Thursday, March 12, 2009

Israel Stance Was Undoing of Nominee For Intelligence Post

March 12, 2009

Israel Stance Was Undoing of Nominee for Intelligence Post

New York Times

WASHINGTON — When Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, announced that he would install Charles W. Freeman Jr. in a top intelligence post, the decision surprised some in the White House who worried that the selection could be controversial and an unnecessary distraction, according to administration officials.

Just how controversial the choice would be became clear on Tuesday, when Mr. Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush, angrily withdrew his name from consideration and charged that he had been the victim of a concerted campaign by what he called “the Israel lobby.”

Mr. Freeman had long been critical of Israel, with a bluntness that American officials rarely voice in public about a staunch American ally. In 2006, he warned that, “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.”

He did not soften his tone even on Wednesday, saying in an interview that “Israel is driving itself toward a cliff, and it is irresponsible not to question Israeli policy and to decide what is best for the American people.”

The critics who led the effort to derail Mr. Freeman argued that such views reflected a bias that could not be tolerated in someone who, as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, would have overseen the production of what are supposed to be policy-neutral intelligence assessments destined for the president’s desk.

Some of Mr. Freeman’s defenders say his views on Israel are extreme only when seen through the lens of American political life, and they asked whether it was possible to question American support for Israel without being either muzzled or marginalized.

“The reality of Washington is that our political landscape finds it difficult to assimilate any criticism of any segment of the Israeli leadership,” said Robert W. Jordan, who was ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003.

The lobbying campaign against Mr. Freeman included telephone calls to the White House from prominent lawmakers, including Senator Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat. It appears to have been kicked off three weeks ago in a blog post by Steven J. Rosen, a former top official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group.

On the Middle East, Mr. Rosen wrote, Mr. Freeman’s views are “what you would expect in the Saudi Foreign Ministry,” rather than from someone who would become essentially the government’s top intelligence analyst.

Because President Obama himself has been viewed with suspicion among many pro-Israel groups, the attacks on Mr. Freeman had the potential to touch a nerve. Many of these groups applauded Mr. Obama’s appointments of Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and Dennis B. Ross as a special adviser for Iran and Persian Gulf issues, but remain suspicious of other members of his administration who will be dealing with Arab-Israeli matters.

After complaints from some pro-Israel groups during his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama distanced himself from Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, who has sometimes been critical of Israel.

Five days after Mr. Rosen’s blog item appeared, Senator Schumer telephoned Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, to ensure that the White House was aware of Mr. Freeman’s past comments about Israel. According to Senator Schumer, his staff then sent the White House copies of the statements.

Mr. Schumer said that Mr. Freeman showed an “irrational hatred of Israel” and that his statements were “over the top.”

Mr. Freeman said that nobody in the White House ever pressured him to withdraw. He said that he and Mr. Blair had agreed on Tuesday afternoon that he should step aside to avoid any perception of taint to the intelligence assessments he would have overseen at the National Intelligence Council. Hours earlier, Mr. Blair defended Mr. Freeman for his strong views and quick mind, and said he hoped he would challenge an intelligence community that for years had been criticized for groupthink.

In the days after Senator Schumer’s first phone call, other lawmakers and pro-Israel groups began applying pressure on the White House. Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, also called Mr. Emanuel about the pick, and pushed Mr. Blair’s inspector general to examine possible conflicts of interest surrounding Mr. Freeman’s relationships with the Chinese and Saudi governments.

“I was prepared to present my case to anyone at the White House who would listen to it,” Representative Israel said.

Pro-Israel groups weighed in with lower-ranking White House officials. The Zionist Organization of America sent out an “action alert” urging members to ask Congress for an investigation of Mr. Freeman’s “past and current activities on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

With opposition to Mr. Freeman mounting, many in the White House were debating the wisdom of the selection, despite Mr. Blair’s public support for him. “In conversations with people associated with this administration, I never detected any enthusiasm for this pick,” said Ira N. Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, declined to comment on Wednesday.

Before his ambassadorship, Mr. Freeman held a variety of State Department posts. Since leaving government, he has worked with nonprofit groups and on the board of the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation, a past position that his critics said could be a conflict of interest in his new job.

As head of the Middle East Policy Council, he was a frequent critic of policy toward Israel. In a speech in 2005 he said that “as long as the United States continues unconditionally to provide the subsidies and political protection that make the Israeli occupation and the high-handed and self-defeating policies it engenders possible, there is little, if any, reason to hope that anything resembling the former peace process can be resurrected.”

Critics also unearthed e-mail messages attributed to Mr. Freeman that seemed to support the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, saying it was not “acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be.”

Mr. Freeman said Wednesday that the passage was taken out of context, and that he had been describing the dominant view in China in the years after the crackdown.

Mr. Freeman, who severed his financial and professional ties to several organizations to re-enter government, said he had yet to decide what was next for him.

“I’m in a position to redefine my life and to press the reset button, and you don’t get that very often,” he said.

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