The damage done by the Chas Freeman saga.
The truth hurts: National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair testifies
The aborted appointment of Charles "Chas" Freeman as chairman of the
National Intelligence Council inflicts multiple costs on the U.S.
national interest, some of which Freeman enumerated in
characteristically lucid fashion in his withdrawal statement
(reproduced at The Cable). The affair demonstrates anew the strength
of the taboo against open and candid discussion in the United States
of policy involving Israel. It thus perpetuates damage from U.S.
policies in the Middle East formed without benefit of such discussion.
It also perpetuates damage to the ultimate interests of Israel itself,
where, ironically, no comparable taboo prevails. Not least, the
Freeman matter demonstrates the power of calumny and misrepresentation
to kill something as desirable as the appointment of an experienced
and insightful public servant.
Less immediately apparent but also serious is the damage to
objectivity and professionalism in the U.S. intelligence community.
Intelligence officers can see through the smoke screens thrown up by
Freeman's attackers, involving Saudi donations or out-of-context
comments about China, and perceive the affair as exactly what it is:
the enforcement of political orthodoxy about U.S. policy toward
Israel. (If any intelligence officers could not perceive this, they
would be abysmally poor analysts.) The message to intelligence
officers is clear: Their work will be acceptable only if it conforms
to dominant policy views. This standard is exactly the opposite of
what a professional and impartial intelligence service should provide.
The application of this or any other litmus test regarding policy
views to the filling of an intelligence position is contrary to the
very nature of intelligence, which does not make policy. It is
contrary to the concept that good intelligence officers are bright,
perceptive, creative, and committed people -- and thus are bound to
have their own views on policy, including foreign policy -- but do not
let those personal views intrude into the performance of their jobs.
That concept applies both to career intelligence officers and to
anyone appointed to senior positions from the outside, à la Freeman.
(The difference is that those from the outside have had earlier
opportunities to express their policy views in public.)
Americans place heavy expectations on their intelligence officers to
save them from the follies of their elected leaders, and from the
public's own delusions or inattention. Those expectations became
enormous in recent years because of the Iraq war, which the Bush
administration had sold to the public through an assiduous campaign
that involved the twisting and selective exploitation of intelligence.
As the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia
from 2000 and 2005, I saw firsthand how the intelligence community was
expected to make judgments that others would use as a politically
convenient substitute for making their own judgments about policy, to
articulate details about those judgments that others did not make time
to absorb, to resist the excesses of a propagandizing administration
that others did not resist, to convey politically inconvenient truths
to the public while others who were much better positioned to speak
publicly did not convey them, to force water down the throat of a
policymaking horse that not only did not want to drink but did not
even want to be led to the water, and to call the horse to account
while it was stomping on the intelligence community's chest with its
A fundamental impediment to the intelligence community's meeting such
expectations is that it is as much a part of the executive branch,
commanded by the president, as those who make policy. It is extremely
difficult to try to perform the sort of miracle work that those who
have soured on the Iraq war have come to expect from intelligence
officers without becoming vulnerable to the charge -- which we also
heard repeatedly in recent years from proponents of the war -- that
officers who begin to sound out of step with the administration's
message are pursuing their own policy agenda. This is why there is a
long history in the United States of intelligence bending to policy
imperatives, even in environments less intense than the one the Bush
administration created regarding Iraq. The intelligence community
needs all the encouragement it can get -- not just retrospective
recriminations -- to exercise any independence at all.
The Freeman affair gives it the opposite of such encouragement. If
even a former ambassador, speaking out as a private citizen, has
crossed a line rendering him ineligible for service in the
intelligence community, the lines constraining those already within
the intelligence bureaucracy are several times more confining. And the
confining has to do not just with public statements but with privately
The main impact of this affair on intelligence work is not likely to
involve the Arab-Israeli dispute, even though it is what concerns
those who shot down Freeman. The most important facts and patterns
about that tragic conflict are an open book; we don't need the
National Intelligence Council to tell us the implications of continued
expansion of Israeli settlements, the consequences of rockets fired at
Israelis, or the effects of unending occupation on the emotions of
those under occupation. The main effects will instead come, perhaps
subtly and invisibly, with other issues on which a dominant policy
imperative emerges -- such as the Iraq war, though not necessarily
with as intense an environment as what the Bush administration created
to sell that initiative. The effects will consist of intelligence
officers being at least marginally less willing than they otherwise
would be to challenge the ethos surrounding the policy and to point
out ways in which the policy might be misguided. Some such policies
will be misguided, will come a cropper, and will lead to the usual
recriminations about how intelligence failed.
When that happens, those in Congress and elsewhere who acquiesced in
the character assassination of Chas Freeman -- or even worse,
participated in it -- should ponder two things about intelligence.
First, they should ask how they could expect intelligence officers to
show superlative courage in bucking political orthodoxy when they
showed so little themselves. Second, they should reflect on how their
own pusillanimity in the face of the lobby that gunned down Freeman
has made it even less likely that intelligence officers will be able
to muster such courage in the future...
The counter-argument of the contrarians...who are not in the know...about the rogue
ops. of the Siamese twins...NSA/CIA2/MOSSAD/MI6...
-neocon/pro-Israel influences in the Obongo admin...
Is This Last Gasp for the Israel Lobby and the Neocons?
By Robert Dreyfuss, Tomdispatch.com
Posted on March 16, 2009
Is the Israel lobby in Washington an all-powerful force? Or is it, perhaps, running scared?
Judging by the outcome of the Charles W. ("Chas") Freeman affair this week, it might seem as if the Israeli lobby is fearsome indeed. Seen more broadly, however, the controversy over Freeman could be the Israel lobby's Waterloo.
Let's recap. On February 19th, Laura Rozen reported at ForeignPolicy.com that Freeman had been selected by Admiral Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, to serve in a key post as chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC). The NIC, the official in-house think tank of the intelligence community, takes input from 16 intelligence agencies and produces what are called "national intelligence estimates" on crucial topics of the day as guidance for Washington policymakers. For that job, Freeman boasted a stellar resumé: fluent in Mandarin Chinese, widely experienced in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, and an ex-assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration.
A wry, outspoken iconoclast, Freeman had, however, crossed one of Washington's red lines by virtue of his strong criticism of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Over the years, he had, in fact, honed a critique of Israel that was both eloquent and powerful. Hours after the Foreign Policy story was posted, Steve Rosen, a former official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), launched what would soon become a veritable barrage of criticism of Freeman on his right-wing blog.
On March 10th, Freeman bowed out, but not with a whimper. In a letter to friends and colleagues, he launched a defiant, departing counterstrike that may, in fact, have helped to change the very nature of Washington politics. "The tactics of the Israel lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth," wrote Freeman. "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."
Freeman put it more metaphorically to me: "It was a nice way of, as the Chinese say, killing a chicken to scare the monkeys."
This new attention to the lobby's work comes at a critical moment, which is why the toppling of Freeman might be its Waterloo.
As a start, right-wing partisans of Israel have grown increasingly anxious about the direction that President Obama intends to take when it comes to U.S. policy toward Israel, the Palestinians, Iran, and the Middle East generally. Despite the way, in the middle of the presidential campaign last June, Obama recited a pro-Israeli catechism in a speech at AIPAC's national conference in Washington, they remain unconvinced that he will prove reliable on their policy concerns. Among other things, they have long been suspicious of his reputed openness to Palestinian points of view.
No less important, while the appointments of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state and Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff were reassuring, other appointments were far less so. They were, for instance, concerned by several of Obama's campaign advisers -- and not only Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who were quietly eased out of Obamaland early in 2008. An additional source of worry was Daniel Shapiro and Daniel Kurtzer, both Jewish, who served as Obama's top Middle East aides during the campaign and were seen as not sufficiently loyal to the causes favored by hardline, right-wing types.
Since the election, many lobby members have viewed a number of Obama's top appointments, including Shapiro, who's taken the Middle East portfolio at the National Security Council, and Kurtzer, who's in line for a top State Department job, with great unease. Take retired Marine general and now National Security Advisor James L. Jones, who, like Brzezinski, is seen as too sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view and who reputedly wrote a report last year highly critical of Israel's occupation policies; or consider George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, who is regarded by many pro-Israeli hawks as far too level-headed and even-handed to be a good mediator; or, to mention one more appointment, Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell and now a National Security Council official who has, in the past, made comments sharply critical of Israel.
Of all of these figures, Freeman, because of his record of blunt statements, was the most vulnerable. His appointment looked like low-hanging fruit when it came to launching a concerted, preemptive attack on the administration. As it happens, however, this may prove anything but a moment of strength for the lobby. After all, the recent three-week Israeli assault on Gaza had already generated a barrage of headlines and television images that made Israel look like a bully nation with little regard for Palestinian lives, including those of women and children. According to polls taken in the wake of Gaza, growing numbers of Americans, including many in the Jewish community, have begun to exhibit doubts about Israel's actions, a rare moment when public opinion has begun to tilt against Israel.
Perhaps most important of all, Israel is about to be run by an extremist, ultra right-wing government led by Likud Party leader Bibi Netanyahu, and including the even more extreme party of Avigdor Lieberman, as well as a host of radical-right religious parties. It's an ugly coalition that is guaranteed to clash with the priorities of the Obama White House.
As a result, the arrival of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government is also guaranteed to prove a crisis moment for the Israel lobby. It will present an enormous public-relations problem, akin to the one that faced ad agency Hill & Knowlton during the decades in which it had to defend Philip Morris, the hated cigarette company that repeatedly denied the link between its products and cancer. The Israel lobby knows that it will be difficult to sell cartons of menthol smooth Netanyahu-Lieberman 100s to American consumers.
So here's the reality behind the Freeman debacle: Already worried over Team Obama, suffering the after-effects of the Gaza debacle, and about to be burdened with the Netanyahu-Lieberman problem, the Israel lobby is undoubtedly running scared. They succeeded in knocking off Freeman, but the true test of their strength is yet to come....
Robert Dreyfuss is the author of "Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam" (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books).