Chas Freeman, the Obama administration's choice to serve in a key U.S. intelligence post, abruptly withdrew Tuesday after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and numerous other congressional leaders complained to the White House that he was too closely tied to Saudi and Chinese government interests.
The resignation of Freeman represents another serious "vetting" embarrassment for the White House and a personal blow to Dennis Blair, President Obama's national intelligence director. After choosing Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council, Blair had publicly defended his choice and insisted as recently as this week that he had no intention of withdrawing the selection. On Monday, Freeman himself was telling people on Capitol Hill that the more criticism was heaped on him, the more intent he was on fighting to stay at the intelligence council.
A former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Freeman has faced questions over the past two weeks about financial ties between members of the Saudi royal family and the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), a Washington think tank he heads that has been critical of U.S. support for Israeli government policies. But Pelosi's objections reportedly focused on Freeman's ties to China. A well-placed Democratic source said Pelosi, a strong supporter of the Chinese human-rights movement, was incensed about public remarks that Freeman once made that seemed to justify the violent 1989 Chinese government crackdown on democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. The source, who asked not to be identified, said Pelosi thought Freeman's views were "indefensible" and complained directly to President Obama about his selection.
A spokeswoman for Blair said that neither Freeman nor the intelligence czar would have any comment beyond the brief written statement Blair issued Tuesday regarding Freeman's withdrawal. But in a rambling and angry e-mail obtained Tuesday night by Foreign Policy, Freeman lashed out at his accusers and seemed to blame all his troubles on unnamed members of the "Israel Lobby."
"I have concluded that the barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office," Freeman wrote, explaining his decision to withdraw. "I do not believe the National Intelligence Council could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack by unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country. ... 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. 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, 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."
As Blair's pick to chair the National Intelligence Council, Freeman was in line to serve as the country's de facto top intelligence analyst. The NIC serves as a "center of strategic thinking within the U.S. government," according to its Web site. It reviews and evaluates intelligence analysis produced by all U.S. intelligence agencies and produces reports both for Blair and the White House.
At first, Freeman was seen as a well-qualified pick due to decades of diplomatic and government work, including serving as President Nixon's interpreter during his 1972 historic trip to Beijing, President George H. W. Bush's ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm and President Clinton's assistant secretary of defense for international affairs. But the selection quickly attracted noisy criticism from Obama administration critics, starting with conservative pro-Israel activists who questioned Freeman's public criticism of Washington's support for Israeli policies. But the controversy over Freeman mushroomed over the last two weeks with Blair's office receiving letters questioning the appointment not only from members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees but also from congressional appropriations and oversight committees.
In a letter to the House Intelligence Committee late week, Blair had insisted that Saudi government contributions to the MEPC accounted for "no more than one twelfth" of the Middle-East Policy Council's annual $600,000 budget. But that figure omitted any reference to reportedly extensive contributions from a number of Saudi princes and others closely tied to the Saudi government. For example, during a trip that Freeman made to Riyadh in 2007, Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal—a member of the Saudi royal family—met with Freeman and pledged $1 million to support the council's "general purpose activities" and another $100,000 for an educational program run by the group, according to a March 19, 2007, account in Al-Riyadh, a Saudi newspaper. The paper's story was accompanied by a photograph of the meeting between Freeman and the prince.
Freeman "had an ever-expanding financial conflict of interest involving foreign powers," said Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois who along with nine other House members last week signed a letter calling for an immediate review of Freeman's ties to foreign governments. "They [the White House] appointed him without even having him fill out a financial disclosure form. All of this should have been looked at beforehand."
Despite this growing chorus of criticism, Blair had refused to back down and offered an aggressive endorsement of Freeman. "I am writing to underscore my full support for the appointment of Ambassador Charles Freeman as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council," he wrote Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican, in a letter last week. Blair's letter went on to defend in detail some of Freeman's private-sector activities, stating that Freeman had "never been a Capitol Hill lobbyist nor has he ever lobbied on behalf of any government or business (domestic or foreign). Ambassador Freeman has never received any income directly from Saudi Arabia or any Saudi-controlled entity."
Blair also noted that Freeman resigned from an advisory board of the Chinese National Offshore Oil Co. (a Chinese-government-owned entity) on Feb. 1 of this year. He said the board had met once a year and that Freeman had received a yearly fee of $10,000 for serving on it. He said that the board advised the Chinese firm on "management of political risk" but that Freeman was never asked to advise the Chinese company regarding its purchase of the U.S.-based UNOCAL oil company or dealings with Iran.
But Pelosi in particular was upset about public comments that seemed to belittle the Chinese human-rights movement—a cause she has championed for years. In 2005, for instance, Freeman was quoted as writing in a public e-mail about the Tiananmen Square massacre: "[T]he truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud … In this optic, the Politburo's response to the mob scene at 'Tian'anmen' stands as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action.
"I do not believe it is 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," he added. "Such folk, whether they represent a veterans' 'Bonus Army' or a 'student uprising' on behalf of 'the goddess of democracy' should expect to be displaced with despatch [sic] from the ground they occupy."