WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Obama administration’s reported pick for a top intelligence post helped peddle a Saudi-funded school study guide decried by Jewish groups and educators for having anti-Jewish biases.
Charles “Chas” Freeman, the U.S. envoy to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, is slated to chair the National Intelligence Council, according to The Cable, a blog at Foreign Policy magazine that has been unerring in reporting Obama administration national security appointments.
Sources acquainted with Freeman and his putative boss, Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, confirmed to JTA that Freeman is under consideration, but say that nothing is final. An acquaintance of Freeman’s in the Middle East policy community says the appointment largely derives from the close friendship between Blair and Freeman.
Spokesmen for Freeman and for the White House declined to comment.
Freeman is president of the Middle East Policy Council, a Saudi-funded think tank. A JTA investigative series in 2005 exposed how the council, led by Freeman, joined with Berkeley, Calif.-based Arab World and Islamic Resources in peddling the “Arab World Studies Notebook” to American schools. In the version examined that year by JTA staff, the “Notebook” described Jerusalem as unequivocally “Arab,” deriding Jewish residence in the city as “settlement”; cast the “question of Jewish lobbying” against “the whole question of defining American interests and concerns”; and suggested that the Koran “synthesizes and perfects earlier revelations.”
Freeman’s reported appointment already has set off a firestorm among Middle East policy bloggers, with some on the dovish side welcoming it as refreshing injection of “realism” after the neo-conservatism that defined the Bush administration, and others expressing alarm at pronouncements of Freeman and the council that have been relentlessly critical of Israel.
“Freeman is a strident critic of Israel, and a textbook case of the old-line Arabism that afflicted American diplomacy at the time the state of Israel was born,” Steve Rosen, a former top official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, wrote on his Obama Mideast Monitor blog hosted by the Middle East Forum.
Rosen, who is facing trial for allegedly relaying classified information during his AIPAC stint, wrote that Freeman’s “views of the region are what you would expect in the Saudi foreign ministry, with which he maintains an extremely close relationship, not the top CIA position for analytic products going to the President of the United States.”
M.J. Rosenberg, an analyst for the Israel Policy Forum, countered at the liberal Talking Points Memo, “So what if Freeman is close to the Saudis. Why should that disqualify him for the intelligence post? Unless he has done something unethical or illegal, these smears are more evidence (if any more is needed) that being deemed overly critical of the occupation is today’s equivalent of being called a Communist in 1953. It’s a career killer, used to ensure that policymakers adhere to the neocon line.”
The National Intelligence Council describes itself as “a center of strategic thinking within the U.S. Government, reporting to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and providing the President and senior policymakers with analyses of foreign policy issues that have been reviewed and coordinated throughout the Intelligence Community.”
AIPAC and other Jewish groups would not comment on Freeman. The mainstream pro-Israel groups hardly ever comment on presidential appointments — and never before they have been made formal.
Transitioning from a Middle East posting to a foreign-funded think tank and then back into government again is hardly unusual.
“Half the think tanks in this town take money from somebody overseas,” said Sam Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who now consults with the Israel Policy Forum and who praised Freeman as “one of the more able who returned from the foreign service.”
A 2006 report by Congressional Quarterly documented such transitions, naming Freeman among eight former Middle East envoys now working in the Saudi-funded sphere.
Many of these are hardly controversial: Academics associated with the Middle East Institute, which has received Saudi funding, are regarded in Washington as often critical of Israel but fair and unafraid to question Arab pieties about the region in general and Saudi Arabia in particular.
Dennis Ross, who previously served as a Mideast negotiator and was tapped this week by the Obama administration as an adviser on Iran issues, spent his time between government stints chairing the think tank of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-governmental agency. He also headed the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, a think tank here that receives a great deal of support from pro-Israel donors.
The problem for Freeman, should his appointment eventuate, is that his writings have tended less toward analysis and more toward advocacy — and not simply of a line of thought that defends Arab interests but that demonizes Israel and its advocates.
In a 2006 interview with the Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service, Freeman cast as martyrs Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, the academics and best-selling authors whose careers have flourished since they pilloried what they called “the Israel lobby” as indispensable in the drive to war with Iraq.
“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,” Freeman said. “So we continue to do important things that are not done by anybody else, which I think fill some gaps.”
The Atlantic reportedly turned down the original article because it was based on selective and second-hand sources. Their book was published subsequently by a major American house, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
In the same interview, Freeman thanked Saudi King Abdullah for funding the Middle East Policy Council for at least another year.
Yid with Lid, a conservative blog, uncovered writings by other council writers who say the Iraq war was fought principally to protect Israel.
Freeman often soft-peddles criticism of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.
“The Saudis are clearly winning their struggle against violent extremists,” he told the National Council on U.S.-Arab relations in 2005, although it is now known that in recent years the Saudis released suspected terrorists, who subsequently committed new attacks.
In the same speech, Freeman said Israel’s occupation of Arab lands was “inherently violent” and blasted then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for dealing unilaterally with the Palestinians. Both criticisms would not be seen as unfair in mainstream policy circles, but he did not mention Palestinian terrorism, nor did he note the emergence of Hamas, a group that unilaterally rejects Israel’s existence, as a major force.
Participating in a 2002 panel for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Freeman said that “in the case of Saudi Arabia, reform has always come from the top down. It has been the ruling family that has sought to liberalize society and to open it up.”
Saudi exiles over the years who have sought democratization might disagree. They have fled in fear for their lives and continue to be harassed in their new homelands.
Freeman also chairs Projects International, a consultancy that depicts itself as “understanding the dynamics of international business ventures.” It lists seven recent ventures in Saudi Arabia, including creating marketing strategies for U.S. defense contractors in the kingdom.