Influence of Israel Lobby Debated as Intelligence Pick Casts Blame for Pullout
Thursday, March 12, 2009
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.
"The libels on me and their easily traceable email trails 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," Freeman wrote.
Referring to what he called "the Israel Lobby," he added: "The aim of this 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." One result of this, he said, is "the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics."
Freeman's angry rhetoric notwithstanding, the controversy surrounding the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia was broader than just Middle East politics. Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair's choice of Freeman prompted a storm of complaints about his recent commercial connections to China and questions about whether he was too forgiving of that nation's leaders.
But most of the online attention 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. The latter included a 2005 speech he gave to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, where he referred to Israel's "high-handed and self-defeating policies" stemming from the "occupation and settlement of Arab lands," which he called "inherently violent."
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.
For example, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), often described as the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, "took no position on this matter and did not lobby the Hill on it," spokesman Josh Block said.
But Block responded to reporters' questions and provided critical material about Freeman, albeit always on background, meaning his comments could not be attributed to him, according to three journalists who spoke to him. Asked about this yesterday, Block replied: "As is the case with many, many issues every day, when there is general media interest in a subject, I often provide publicly available information to journalists on background."
Yesterday, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which tried to derail Freeman's appointment, applauded his withdrawal. But it added: "We think Israel and any presumed 'lobby' had far less effect on the outcome than the common-sensical belief that the person who is the gatekeeper of intelligence information for the President of the United States should be unencumbered by payments from foreign governments."
There was plenty of debate about that within the blogosphere immediately after Freeman's withdrawal and the publication of his e-mail.
Jonathan Chait wrote irreverently on his New Republic blog, "The old spin was that Freeman's nomination, and the failure of his critics, shows how evil the Israel lobby is. . . . The new spin will be that Freeman's, ahem, resignation shows the Israel lobby is even more powerful and sinister than we thought."