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A Departure That Leaves a Debate in Its Wake

By Dan Froomkin
1:20 PM ET, 03/11/2009


Chas Freeman leads a panel discussion last year. (Middle East Policy Council photo)

Chas Freeman, whose selection last month as chairman of the National Intelligence Council sparked controversy -- mostly from supporters of Israel who opposed his taking a more balanced view of the region -- stepped down under fire yesterday. Freeman was set to oversee the production of national intelligence estimates, the reports that represent the consensus view of the intelligence community.

I interviewed Freeman three years ago, and have followed his work since then. He is a profoundly independent thinker, a provocateur and a gadfly. Until recently, he ran a small Washington think tank and dedicated himself to seeking answers to questions that otherwise might never even have gotten asked, because they were too embarrassing, awkward, or difficult.

Weighing in on his appointment on the Nieman Watchdog blog a few weeks ago, I called him a one-man destroyer of groupthink.

I felt more secure knowing that with his involvement in the process, there would never be another national intelligence estimate -- say, about Iran -- like the one concocted in the run-up to war in Iraq.

And now he's gone, driven out by withering criticism that was not solely based on his views on Israel, but substantially so.

As Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Freeman had come under sharp criticism for his past statements about Israel as well as for his association with the Saudi and Chinese governments....

"A former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mr. Freeman had in recent years questioned Washington's steadfast support for Israel. He had also been deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Beijing. His critics unearthed past statements that they contended had seemed to support the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989."

Freeman argued in a 2007 speech that making peace between Israelis and Arabs was a critical step to solving the terrorism problem. He decried "the brutal oppression of the Palestinians by an Israeli occupation that is about to mark its fortieth anniversary and shows no sign of ending." And he said: "There will be no negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, no peace, and no reconciliation between them – and there will be no reduction in anti-American terrorism – until we have the courage to act on our interests. These are not the same as those of any party in the region, including Israel, and we must talk with all parties, whatever we think of them or their means of struggle."

Earlier yesterday, at a Senate Armed Services Committee, Freeman's would-be boss, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair, defended the appointment in extraordinarily strong terms. Via Thinkprogress, Blair said: "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....

"I think I can do a better job if I'm getting strong analytical viewpoints to sort out and pass on to you and to the president than if I'm getting precooked pablum judgments that don't really challenge."

Freeman's departure leaves behind it an important question: Should it really be off limits for a political appointee to openly suggest that the U.S. commitment to Israel be balanced with a concern for the rest of the region? In modern Washington, does "impartiality" in the context of the Middle East actually mean reflexive, nearly unconditional support for Israel?

Freeman himself, in an angry note to friends yesterday, argued that the attacks against him "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 aim of [the Israel 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."

The entire episode "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."

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "In the U.S., you can advocate torture, illegal spying, and completely optional though murderous wars and be appointed to the highest positions. But you can't, apparently, criticize Israeli actions too much or question whether America's blind support for Israel should be re-examined."

And Andrew Sullivan blogs for Atlantic about "What Real Power In Washington Means": "You get to dictate to a president who he can and cannot appoint to his own intelligence staff. This was not a Senate-confirmation issue. And it was not because of some financial or tax issue. It was because of what he believed. And a president is simply not allowed to have that kind of diversity of view in his administration. And he knows this is a battle he shouldn't fight."

Different Approaches to Judging Obama

By Dan Froomkin
12:43 PM ET, 03/11/2009

I'm increasingly starting to think that, when it comes to judging President Obama, the things that matter the most to the Washington political and media elite are not the same things that matter the most to the rest of America.

The former group seems most interested in what we in Washington call "the optics" -- whether things are looking good or not and who seems to be winning or losing -- on a day-to-day or even moment-by-moment basis. By contrast, the latter group seems to take a broader measure of the man, focusing on whether he seems to them to be trying to make things better. The former group is increasingly finding fault with Obama, while the latter still seems quite enamored.

I put this topic to members of my White House Watchers discussion group. And I found some of the responses fascinating, and well worth sharing.

"WilyArmadilla" writes: "I think Washington is so full of people who've been conditioned to the 'Us agin' Them' mindset that they can't break free. The beltway insiders seem to believe that GOVERNING is a zero sum, win-lose proposition. Most of us in the hinterlands just want the sober, honest truth about where we are and what our leaders plan to help us survive.

"I find it ludicrous that the pundocracy is already suggesting that the Obama presidency is a failure because he didn't come into office, wave his wand and cure all the problems that it took Bush and the Republicans eight long years to construct."

"MrInternational" writes: "Washington will never get Obama...And that's, in part, why he was elected. When you add up all of 'the little people' you get the vast majority of America. The 'little people' aren't looking for 'a Daddy figure'. They're looking for someone who is actually trying to move the country forward on issues that are important to all of us. Even if they don't necessarily agree with his direction, he's making a sincere effort. Heck, nowadays many people may even settle for a Pres who just gives the appearance of giving a darn about real life issues."

"j2hess" writes: "It's just the same old palace politics - with the courtiers and wanabes obsessing over whose stock is up and whose is down, who the king smiled on today and the latest strategy of the lord high chamberlain."

"wistlo" writes: "If Obama can take any positive cues from his predecessor, it would be to act boldly without regard for what the chattering beltway crowd has to say...

"For some issues, George W. Bush wasn't compelled by anything but God and Dick Cheney. Take a lesson from that, Barack."

"EarlC" writes: "Congress does not understand Obama because Congress has its own petty problems. Obama clearly comes from a culture of inclusion and free-flowing ideas. Congress has become a group of armed camps doing battle for recognition. Obama has no problem sharing the credit for things. Congress has become so polarized that if one side said that they were for something, the other side would automatically be against it. This is no way to run Congress."

"fzdybel" writes: "From what I can see of it, Obama is coming from the point of view that the Presidency has limited powers and responsibilities, that it is circumscribed by law, particularly the US Constitution. Washington is still trying to figure out where the next imperial presidency is going to flex its muscles on this, that, or the other matter. They're expecting a reprise of the Bush-Cheney-Rove unitary executive with a Democratic Congress following along in lock step, the White House remaining a key gateway for any successful legislation. There is nothing fated, inescapable or necessary about that style of governance, it was a choice. Old Washington hands just smile and say that is how things work, but I expect Obama to choose very differently, and the essential conservatism of his philosophy of governance is not only going to astonish so-called conservatives but also surprise and disappoint some progressives."

And "jowc123" writes: "He is just trying to do what he said he would do!! Did you listen to anything he said?...

"He inherited a mess. And it got worse between the election and January...He has been slow in filling a few critical slots...in part because of his stand on lobby folks. That may have been unrealistic in retrospect.

"Give him some time. Folks out here in the center land intend to. No, I don't think he is perfect. But given the options we had two years ago, he was far and away the best choice."

Obama Addresses the Earmark Obsession

By Dan Froomkin
12:31 PM ET, 03/11/2009

President Obama today expressed a sense of weariness over the media's obsession with earmarks -- the pet projects members of Congress stick into appropriations bills -- while at the same time outlining his proposal to reduce and reform their use in the future. In the meantime, Obama said he would sign a heavily earmarked $410 billion omnibus spending bill that was sent to his desk yesterday.

Earmarks, after all, were not Obama's issue in the campaign -- they were Republican candidate John McCain's. Obama never promised to veto them, just reduce their number and make their sponsors more accountable.

"Yesterday, Congress sent me the final part of last year's budget; a piece of legislation that rolls nine bills required to keep the government running into one – a piece of legislation that addresses the immediate concerns of the American people by making needed investments in line with our urgent national priorities," Obama said.

"That is what nearly 99 percent of this legislation does – the nearly 99 percent you probably haven't heard much about."

In fact, Obama said earmarks have some value: "Done right, earmarks give legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their district, and that's why I have opposed their outright elimination."

And he took a swipe at some of the bill's critics: "I also find it ironic that some of those who railed the loudest against this bill because of earmarks actually inserted earmarks of their own – and will tout them in their own states and districts."

Obama suggested new guidelines for earmarks that he said were consistent with his pledge to restore "responsibility, transparency, and accountability to the actions government takes." He said that earmarks should be announced and justified ahead of time, shouldn't go to private companies without competitive bidding and shouldn't be traded for political favors.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer wrote in a USA Today op-ed this morning: "Some politicians try to cultivate an image of fiscal discipline by railing against earmarks — and 'pork' also makes a great story for the news media. But as congressional scholar Thomas Mann recently noted, earmarks do not generally increase spending but simply allow members of Congress to direct a small part of a program's funding. 'Abolishing all earmarks would therefore have a trivial effect on the level of spending,' Mann explained, adding that 'hyperbolic attacks on earmarks are a disservice to the public, encouraging people to concentrate way too much attention and energy on a largely symbolic issue and ignore the critical decisions that we face.'"

Inside the White House Briefing Room

By Dan Froomkin
12:08 PM ET, 03/11/2009

Here's a delightful video by washingtonpost.com blogger Mary Ann Akers about what she quite correctly calls "one of the weirder places in Washington": the White House Briefing Room.

Akers looks at the supporting cast of zany characters who inhabit the place. "These are people who aren't necessarily affiliated with any news organization -- they might be journalists, they might not be -- they come here because they really like to hang out here at the White House."

I wrote about wacky denizens of the briefing room past and present in this column four years ago.

50 Days in 50 Seconds

By Dan Froomkin
12:06 PM ET, 03/11/2009

Steve Chaggaris reports for CBS News: "It's 50 days into the Barack Obama presidency and in the age of the Internet, 24-hour cable news and instant analysis, the world is being treated to an examination of the Obama presidency to date...

"Seven weeks into his presidency and Mr. Obama is still learning 'how to run the Executive Branch,' said CBS News Presidential Historian Douglas Brinkley. 'He's barely found the bathroom down the hall' and now he's being deluged with report cards of his nascent presidency."

ABC's Jake Tapper reports: "Well, you can disagree with what President Obama has done, but cannot accuse him of his dragging his feet. His first 50 days have been marked by action on nearly every issue under the sun. Of course, for his critics, that's exactly the problem."

Fox News's Sean Hannity recaps the mishaps of "the presidency of the annointed one, the messiah, Barack Obama."

And Karl Rove (via Hotline) says on Hannity's show: "They have got too much on their plate. They are not focused on the important things. They have got a decision-making structure that doesn't appear to stay focused on the big things. And they have failed to put people in place in critical agencies, particularly the Treasury Department....You know, it's 50 days, so you can't expect them to get everything right and get everything done. But, on the other hand, when it comes to the economy, they are off to, I think, a bad start."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:03 PM ET, 03/11/2009

Mike Allen writes for Politico: "Even though [former president George W.] Bush is keeping quiet in Texas before heading out on a lucrative speaking tour, an informal network of former aides is keeping his views in the political bloodstream, defending his legacy in TV appearances and backgrounding reporters about his record. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer calls the Bush pundits 'a loose confederation of people united in our belief in what President Bush did, and we're freer now to talk about some things than we used to be — good and bad.'.. The former aides are armed with many of the same arguments that they tried out on reporters when they strolled the hallways of the West Wing."

Chris Cillizza writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama will name Seattle Police Chief R. Gil Kerlikowske as the nation's drug czar today, ending a long search that was slowed as details of drug arrests involving Kerlikowske's son came to light."

Jim Puzzanghera writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Even as it spends hundreds of billions of dollars to revive the U.S. economy, the Obama administration is opening a second front -- pressing European and other nations to launch bigger efforts to stimulate their own economies."

Farah Stockman writes in the Boston Globe: "The Obama administration is leaning toward making a major diplomatic overture to Iran before the country's presidential elections in June. This initiative could come in the form of a letter from President Obama to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to two senior European diplomats who have met in recent weeks with key State Department officials crafting a new US policy toward Iran."

Liz Szabo and Julie Appleby write in USA Today: "As the economy fell, the percentage who reported having trouble paying for needed health care or medicines during the previous 12 months rose from 18% in January 2008 to 21% in December, according to the poll of 355,334 Americans. Each percentage point change in the full survey represents about 2.2 million people, says Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist for well-being and workplace management."

John M. Berry writes in his Bloomberg opinion column: "If letting top income-tax rates go back to where they were in 2000 is class warfare against the rich, I'm ready to snap to attention with my old M1 rifle on my shoulder. What a ridiculous label, class warfare. It's hardly aggression against any class to have a progressive income-tax system in which fairness and ability to pay are important considerations in setting rates for different income groups."

The New York Times editorial board worries that Obama isn't as keen on free trade as he should be: "Vigorous trade will help the world recover. For that to happen, the United States will have to provide strong leadership and a clear commitment to fighting protectionism. Any sign of ambivalence from Washington will only make things worse."

Washington Post opinion columnist Michael Gerson lashes out at pro-choice Catholics, and writes that Obama's appointment of one as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, "seems designed to provide religious cover" for his pro-choice agenda and "smacks of religious humiliation -- like asking a rabbi to serve the pork roast or an atheist to bless the meal."

Former vice president Dick Cheney will be John King's guest on CNN on Sunday. It will be Cheney's first TV interview since leaving office in January. Here is what Cheney had to say in his first print interview, five weeks ago.

Is Obama Overloaded? Let's Chat

By Dan Froomkin
9:26 AM ET, 03/11/2009

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET, taking your questions and comments about all things White House.

One possible topic: Are those who are suddenly worried that President Obama is overreaching actually concerned that he will fail? Or that he'll succeed?

Here's ABC's Jake Tapper Monday night on Nightline: "It's the media's new question. Is the president attempting to do too much?"

Here's NBC's Brian Williams last night on the Nightly News: "Today marked President Obama's 50th day in office. Halfway through his first 100 days, the president's first seven weeks have been a whirlwind, with often dramatic movement in all directions, on all fronts: the economy, health care, two wars, and today education reform, which raises the question talked about on cable all day long: Is it all too much for any one administration?"

Where is this concern coming from?

Here's ABC's George Stephanopoulous on Monday night: "The phrase is 'overloading the circuits'....It's coming from a lot of different corners, especially Republicans like John McCain, and the White House is pushing back very hard against this criticism."

And as Carl Cameron reported for Fox News last night: "Republicans across Capitol Hill today complained that President Obama and Democrats are taxing too much, spending too much, and borrowing too much. They say this is their mantra for the weeks and months ahead."

As for Obama, here's what he had to say on the subject yesterday, as a preface to his speech on education:

"I know there's some who believe we can only handle one challenge at a time. And they forget that Lincoln helped lay down the transcontinental railroad and passed the Homestead Act and created the National Academy of Sciences in the midst of civil war. Likewise, President Roosevelt didn't have the luxury of choosing between ending a depression and fighting a war; he had to do both. President Kennedy didn't have the luxury of choosing between civil rights and sending us to the moon. And we don't have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over the long term.

"America will not remain true to its highest ideals -- and America's place as a global economic leader will be put at risk -- unless we not only bring down the crushing cost of health care and transform the way we use energy, but also if we do -- if we don't do a far better job than we've been doing of educating our sons and daughters; unless we give them the knowledge and skills they need in this new and changing world."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:13 AM ET, 03/11/2009

Tom Toles finds bipartisan common ground, Dan Wasserman on the search for a cure for spinelessness, Ben Sargent on the mess Republicans left behind, Ann Telnaes on Dr. Obama's big patient, Walt Handelsman, Rex Babin and Pat Bagley on a changing science policy, Gary Markstein on Obama's inbox, Robert Ariail on too many balls in the air, and Bob Engelhart on the ominpresent Teleprompters.

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