Fred Kaplan in Slate sides with Charles Freeman’s defenders in arguing that some of his quotes had been distorted, but writes that it is a good thing Chas Freeman withdrew–because his appointment had become so politicized that his intelligence assessments would not have been seen as credible:
Once Freeman became a lightning rod—once his impending job became about him and some of the things he’s said since leaving government for the world of think tanks—President Obama had no choice but to abort the appointment. Otherwise, he would have faced not only a struggle over personnel but a never-ending series of struggles over policy.
In the coming months, if he can be taken at his word, President Obama will open talks with Syria and invite Iran to join a regional conference on Afghanistan and Pakistan. China will have to play some part in this conference, too, as it will with forums on North Korea. And if any progress is made toward Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, he will have to pressure the Israelis to make compromises on policy toward Gaza and the settlements.
All of these things will be difficult enough. They will be harder still if domestic critics can scream that Obama’s policy is being manipulated by "that Saudi agent" or "that Chinese apologist" who’s running the intelligence community.
Or let’s look at the present, not the future. On Tuesday, Adm. Blair testified that the Iranians have neither enriched their uranium to the point where it can be used as a weapon nor decided whether to enrich it any further—that is, whether to build nuclear weapons at all. Blair is respected in all quarters. Some senators may not have liked this assessment—it implies that the Iranian threat isn’t so clear, much less urgent—but they had to treat it seriously, given the source. However, if Freeman were NIC director, Blair’s words would have been received with cocked eyebrows and howls of protest over "the politicization of intelligence."
The accusations, now or in the future, would have been absurd. The chairman of the National Intelligence Council is not involved in making policy. Nor does he even have much impact on the contents of National Intelligence Estimates. Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence analyst who spent 26 years working in NIC sessions, told me in an e-mail today that the agency specialists—the National Intelligence Officers on specific regions or subjects—hammer out a consensus and write the resulting reports. The NIC chairmen coordinate these meetings, set the parameters of the discussion, pose questions about assumptions, and sometimes push the participants for more evidence—all of which can certainly affect an estimate—but rarely do they influence its conclusion. White and several other former officials who have known Freeman for many years say that he would have been an excellent chairman and that, though he certainly holds views, he would never have let them get in the way of hard analysis.
But, again, this is irrelevant. Intelligence has to be credible as well as correct, and it’s credible only if it appears to be objective. Its politicization during the Bush-Cheney era only sharpens this point—and heightens President Obama’s sensitivity to its dictates.
He then makes a remarkably cynical argument about what Freeman’s critics should have done:
Freeman’s foes misplayed their hand. Had they let Freeman step into the job, they could have used him as the whipping boy for all foreign-policy measures they don’t like—especially those involving the Middle East and China—and it might have been easier for them to rally opposition. But now it will be indisputably clear that the president is the one making policy. They’re left with Barack Obama as their target—and one thing that’s clear, so far, is that those who sling mud at Obama wind up hitting themselves.
So I guess that means that contrary to the assertions of some of Freeman’s defenders, his opponents were acting in the best interests of the United States — preferring an NIC chair that would produce non-politicized intelligence reports that could be trusted, rather than keeping him around so they could undermine every future intelligence assessment of the Middle East.
Andrew Sullivan complains that AIPAC spokesman Josh Block supplied information about Freeman on background to reporters — which is something that advocacy groups in Washington do every day with journalists:
Behold the Washington-speak:
For example, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), often described as the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, "took no position on this matter and did not lobby the Hill on it," spokesman Josh Block said.
But Block responded to reporters’ questions and provided critical material about Freeman, albeit always on background, meaning his comments could not be attributed to him, according to three journalists who spoke to him. Asked about this yesterday, Block replied: "As is the case with many, many issues every day, when there is general media interest in a subject, I often provide publicly available information to journalists on background."
I don’t understand why Block and AIPAC can’t lobby against an appointment in public, in the light of day, and for attribution. Even in my own emails with Block, there was an absurd kabuki dance of ‘on the record’, ‘background’ and the like. This is not national security: you’re a fricking lobby. What are you so touchy about?
There’s a sad dynamic here. The partly rational paranoia of some Jewish groups leads to excessive secrecy which feeds the partly rational paranoia of others. A little less background and anonymity and a little more Schumer-style grandstanding would actually be healthier. And a little more honest.
Politico’s Ben Smith says he can’t believe reporters are telling other reporters where they got their information from:
[*My own abstract gripe here: The idea that reporters would leak whom they talk to, and about what, drives me crazy. It gives everyone good reason not to talk to us. For the record, I’d never do that to any source, on any side.]
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg says his opposition to Freeman wasn’t "coordinated" with anyone:
It is widely believed on the blogosphere that the campaign against Freeman was coordinated by AIPAC or by Steve Rosen, the former AIPAC official no charged with espionage. I’ve been away, so maybe I’ve missed a couple of Elders of Zion meetings, but no one coordinated this "campaign" with me. In fact, I haven’t spoken to Steve Rosen since he screamed at me for writing this profile of him in 2005.
Shmuel Rosner, at the Jerusalem Post, wonders what President Obama thought about Freeman:
Was Obama — were his close advisers — familiar with Freeman’s views when they initially agreed to his appointment? And why didn’t they take care of it earlier when the controversy was still fresh? Were they trying to see if this can "pass" – or were they just not paying enough attention? The fact that Freeman withdrew his name from consideration leaves some of us still scratching their heads. Was this an attempt to send a message to someone, to bolster a certain faction in the administration, to signify a shift in future policies – or just an honest, harmless (well, it’s not harmless, never harmless) mistake?
MJ Rosenberg, at TPM Cafe, is happy that the mainstream media has finally discovered the Freeman story:
Until today the story of the "pro-Israel" right’s efforts (ultimately successful) to keep a critic of Israel’s policies out of the National Intelligence Council has been confined to the blogosphere.
As is usually the case with this subject, the so-called MSM is afraid to touch this issue with a ten foot pole.
But this time the "pro-Israel" right went too far.
And the MSM had no choice but to go high with the successful effort to keep an honest broker far away from the intelligence community. Not only that, the New York Times laid to rest the idea that the anti-Freeman campaign was about anything other than Israel. China? Yeah, right.
Suddenly, it’s a firestorm.
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