Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend that echoed what he told JTA early last week, before Charles Freeman withdrew his appointment as head of the National Intelligence Council — that his opposition to Freeman had more to do with Freeman’s affiliations with the Chinese and Saudis, and that the "Israel Lobby" never called him:
Freeman’s charges of an elaborate conspiracy to derail his nomination are disingenuous. The "Israel lobby" never contacted me. For me, the warning flags about Charles Freeman went up when I learned of his questionable associations and inflammatory statements about China and Tibet.
For almost four years, Freeman served on the advisory board of the China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), receiving $10,000 a year for his service. The communist government of China, along with other state-owned companies, are majority stakeholders in CNOOC. Yet Freeman claims that he never received money from a foreign government. The connection may not be direct, but it is certainly there. The same can be said of the paycheck he received from the Middle East Policy Council, which received ample funding from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia — whose regime is responsible for funding madrassas around the globe that have given rise to Islamic fundamentalists such as Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban. …
While the reports of Freeman’s public statements first raised my concern about his suitability to be chairman of the National Intelligence Council, his words after his withdrawal crystallized exactly why Freeman was the wrong choice for the job.
Meanwhile, Mark Lowenthal, a vice chairman of the NIC in the George W. Bush administration, wrote in the Post that the job isn’t all that hot, anyway:
Is the chairman of the National Intelligence Council even worth so much controversy anymore? Probably not.
The roots of the NIC go back to the early 1950s, when Director of Central Intelligence Walter Bedell Smith created an Office of National Estimates to produce long-term strategic analyses that would provide the president and his senior advisers with the consensus views of the government’s various intelligence agencies. These documents, called National Intelligence Estimates, quickly ran into trouble. As early as the mid-’50s, a survey found that the main audience for these lengthy documents was junior staff members who used the estimates to help them brief their superiors. The survey also found that NIEs were considered too ponderous and that readers questioned how the "consensus" was achieved.
It hasn’t gotten any better since then. In fact, not only are the estimates too unwieldy to be of any use, they generate distracting and dangerous controversy because they are so susceptible to political "cherry-picking." …
The estimates haven’t improved much since that survey of 54 years ago. They remain long, ponderous, sometimes tortuously written and largely lacking in influence. As a senior intelligence officer during the Bush administration, I led a team that conducted an extensive biannual review of intelligence performance. As part of this evaluation, we asked senior policymakers which intelligence products they found most useful. In each evaluation, NIEs came in last or next to last.
The NIC has other functions in addition to writing those estimates, of course. It produces Global Trends studies that look ahead 10 or 15 years. This may be an interesting intellectual process, but it is of little use to officials who are much more preoccupied with current issues, such as the global economic meltdown, than with the growth of eight new megacities by 2025.
Finally, oddly enough, the council has become the administrative support staff for the director of national intelligence as he prepares for high-level meetings, assembling briefing books for him. So now we have senior analysts and their staffs acting as clerks.
Chas Freeman may well have had difficulty adjusting to the role of intelligence officer. The former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia would have had responsibility for objective analysis that makes no policy recommendations. But the debate over Freeman’s relative suitability was really a secondary issue. We first need to address how best to convey strategic intelligence to those who need it most. More than 50 years after Smith created the first NIE system and seven years since the Iraq estimate, we still can’t get the basic process right.