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The Realist Ideologue At The Nic

Try using the New York Times search engine to see what it has published about Charles "Chas" Freeman over the last decade. You'll find virtually nothing except a little bit of fluff  Not even anything about the controversy that has ignited around Barack Obama's designation of Freeman as chair of the National Intelligence Council, the institutional gatekeeper of what the president sees and what he does not see from our agencies that gather and interpret information. It is an important job. And the particular choice of Freeman has provoked the willies among foreign policy idealists, both in the Democratic Party and out. And among true realists as well.

As you may know, I was one of the provoked, and I've written about several times.  One of TNR's senior editors, Jonathan Chait, also wrote a column, on the influential op-ed page of the Washington Post, pointing out the damage that has been done to the credibility of American intelligence about the Middle East and, perhaps even more important, China. The fact is that Freeman is an ideologue and has been a paid ideologue, at that.  

The president has two choices. One is to admit to the disastrous error and tell Mr. Freeman he has to go. It is not just that he carries very heavy and decades-old political baggage against Israel. He has also been a servant of the Chinese state. A very important servant. He was (I suppose, until now) on the board of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation which has replaced American energy companies as the largest driller in Nigeria. Much of the ethnic and religious turmoil in Nigeria can be traced back to CNOOC's behavior in that huge and petro-rich country. So, in a very material sense, Freeman has been acting against the interests of his own country. There is much information also about CNOOC human rights abuses and land theft in Burma. He was also part of the unsuccessful effort for the CNOOC to buy the then largest American old company, UNOCAL. The China National Offshore Oil Corporation has a partner in African, and it is the China National Petroleum Company which operates out of--you guessed it--Sudan. Both of these operations are dominated by the Beijing government, and if you think that their strategies are separate you are very much mistaken. I thought that Darfur was one of Obama's big issues and Ambassador Susan Rice's, too.

I know that Arabs generally don't like dogs, as many old Jews don't, too. But Freeman was certainly the poodle of the Saudis, their favorite poodle, when compared to one of their other ones, George McGovern. So here we have one former American diplomat being on the payroll of two foreign states, both of which are not friendly to American values. After 9/11, Freeman was co-opted by Prince Bandar--sort of a friend of mine, too--to hustle the extended Bin Laden family out of the U.S. before they were even interviewed by, yes, American intelligence.

This is the man to whom Obama is entrusting American intelligence. If I were Obama, I'd swallow hard and say, with whatever polite caveats, "I made a mistake." The mistakes with other nominees are nothing in comparison to this one, except that this one doesn't need senatorial confirmation.

But it will get some relatively independent examination. Congressman Steve Israel, a member of the Select Oversight Panel of the House Appropriations Committee has formally asked the inspector-general in the office of the director of National Intelligence to examine Freeman's conduct with foreign countries which are not exactly pals. Here is a dispatch from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, of whose board I confess to being a member, about Israel's call for an investigation. A very reliable source of news, timely and honest.

The president's second choice is to leave Freeman as Chairman of the N.I.C. and simply accept that he will command no authority for honesty with anyone. Maybe with the president if he is reckless enough to take the opinion of a man who has been ideologically driven for years, and ideologically driven in ways that can't be in the American interest.  (I don't believe Obama is reckless. So, to avoid the embarrassment of having another appointee depart, he will just leave Freeman in the office and not seek out his views.)  

Take two radically differing pieces of intelligence released in the last days. Ha'aretz reports that Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Services, said that Iran has enough material to make a bomb and is on the verge of doing so. In the same article by Amos Harel we learn that secretary of defense Robert Gates doubts that Iran had achieved this competence and, therefore, we still had time to work them over diplomatically. Fat chance! Then there's a third view from Admiral Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence, who a month ago estimated that at that point Tehran did not have nuclear arms capacity. But, then, he went on to say that Iran may be able to acquire it from foreign parties. (Maybe North Korea.) Apparently, Blair is the person who recommended Freeman. 

Stephen Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.s. Foreign Policy, has gone on his web site in praise of Freeman. This is praise that damns. After all, Walt is a fool and a knave. At Harvard, people raise an eyebrow whenever his name is mentioned.