By Dan Froomkin
11:47 AM ET, 03/12/2009
I wrote yesterday about Chas Freeman, who was set to oversee the production of national intelligence estimates until coming under attack primarily for having expressed criticism of Israel.
I continue to believe that Freeman would have been perfect for that job, which had nothing to do with policy and everything to do with keeping everyone honest. As an iconoclast, gadfly and consummate asker of questions, he was exactly what the intelligence community – and the nation -- needed in that position to prevent another incident of the kind of “conventional wisdom” gone amuck that took us into a misbegotten war.
The groupthink of Washington’s national-security elite remains, to my mind, a source of great danger to this country.
After burbling mostly under the mainstream media's radar for three weeks, the story burst onto The Washington Post's front page today. Walter Pincus writes: "The withdrawal of a senior intelligence adviser after an online campaign to prevent him from taking office has ignited a debate over whether powerful pro-Israel lobbying interests are exercising outsize influence over who serves in the Obama administration.
"When Charles W. Freeman Jr. stepped away Tuesday from an appointment to chair the National Intelligence Council -- which oversees the production of reports that represent the view of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies -- he decried in an e-mail 'the barrage of libelous distortions of my record [that] would not cease upon my entry into office,' and he was blunt about whom he considers responsible....
"[A]ttention focused on Freeman's work for the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that is funded in part by Saudi money, and his past critical statements about Israel....
"Only a few Jewish organizations came out publicly against Freeman's appointment, but a handful of pro-Israeli bloggers and employees of other organizations worked behind the scenes to raise concerns with members of Congress, their staffs and the media."
Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper write in the New York Times that national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair's decision to hire Freeman "surprised some in the White House who worried that the selection could be controversial and an unnecessary distraction, according to administration officials."
And they write: "Because President Obama himself has been viewed with suspicion among many pro-Israel groups, the attacks on Mr. Freeman had the potential to touch a nerve."
Freeman explained his decision to NPR's Robert Siegel last night: "When it became apparent that anything I was associated with would be subject to fairly unscrupulous attack and criticism, I decided that in fact it was best for country, for me, to withdraw."
The Washington Post editorial board writes that its initial suspicions about Freeman were more than validated by his parting e-mail, "in which he described himself as the victim of a shadowy and sinister 'Lobby' whose 'tactics plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency' and which is 'intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government.' Yes, Mr. Freeman was referring to Americans who support Israel -- and his statement was a grotesque libel....
"Crackpot tirades such as his have always had an eager audience here and around the world. The real question is why an administration that says it aims to depoliticize U.S. intelligence estimates would have chosen such a man to oversee them."
Washington Post editorial board member Charles Lane also weighed in online, writing that "Freeman’s strong suit is supposed to be original, contrarian thinking on foreign affairs. Actually, it’s more like a competing brand of conventional wisdom."
But Washington Post opinion columnist David S. Broder writes in Freeman's defense: "The Obama administration has just suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the lobbyists the president vowed to keep in their place, and their friends on Capitol Hill. The country has lost an able public servant in an area where President Obama has few personal credentials of his own -- the handling of national intelligence."
Broder scolds "the lawmakers -- mostly Republicans but also some key Democrats -- who joined the lobbyists in running him off."
Some of Freeman's rhetoric might have been inflammatory, Broder writes, "but Freeman in person is low-key, thoughtful and obviously smart as hell. His great strength, Blair said, is his ability to think through how situations look to the people on the other side. Had our intelligence system been cued to do that, Freeman told me, we never would have assumed we'd be greeted as liberators in Iraq."
And fellow opinion columnist David Ignatius says, in a video: "This illustrates a disturbing fact about Washington, which is that in foreign policy discussion, the range of permissible debate often stretches from A to B. Beyond B, people get nervous....There is a correct line, which is enforced by lobbies of various descriptions, and administrations jump that line at their risk."
As for Freeman, Ignatius says:"If I was running an intelligence agency... he's the kind of person that I would very much want to sit on a panel like this, precisely because I could count on him to say what he thought regardless of political consequences."
James Fallows blogs for the Atlantic: "I have received enough pro-Freeman letters from his working associates in the last two days to make we wonder: is there anyone who actually dealt with the man who considered him a crackpot, an anti-Semite, a menace -- terms thrown around by his critics?"
And Stephen M. Walt, co-author of a highly critical book about the Israel Lobby, blogs for Foreign Policy that "the worst aspect of the Freeman affair is the likelihood of a chilling effect on discourse in Washington, at precisely the time when we badly need a more open and wide-ranging discussion of our Middle East policy...[T]his was one of the main reasons why the lobby went after Freeman so vehemently; in an era where more and more people are questioning Israel's behavior and questioning the merits of unconditional U.S. support, its hardline defenders felt they simply had to reinforce the de facto ban on honest discourse inside the Beltway."