White House Responds (Kind of) to Chas. Freeman Controversy

Mar 3, 2009 6:27pm

The White House today pleaded ignorance about some of the controversies surrounding its new chair of the National Intelligence Council, Charles "Chas." Freeman, president of the Middle East Policy Council since 1997.

Freeman was U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 until 1992, and the Middle East Policy Council is funded by the Saudi government.

Today a group of Congressmen, including Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote to President Obama expressing concern about Freeman. (Read the letter HERE.)

"Given his close ties to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia we request a comprehensive review of Amb. Freeman’s past and current commercial, financial and contractual ties to the Kingdom to ensure no conflict of interest exists in his new position," the members of Congress wrote. "As you may know, Amb. Freeman most recently served as president of the Middle East Policy Council, a think-tank funded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The board of directors includes Dr. Fuad Rihani, a consultant to the Saudi Binladin Group — a multinational construction conglomerate and holding company for the assets owned by the bind Laden family."

Other critics say Freeman is anti-Israel. Rep. Steve Israel, D-NY, recently asked the Inspector General for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to look into Freeman’s ties to the Saudis, noting that Freeman in 2006 said:

"For the past half decade, Israel has enjoyed carte blanche from the United States to experiment with any policy it favored to stabilize its relations with the Palestinians and its other Arab neighbors, including most recently its efforts to bomb Lebanon into peaceful coexistence with it and to smother Palestinian democracy in its cradle. The suspension of the independent exercise of American judgment about what best serves our interests as well as those of Israelis and Arabs has caused the Arabs to lose confidence in the United States as a peace partner. … left to its own devices, the Israeli establishment will make decisions that harm Israelis, threaten all associated with them, and enrage those who are not … Tragically, despite all the advantages and opportunities Israel has had over the fifty-nine years of its existence, it has failed to achieve concord and reconciliation with anyone in its region, still less to gain their admiration or affection."

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., has said that "Freeman’s past associations and positions on foreign policy are deeply alarming. His statements about the U.S.-Israel relationship raise serious concerns about his ability to support the Administration’s attempts to bring security, stability and peace to the Middle East. As director of the NIC, Freeman would be in charge of drafting the National Intelligence Estimate and evaluating the strategic outlook of our nation. This selection threatens to politicize the intelligence community. I urge President Obama to reconsider this decision."

Many are supportive of the Freeman pick, including M.J. Rosenberg, who writes at Talking Points Memo that "For the first time in years, a president has rebuffed the neocon/rightwing lobby on an issue dear to their hearts. He informed the Senate that he will make Charles Freeman head of the National Intelligence Council despite the full-court press led by the neocons and the rightwing of the pro-Israel lobby against him."

Washingtonpost.com columnist Dan Froomkin in 2006, writing for Nieman Watchdog, described Freeman as "one of those rare insiders who is also a provocateur. His goal: Raising tough, penetrating questions that are more than a bit ahead of the curve — making people uncomfortable, but ultimately the wiser for it."

Perhaps most controversially, under Freeman’s direction, the Middle East Policy Council was the first outlet in the U.S. to publish the working paper of the controversial paper "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" by University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer and Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University Professor Stephen Walt. Many critics suggested the paper was shoddy academically and anti-Semitic, but Freeman was proud MEPC published it.

"No one else in the United States has dared to publish this article, given the political penalties that the Lobby imposes on those who criticize it," he said.

Critics cite other issues with Freeman beyond the Middle East. Writing in Politico, New Republic editor James Kirchick recently reported that on May 26, 2006, Freeman sent an e-mail "to a confidential listserv called ChinaSec. The subject under discussion was the Tiananmen Square massacre, the 1989 Chinese government crackdown on peaceful democracy demonstrators. Sounding like a hard-line Chinese Communist Party flack, he referred to the young activists as constituting a ‘mob scene,’ termed their appeals for liberalization ‘propaganda,’ mocked the ‘goddess of democracy’ they had erected in honor of the Statue of Liberty and deemed the government’s response — which resulted in over 2,500 deaths — ‘overly cautious.’"

Asked today by ABC News if the Obama White House was aware of all the concerns about Freeman, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "I’ve not read those. I think anybody can look at what the president has said and what the president’s views are, enumerating from the very beginning of this administration the desire to be engaged actively in the Middle East region to ensure a durable and lasting peace. It is something that he’s said he would work on each and every day."

Gibbs said "I think people can be reasonably assured of where the president is on this and how he’ll be actively engaged in seeking Middle East peace."

– jpt

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