Freeman Withdraws From Intel Position
Updated 6:36 p.m.
By Walter Pincus
Charles W. Freeman Jr. withdrew yesterday from his appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council after questions about his impartiality were raised among members of Congress and with White House officials.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said he accepted Freeman's decision "with great regret." The withdrawal came hours after Blair had given a spirited defense on Capitol Hill of the outspoken former ambassador.
The National Intelligence Council oversees production of national intelligence estimates and shorter assessments on specific issues, tapping experts from among the 16 intelligence agencies. The chairman's position does not require Senate confirmation.
Freeman had come under fire for statements he had made about Israeli policies and for his past connections to Saudi and Chinese interests.
One of the first congressmen to raise questions about Freeman, Rep. Steven Israel (D-N.Y.), said yesterday that he spoke of his concerns last week to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and later sent him materials about the former ambassador's statements and associations. Israel, a member of the House Appropriations Committee's Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, said in a phone interview, "As I was leaving the White House this afternoon, they told me of Blair's statement" of Freeman's withdrawal. "I think Blair's defense of Freeman was indefensible, and people in the White House realized that."
The congressman said Freeman's withdrawal "preserved the impartiality of U.S. intelligence," and he expected Blair would move on and "will find someone who is unimpeachable of intelligence matters."
Freeman had been ambassador to Saudi Arabia and deputy chief of mission in China.
Since 1997, he has presided over the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that is funded in part by Saudi money. In that role, Freeman has occasionally criticized the Israeli government's positions and U.S. support for those policies. In 2007, for example, he said, "The brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation shows no sign of ending," adding, "American identification with Israel has become total."
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) questioned Blair about the appointment yesterday when the intelligence chief came before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Lieberman cited Freeman's past relationships and statements which, the senator said, "appear either inclined to lean against Israel or too much in favor of China."
Blair forcefully defended Freeman, saying the intelligence community needs people with strong views because out of that come the best ideas. But, he added, the job of the intelligence community is not to make policy but to inform it with ideas and that Freeman, "with his long experience, his inventive mind will add to those strongly."
Blair said Freeman's statements had been taken out of context, and he urged members "to look at the full context of what he was saying."
Lieberman countered that he feared that Freeman might not be able "to separate his policy views from the analysis," adding, "whether I disagree or agree with them, he's very opinionated." Blair responded that he could do a better job as DNI "if I'm getting strong analytical viewpoints to sort out and pass on to you and to the president than if I am getting pre-cooked, pablum judgments that don't really challenge."
Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) later praised the way Blair defended Freeman, saying the danger of centralized intelligence was the lack of divergent opinion, as was seen in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Since 1997, Freeman has presided over the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that is funded in part by Saudi money. In that role, Freeman has occasionally criticized the Israeli government's positions and U.S. support for those policies. In 2007, for example, he said, "The brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation shows no sign of ending," adding, "American identification with Israel has become total."
Freeman has also been faulted for statements about the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. Critics have said complained that he faulted the Chinese for not acting earlier in putting down the demonstrations, but Freeman said the remarks were actually his assessment of how Chinese leaders had seen things.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), the intelligence committee's vice chairman, and the six other Republicans on the panel wrote Blair yesterday to raise "concerns about Mr. Freeman's lack of experience and uncertainty about his objectivity." His appointment, they said, would result in "even more oversight scrutiny to the activities of the NIC under his leadership."
The White House had been largely mum on Freeman's appointment. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked last week about the objections, but he ducked the question.
Opposition to Freeman's appointment has been led by several pro-Israel groups and advocates in the United States, joined by some members of Congress. Last week, nine House Republicans, including Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and two intelligence committee members, joined Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley (Nev.) in asking DNI Inspector General Edward Maguire for a comprehensive review of Freeman's past and current financial, commercial and contractual ties to the Saudi government. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), a member of the House intelligence committee, wrote a similar letter to Maguire.
Posted at 6:36 PM ET on Mar 10, 2009
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