By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
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.
Freeman had come under fire for statements he had made about Israeli policies and for his past connections to Saudi and Chinese interests.
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.
In an e-mail sent to friends yesterday evening, Freeman said he had concluded the attacks on him would not end once he was in office and that he did not believe the NIC "could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack." He wrote that those who questioned his background employed "selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record . . . and an utter disregard for the truth."
Such attacks, he said, "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." And he said he regretted that his withdrawal may cause others to doubt the administration's latitude in such matters.
One of the first congressmen to raise questions about Freeman, Rep. Steve 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 telephone interview that "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."
White House officials did not return a call seeking comment.
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, and since 1997, he has presided over the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based nonprofit 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 that, 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. He added, however, that 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 director of national intelligence "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.