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Freeman Affair Reveals Problems for Obama and the Media

March 30, 2009

The recent appointment and ultimate withdrawal of Chas Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council has exposed much that is wrong with President Barack Obama's first months in office, both in terms of policy and vetting, as well as the media coverage surrounding both. Many of Obama's supporters said it was unfair to criticize Obama's associations with people like the unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers and the anti-Semitic preacher of hate, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and called it guilt by association. It is now becoming clearer why those sorts of associations matter.

On February 26, Chas W. Freeman Jr. was named by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair as the Obama administration's choice to head the Council, which has the job of filtering the intelligence from 16 agencies and presenting it to the President. Though Freeman had been ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, and had clearly seen intelligence reports and provided information for them, he had never actually worked in an intelligence agency, according to reports.

It turned out that the nomination was highly controversial. As pointed out in an article by Eli Lake of the Washington Times, which did the most aggressive reporting on this story of any major newspaper, Freeman has been involved in a number of activities with financial ties to China and Saudi Arabia . There were several issues that might have emerged if the White House had properly vetted Freeman. But a spokesperson for Mr. Blair's office said that Freeman was named without prior White House approval, and without being asked to provide financial documents that are standard for such high level appointments. With this White House's brief and messy history of vetting―of Tom Daschle, Bill Richardson, Nancy Killefer, Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner―it is not clear whether or not vetting would have made any difference. Vetting includes examining past indiscretions and potential conflicts of interest. It has been a huge failure of the early months of the Obama presidency.

Among the concerns was Freeman's position on the board of international advisers for the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC). According to Lake, he joined the board in 2004, a year before its unsuccessful attempt to purchase Unocal, a U.S. energy company. "The Chinese government and other state-owned companies own a majority stake in the concern," said Lake, "which has invested in Sudan and other countries sometimes at odds with the United States, including Iran." CNOOC was investigated by the U.S. State Department for a possible violation of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in late 2007, for its agreement to develop a large gas field in Iran .

And Mr. Freeman was the president of the nonprofit group Middle East Policy Council (MEPC) up until his appointment. He was paid $87,000 by them in 2006. The MEPC has received at least $1 million from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. These financial connections raised the possibilities of financial and political conflicts of interest, which could have called into question the judgments provided to the President, or require Freeman to recuse himself on important issues.

Just as troubling were statements made by Freeman through the years that call into question his values, judgments and biases.

There were reports of statements that were construed as arguing that China had failed to crack down hard enough on the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. Freeman claims these were taken out of context. You can decide for yourself. Here is a comment in an email he reportedly sent out to members of the China Security Listserv on China and the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989:

"I find the dominant view in China about this very plausible, i.e. that the truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud, rather than―as would have been both wise and efficacious―to intervene with force when all other measures had failed to restore domestic tranquility to Beijing and other major urban centers in China."

In case it's still not clear whether he is talking about his own view, he added this:

"For myself, I side on this―if not on numerous other issues―with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. 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."

But in the end, what garnered most of the attention was the issue of Israel , and the so-called Israel Lobby. Caroline Glick dissected this part of the story in her column in the Jerusalem Post. She documented that the Washington Post and the New York Times deliberately avoided writing about the controversy surrounding Freeman's appointment until his name was withdrawn. The Washington Post acknowledged that it chose to stay out of the controversy. So what had Freeman said? For one thing he blamed U.S. ties with Israel for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. "We have paid heavily and often in treasure for our unflinching support and unstinting subsidies of Israel 's approach to managing its relations with the Arabs," said Freeman in 2006. "Five years ago, we began to pay with the blood of our citizens here at home."

In a speech he gave in 2005 he said, "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."

Upon his withdrawal, Freeman blasted the "Israel Lobby" in a blog post on the Foreign Policy website. Then Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus wrote about Freeman's comments on March 12, in a rather sympathetic piece, highlighting Freeman's theories about the "Israel Lobby." But the Post fired back in an editorial, saying that "It wasn't until Mr. Freeman withdrew from consideration for the job, however, that it became clear just how bad a selection Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair had made. Mr. Freeman issued a two-page screed on Tuesday in which he described himself as the victim of a shadowy and sinister 'Lobby' whose 'tactics plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency' and which is 'intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government.' Yes, Mr. Freeman was referring to Americans who support Israel―and his statement was a grotesque libel."

Joe Klein of Time magazine thinks Freeman's criticism of "the Israel Lobby" is a bit "imprecise." Klein says "He was the victim of a mob, not a lobby. The mob was composed primarily of Jewish neoconservatives―abetted by less than courageous public servants like Senator Chuck Schumer, who has publicly taken credit for the hit."

The blog Powerlineblog.com did a great job covering this story, when the mainstream media wouldn't. They wrote that "Freeman's parting shot is valuable as symptom and evidence of the nature of his derangement. He is preoccupied with Israel and the Jews." This piece on Powerline includes links to many of the important aspects of this story.

Finally, did Freeman step down voluntarily, or was he pushed? He told Fareed Zakaria on CNN, when asked if Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York had anything to do with his withdrawal, that "I have no reason to believe he was. I'm sure he did talk to Rahm Emanuel and others at the White House, as he said he did. But I have no reason to believe that that had any particular influence on the decision. It certainly didn't have any influence on my decision, and it was ultimately my decision."

Freeman represents an attitude that has come more and more into focus during these first months of the Obama administration. During the campaign and even since being elected, Obama has sought to comfort people to whom Israel 's security is an important issue. But his actions have consistently said otherwise. His advisers have included other harsh critics of Israel , such as Samantha Powers and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Obama has supported as much as $900 million in aid to Gaza, which one way or the other will be helpful to Hamas, the terrorist organization, supported by Iran , and in charge of Gaza. Adam Hasner, the Majority Leader of the Florida House of Representatives has written a piece for American Thinker in which he documents these and other examples that Obama is providing "pro-Israel talk" and "anti-Israel walk." And his naïve outreach to Iran while it continues to threaten Israel 's very existence, as if all we have to do is say we respect them and they will become a peace-loving democratic state, is another troubling dimension of this same situation.

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Copyright ©2009 Roger Aronoff

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and a member of the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi. He can be contacted at roger.aronoff@aim.org.