Charles “Chas” Freeman, who until recently was set to assume the post of chairman of the National Intelligence Council, wants to make a few things emphatically clear.
Freeman would like it to be known that he does not believe, as some have charged he does, that American support of Israel caused the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“That’s obviously nonsense,” said Freeman, who withdrew his name for the post on March 10, just a month-and-a-half after agreeing to take up the job amid weeks of attacks on him by supporters of Israel and others.
But Freeman also did not mince words about his view of American and Israeli interests. They are, he said, “divergent.”
“It’s a foreign country, and while maybe 40 years ago many of its values were convergent with ours, I think there’s been a divergence of values,” Freeman told the Forward in a phone interview. He argued that this trend is embodied most clearly in the rise of controversial right-wing Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman.
“I think the values in Israel are deeply disturbing now to many in the Jewish community, as well,” he said.
But while Freeman has spoken at length and often about the causes and motivations for Arab, Palestinian and Muslim extremism — a function, he notes, that is central to the kind of analysis his job would have required — he was blunt about his lack of interest in expressing similar “analytic empathy,” at least in public, with regard to Israel.
“I think I understand Israel’s view of itself and its neighbors,” he said. “Israel has multiple voices in the United States explaining it and its motivations. It doesn’t need me to do so. In fact, Israel’s viewpoints dominate our understanding of its dispute with the Palestinians and its consequent estrangement from its other Arab neighbors…. Frankly, I don’t see that need.”
That may explain something about why Freeman’s appointment to the National Intelligence Council provoked such strong opposition.
Some in Washington who venture criticism of Israel do so in a tone of critical sympathy that may at once blunt the criticism but also allow it to be heard. Freeman, a self-confessed “non-political” figure, does not choose to do so, and he makes no apologies for that.
One example is the speech he gave at a policy conference in 2006, which some opponents cite as the basis for their saying he blames Israel for 9/11.
“Americans need to be clear about the consequences of continuing our current counterproductive approaches to security in the Middle East,” he told his audience. “We have paid heavily and often in treasure in the past for our unflinching support and unstinting subsidies of Israel’s approach to managing its relations with the Arabs. Five years ago we began to pay with the blood of our citizens here at home. We are now paying with the lives of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines on battlefields in several regions of the realm of Islam, with more said by our government’s neoconservative mentors to be in prospect.”
“You have to be fairly obsessive to read that into it,” Freeman said of the charge that he blames American support of Israel for 9/11. “What it means is that our relationship with Israel, given what Israel has done to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, has helped to create an atmosphere first in the Arab world and now through all of Islam, in which anti-Americanism flourishes.
“There is a hell of a lot of polling data to sustain this. It’s ridiculous to say it’s cause and effect. But it’s also ridiculous to say there are no consequences. There are consequences.”
Freeman, 66, is a man of clear intelligence and wide experience, and is not falsely modest about noting this. Asked about reports he speaks Mandarin and Arabic, he confirmed this, noted his Arabic was “self-taught” and added: “Also Taiwanese, French, Spanish, and Tamil and others.”
“This job involved the world,” he noted, referring to the position from which he withdrew, “and my breadth of experience is unique. I have a reputation of being iconoclastic, and I’m not afraid of putting forward notions that are rebuttable. I despise political correctness, and that is why I am unacceptable to this group and others.”
The “group” to which Freeman was referring, of course, is the supporters of Israel who attacked him for weeks after the news emerged that Dennis Blair, the Obama administration’s director of national intelligence, had asked him to serve as head of his National Intelligence Council.
When news of the appointment emerged, some pro-Israel bloggers, such as Steve Rosen, a former official with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, launched a sustained campaign to roll it back. Soon, members of Congress, such as Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, made their objections known to the White House as well. At least one major Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League, registered its concerns privately with members of Congress and the White House.
To be sure, Freeman’s appointment sustained criticism from other quarters, too, in particular critics of human rights conditions in China, who viewed him as a defender of China’s communist government policies toward dissenters.
But Freeman insisted that it was the attacks from supporters of Israel that forced him to withdraw. “The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth,” he wrote in a statement announcing his withdrawal.
He has since voiced regret that he referred to his opponents then as “the Israel Lobby.” “I’d call this little group the ‘Lieberman lobby,’” he told the Forward, explaining that he viewed them as hardcore defenders of what he considers Israel’s racist tendencies toward Palestinians, as embodied by Lieberman, the country’s incoming foreign minister.
Freeman dismissed the notion that he had withdrawn out of concern for a pending review of allegations that as president of the Middle East Policy Council, a private group, he had received substantial sums from Saudi Arabia and represented its interests to an extent that might compromise his analytical judgment.
“They would have found my activities at the council were virtually a voluntary activity, about 5% of my income,” he said. “Most of my income came from the stock market. The income I have from abroad also does not come from the Middle East. No one ever came up with evidence I was shilling for Saudi Arabia, or that the council was its voice.”
Freeman said that despite being by nature “a combative person,” he withdrew because the attacks were bound to continue and interfere with the perception of any intelligence estimates on Israel and the Middle East produced under his tenure.
“I had accepted the job very reluctantly, with two objectives in mind: to improve the quality of our intelligence and to improve its credibility, which has been badly damaged by the political use of intelligence by policymakers,” he said. “It simply became apparent that I could not add to the credibility of it” given the attacks.
Larry Cohler-Esses is assistant managing editor with responsibility for news coverage. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. He received several Laurels Awards from the Columbia Journalism Review, and two New York Press Association awards. Larry Cohler-Esses can be reached at email@example.com.