obama administration has already put in place quite a few officials—James Jones, Samantha Power, George Mitchell—who didn’t exactly come with the kosher stamp of approval.
Again, I don’t know Freeman personally. I don’t know whether the Saudi funding for his organization has been entirely seemly (like that for most Presidential libraries), which is now the subject of inspector-general investigation. If there’s a problem there, there’s a problem. [...] So to the extent this argument is shaping up as a banishment of Freeman for rash or unorthodox views, I instinctively take Freeman’s side — even when I disagree with him on specifics. This job calls for originality, and originality brings risks. Chas Freeman is not going to have his finger on any button. He is going to help raise all the questions that the person with his finger on the button should be aware of.
To offer another word, I think it’s fair that people who don’t like Freeman’s views on Israel are going after him with the kitchen sink—comments about China, vague allegations of financial improprieties, etc. Politics ain’t beanbag and you go after your enemies with what you can find. But the habit of turning around and acting indignant when people point out that what’s motivating this fight is Freeman’s views on Israel is really pretty silly. When you hear that indicted former AIPAC director Steve Rosen, The New Republic, Commentary, Eli Lake, and Chuck Schumer are spearheading opposition to something you don’t say to yourself “they must be concerned about the human rights situation in China!” This is an organization dedicated to human rights in China and this is a good government group, and they don’t seem very interested one way or another in Freeman. You don’t need to read the minds of the individual members of the anti-Freeman coalition, or question the sincerity of any individual person’s statements on any particular issue, to see that Israel is what’s driving and uniting the coalition as a whole.
I should note in fairness than in one of his articles on this, Eli Lake did get a quote from Tom Malinowki from Human Rights Watch criticizing Freeman. Still, it remains the case that the driving force both in that particular instance and throughout the controversy more generally, is coming from the Israel hawk community and not from the human rights advocacy community.
Chas Freeman, designated head of the National Intelligence Council, has all the right enemies. And his enemies are going after him because they don’t like the fact that he’s criticized Israel in strong terms in the past. But that said, just because his enemies are bad people delving into his financial ties to China and Saudi Arabia in bad faith doesn’t mean that his enemies don’t have the goods. Apparently there’s going to be an independent Inspector General looking into some of the financing behind the Middle East Policy Council and Freeman’s service on the board of a Chinese oil company. 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. Randy Scheunemann’s foreign lobbying was a problem, the lack of transparency around the Clinton Global Initiative’s finances was a problem, and I think it’s legitimate to see problems in Freeman’s relationships, too.
The flipside is that you have Jamie Kirchick persecuting Freeman in bad faith while deeming it “contemptible” to have raised questions about Scheunemann. Ultimately, if Freeman goes down it won’t, unfortunately, be because a brave new era of good government and clean dealings has arisen; it’ll be a politically motivated neocon hit job. But as I say, if they have the goods they have the goods.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was clearly reluctant to answer David Gregory’s question about the contrasting leadership styles between President Bush and President Obama. But when pressed he explained that Obama is “more analytical” and goes further out of his way to hear from diverse viewpoints:
GATES: I think that probably President Obama is somewhat more analytical, and he makes sure he hears from everybody in the room on an issue. And if they don’t speak up, he calls on them.
Q: A marked difference from his predecessor?
GATES: President Bush was interested in hearing different points of view but didn’t go out of his way to make sure everybody spoke if they hadn’t spoken up before.
This is a reminder of a point that I think’s been difficult to fully articulate in the Chas Freeman debate. I think there’s truth to the criticisms of Freeman’s hard-bitten strain of realpolitik. But no administration is monolithic, and given the disastrous consequences of our 2002-2006 flirtation with total irrealism I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all to have some Freeman-style ballast on the ship. If Obama seemed to be assembling an entire administration that was unconcerned with human rights abroad, that would be another thing, but that’s not what’s happening here.
I doubt Freeman will be making any particularly crucial contributions to Israel policy. But, like the brushoff of the earlier, less-vigorous, campaign against George Mitchell, it’s an indication of where the administration’s head is politically—not that scared of Steve Rosen and Marty Peretz.