A Departure That Leaves a Debate in Its Wake

By Dan Froomkin
Copyright 2009
Wednesday, March 11, 2009; 2:41 PM

Chas Freeman leads a panel discussion last year. (Middle East Policy Council photo) Chas Freeman, whose selection last month as chairman of the National Intelligence Council sparked controversy -- mostly from supporters of Israel who opposed his taking a more balanced view of the region -- stepped down under fire yesterday. Freeman was set to oversee the production of national intelligence estimates, the reports that represent the consensus view of the intelligence community. I interviewed Freeman three years ago, and have followed his work since then. He is a profoundly independent thinker, a provocateur and a gadfly. Until recently, he ran a small Washington think tank and dedicated himself to seeking answers to questions that otherwise might never even have gotten asked, because they were too embarrassing, awkward, or difficult. Weighing in on his appointment on the Nieman Watchdog blog a few weeks ago, I called him a one-man destroyer of groupthink. I felt more secure knowing that with his involvement in the process, there would never be another national intelligence estimate -- say, about Iran -- like the one concocted in the run-up to war in Iraq. And now he's gone, driven out by withering criticism that was not solely based on his views on Israel, but substantially so. As Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Freeman had come under sharp criticism for his past statements about Israel as well as for his association with the Saudi and Chinese governments.... "A former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mr. Freeman had in recent years questioned Washington's steadfast support for Israel. He had also been deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Beijing. His critics unearthed past statements that they contended had seemed to support the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989." Freeman argued in a 2007 speech that making peace between Israelis and Arabs was a critical step to solving the terrorism problem. He decried "the brutal oppression of the Palestinians by an Israeli occupation that is about to mark its fortieth anniversary and shows no sign of ending." And he said: "There will be no negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, no peace, and no reconciliation between them ??? and there will be no reduction in anti-American terrorism ??? until we have the courage to act on our interests. These are not the same as those of any party in the region, including Israel, and we must talk with all parties, whatever we think of them or their means of struggle." Earlier yesterday, at a Senate Armed Services Committee, Freeman's would-be boss, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair, defended the appointment in extraordinarily strong terms. Via Thinkprogress, Blair said: "Those of us who know him find him to be a person of strong views, of inventive mind from an analytical point of view ??? I'm not talking about policy ??? and that when we go back and forth with him, a better understanding comes out of those interactions. That's primarily the value that I think he will bring.... "I think I can do a better job if I'm getting strong analytical viewpoints to sort out and pass on to you and to the president than if I'm getting precooked pablum judgments that don't really challenge." Freeman's departure leaves behind it an important question: Should it really be off limits for a political appointee to openly suggest that the U.S. commitment to Israel be balanced with a concern for the rest of the region? In modern Washington, does "impartiality" in the context of the Middle East actually mean reflexive, nearly unconditional support for Israel? Freeman himself, in an angry note to friends yesterday, argued that the attacks against him "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....The aim of [the Israel 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, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors." The entire episode "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." Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "In the U.S., you can advocate torture, illegal spying, and completely optional though murderous wars and be appointed to the highest positions. But you can't, apparently, criticize Israeli actions too much or question whether America's blind support for Israel should be re-examined." And Andrew Sullivan blogs for Atlantic about "What Real Power In Washington Means": "You get to dictate to a president who he can and cannot appoint to his own intelligence staff. This was not a Senate-confirmation issue. And it was not because of some financial or tax issue. It was because of what he believed. And a president is simply not allowed to have that kind of diversity of view in his administration. And he knows this is a battle he shouldn't fight."

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