WASHINGTON (JTA)— Supporters of the Obama administration’s aborted appointment for a top intelligence post said the former ambassador was unfairly tarred by pro-Israel pundits and advocates.
But lawmakers who led the successful campaign against the selection of Charles “Chas” Freeman said their concerns always had less to do with his criticisms of Israel than his financial ties to Saudi Arabia and a Chinese oil company with business dealings in Iran.
“This was not about Israel, it was about a revolving door through which Freeman rotated and was paid handsomely,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), after Freeman withdrew his name from consideration on Tuesday. The New York congressman was referring to the idea of the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia going from serving the U.S. government, to being paid by foreign governments and then returning to government service.
“There was a steady revelation of financial conflicts of interest involving foreign powers that were troubling,” said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who along with Israel, led the opposition in Congress. “If it had simply been a dispute about Middle East policy, he would have survived.”
Freeman’s appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, where he would have overseen the production of National Intelligence Estimates, had drawn criticism as soon as it became public.
The first criticism came in a blog post by former top AIPAC staffer Steve Rosen, who is under indictment for passing classified information to Israel. Soon after, a number of prominent commentators joined in the criticism, including Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Michael Goldfarb of The Weekly Standard, and Jon Chait and Martin Peretz of The New Republic.
Many of those writers noted Freeman’s view that the Israelis are primarily responsible for the failure to secure a peace deal with the Palestinians and a 2006 speech in which he seemed to blame U.S. support of Israel for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. But several of the critics also raised other objections to Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
In suggesting that his “realist” foreign policy views were just as ideological as the “neonconservative” views of the previous administration, the critics stressed Freeman’s leadership of the Saudi-funded Middle East Policy Council, and highlighted his statements that Chinese authorities should have intervened earlier to “nip” the Tiananmen Square protests “in the bud” and never allowed such demonstrations in the capital.
In response, Freeman’s defenders dismissed the concerns about China and Saudi Arabia as a smokescreen, insisting that the critics were motivated solely by their commitment to Israel. Among the defenders were two vocal critics of AIPAC—Stephen Walt, co-author of the book “The Israel Lobby,” and the Israel Policy Forum’s M.J. Rosenberg.
Andrew Sullivan, a traditionally pro-Israel pundit not known for bashing AIPAC, also came down on Freeman’s side, calling “the hysterical bullying” of the appointee “repulsive.”
“Freeman’s appointment is the first skirmish in what could be an intense war for the soul of Obama’s foreign policy,” Sullivan wrote in the London Times. “The goal is not just to force one realist thinker to withdraw, but to ensure that policy towards Israel changes very, very little from the Bush years.”
But lawmakers who took up the fight against Freeman rejected this line of argument, insisting that his financial ties to Saudi Arabia and China were the big problem.
Israel, one of the legislators who requested an investigation of Freeman’s financial ties, said he was concerned about Freeman’s 12-year chairmanship of the Middle East Policy Council, which has received one-twelfth of its funding from Saudi Arabia. He also cited the $10,000-per-year that Freeman received for serving as a member of the international advisory board of the Chinese government-owned international China National Offshore Oil Company, or CNOOC, which has business dealings in Iran.
“It’s a glaring conflict of interest,” Israel said Tuesday morning, before Freeman withdrew.
Israel, a member of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel of the House Appropriations Committee, said the intelligence assessments that led the U.S. into the Iraq war were based on “political agendas and strong opinions,” which made him vow to never trust future assessments unless they come from “unimpeachable” sources.
“He is a walking opinion, not an independent intelligence analyst,” said Israel. Freeman is “entitled to be a strident critic of Israel and be a strident defender of China. He is not entitled to hold those opinions and make judgment on intelligence matters.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a longtime booster of human rights, wrote his own letter to President Obama last week outlining his objections to the appointment, specifically focusing on Freeman’s ties to CNOOC and China’s purchase of oil from Sudan throughout the Darfur genocide, as well as his use of the term “race riot” to describe a protest in Tibet.
“This cannot go through,” Wolf said in an interview Monday. “Do you realize the message this will send?”
At that time—not long after a conversation with Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who had tapped Freeman for the post—he urged the Jewish community to get publicly involved.
“I need some help,” he said.”Everyone who cares about Israel, Tibet, China, Darfur, Burma.”
Asked whether any such Jewish groups had been quietly urging him or others to get involved, Wolf said no.
The Zionist Organization of America and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs were the only Jewish organizations to come out publicly against the pick, though Freeman’s defenders said the pro-Israel lobby had quietly raised concerns with members of the media.
Israel also said he has heard from very few constituents and no lobbyists on the issue—he said it was simply an issue he felt strongly about.
In exchanges with lawmakers, Blair had defended the choice.
At a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday morning, hours before Freeman’s withdrawal, Blair said Freeman is “a person of strong views, of an inventive mind in the analytical point of view.”
Freeman also was backed by a group of 17 former U.S. ambassadors, including two who served in Israel, Sam Lewis and Thomas Pickering. The envoys signed a letter of support that was sent to The Wall Street Journal describing Freeman as a “man of integrity and high intelligence who would never let his personal views shade or distort intelligence assessments.”
The most spirited defense of Freeman came from his son, Charles Freeman Jr., a former assistant U.S. Trade Representative for China Affairs.
In a recent blog post on http://www.thewashingtonnote.com, the younger Freeman declared that he would like to “punch some of these guys in the face” and said his father’s “appointment is being challenged these days by a small cabal of folks that believe first and foremost in the importance of allegiance to Israel as a core U.S. priority.” He referred to his father’s critics as “low-lives,” “Israel first-ers” and “schmucks” while accusing them of smearing his father. And he accused Rosen of “chutzpah,” given his legal troubles.
Rosenberg, another of Freeman’s outspoken defenders—and the only one connected to a pro-Israel organization—told JTA that he read Freeman’s speeches and writings and didn’t have a problem with his views.
Instead, Rosenberg said, the real problem was what he described as the campaign to ensure that someone who has criticized Israeli policies is considered inappropriate to serve in the U.S. government.
“There’s a perception that American Jews gang up to block the appointment of people they don’t consider acceptable on Israel, and it’s dangerous,” said Rosenberg, who is said to have butted heads with Rosen when both worked at AIPAC. “It reflects on the community as a whole, when it is in fact 10 people.”
In a blog post at TalkingPointsMemo.com, Rosenberg described the group of Freeman critics as “so oblivious to Jewish history that it believes it can recklessly put their interests in Israel above everything else and not expect to build strong resentment in Washington (it was strong enough, even before this).”
One Capitol Hill insider, though, seemed prescient on Monday when he said that the initial concerns about Freeman’s criticism of Israel were not enough to stop his official appointment to chair the NIC about a week after it was first reported.
This person argued that Freeman’s comments on China and Tibet, and his involvement with CNOOC, the oil company, were what would end up derailing the appointment.
“He was never vetted, where these kinds of things would come out,” said the source, referring to the announcement last week that the examination of Freeman’s finances that is customary for all top appointments has not yet occurred. “While the initial point of contention may have been Israel, people became aware of a multitude of problems.”