By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
And Stephen Walt, one of two writers who in 2006 famously described the influence of the Israel lobby as dangerous, chimed in on ForeignPolicy.com: "For all of you out there who may have questioned whether there was a powerful 'Israel lobby,' or who admitted that it existed but didn't think it had much influence . . . think again." (Foreign Policy is owned by a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co.)
Time's Joe Klein opined that Freeman "was the victim of a mob, not a lobby. The mob was composed primarily of Jewish neoconservatives -- abetted by less than courageous public servants . . . [who have] made Washington even less hospitable for those who aren't afraid to speak their minds, for those who are reflexively contentious, who would defy the conventional wisdom."
The White House, which had sidestepped questions about Freeman twice in one week, said little yesterday. "I don't have anything to add from what Admiral Blair discussed yesterday in accepting Mr. Freeman's decision that his nomination not proceed and that he regretted it," press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
The White House did not respond last night to a question about outside influence on personnel decisions.
The earliest cry of alarm about Freeman's appointment -- a week before it was announced -- came from a former AIPAC lobbyist. Steve Rosen wrote Feb. 19 on his blog that Freeman was a "strident critic of Israel" and described the potential appointment as "a textbook case of the old-line Arabism" whose "views of the region are what you would expect in the Saudi foreign ministry."
Rosen said yesterday that he had been "quite positive" about President Obama's previous appointments for Middle East positions but that he was "surprised" about Freeman. The appointee's "most extreme point of view," he said, was not what he had expected for the head of the NIC.
Rosen has a unique position in Washington. A former chief foreign policy lobbyist for AIPAC, he and a colleague were indicted by the Bush administration in 2005 on suspicion of violating the Espionage Act, the first nongovernment employees ever so charged. AIPAC cut him loose, and a trial date has been set for May.
Meanwhile, Rosen is limited in what he can do. He said he cannot talk to AIPAC employees, nor can he lobby Congress. He has talked to "a number of journalists" who called him about Freeman, but not members of Congress. He did not answer when asked yesterday whether he has talked to Hill staff members.
Rosen's initial posting was the first of 17 he would write about Freeman over a 19-day period. Some of those added more original reporting, while some pointed to other blogs' finds about Freeman's record. In the process, Rosen traced increasing interest in the appointment elsewhere in the blogosphere, including coverage by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard, and Chait and Martin Peretz of the New Republic.
Interest also was growing among members of Congress.
Also on March 2, the Zionist Organization of America called for support of a letter by Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) that called on the DNI inspector general to investigate Freeman for possible conflicts of interest because of his financial relations with Saudi Arabia. That letter, signed by Kirk and seven other congressmen, including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), was sent to Inspector General Edward Maguire on March 3.
Close observers of the events consider that request a turning point in the effort to stop Freeman's candidacy, and Rosen's blog began focusing almost exclusively on the appointment.
On Monday, the seven Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee wrote Blair to protest his choice, which was not subject to Senate confirmation, and threatened to review the NIC's work as long as Freeman chaired that body.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting one day later, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) told Blair of his own concerns, and he added that the controversy "is not going to go away until you or Ambassador Freeman find a way to resolve it." Hours later, Freeman withdrew.
Freeman explained his decision last night on National Public Radio: "It became apparent that, no matter what the National Intelligence Council or the intelligence community might put out under my chairmanship, I would be used as an excuse -- if something was said that wasn't politically correct -- to disparage the quality and the credibility of the intelligence."