GOP Senators Question Intelligence Pick's Ties

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

All seven Republican members of the Senate intelligence committee yesterday joined a small chorus of voices on Capitol Hill criticizing the choice of a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia for a senior intelligence position, concerned about his views on Israel and his past relationships with Saudi and Chinese interests.

Charles W. Freeman Jr. was picked by Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair to lead the National Intelligence Council. In that position, he will oversee production of national intelligence estimates and shorter assessments on specific issues, tapping experts from among the 16 intelligence agencies. The position does not require Senate confirmation.

The outspoken Freeman was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 1993 to 1994 and was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia heading into and during the Persian Gulf War. In the 1980s, he was deputy chief of mission in Beijing and then Bangkok.

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. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the six other Republicans on the panel wrote Blair 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."

Committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is aware of the letter, an aide to the senator said, but does not see a need to get involved in the matter. The White House has also 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.

Blair welcomes the review, said DNI spokeswoman Wendy Morigi. She added that the review, the normal security clearance process and Freeman's public financial disclosure report "will put to rest any questions about Ambassador Freeman's suitability, character and financial history."

Freeman has also been faulted for statements about the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. Critics have said that he faulted the Chinese for not acting earlier in putting down the demonstrations, but Freeman said the remarks were his assessment of how Chinese leaders had seen things. Opponents have also pointed to his serving four years, beginning in 2004, on the board of the China National Offshore Oil Corp.

Morigi noted yesterday that the board met only once a year and that Freeman took no part in issues involving the company's dealing with Iran or its unsuccessful 2005 attempt to buy the U.S. oil company Unocal.

She was optimistic that Freeman would be at work by the end of the month. After that, he has 30 days to file his financial disclosure statement and work out with the DNI general counsel how to resolve any potential conflicts of interest.

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