02.24.09

Likely Obama Appointee Had Ties to Bin Laden Family

Charles Freeman, Obama’s reported pick for chairman of the National Intelligence Council, talked business with the bin Laden family even after September 11.

Charles Freeman, Obama’s reported pick for chairman of the National Intelligence Council, talked business with the Bin Laden family even after September 11.

Amid the criticism that has already emerged about President Obama's reported pick for the powerful position of chairman of the National Intelligence Council, there is an as-yet unmentioned problem that is likely cause even bigger troubles: He had business ties to the bin Laden family after the 9/11 attacks.

Charles “Chas” Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, had business connections with the bin Laden family and their Saudi Binladen Group, a multibillion-dollar construction conglomerate founded by the father of Osama bin Laden. As chairman of Projects International Inc., a company that develops international business deals, Mr. Freeman asserted in an interview with the Associated Press less than a month after September 11 that he was still “discussing proposals with the Binladen Group—and that won't change.”

In an interview, Freeman contested the notion that international companies who had business with the bin Laden family should be “running for public-relations cover”, noting that bin Laden was still “a very honored name in the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia].”

In the same interview, Freeman also contested the notion that international companies who had business with the bin Laden family should be “running for public-relations cover,” noting that bin Laden was still “a very honored name in the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia]”, despite its family tie to the Al-Qaeda leader. (Freeman wasn’t immediately available for comment.)

Mr. Freeman frequently maintained that the larger bin Laden family was closely aligned with American interests. Contrary to the notion that the family was still supporting and even funding Osama bin Laden, the bin Laden family and its business conglomerate were part of the “establishment that Osama's trying to overthrow,” as Mr. Freeman told The Wall Street Journal in a separate interview less than two weeks after September 11.

However, the Journal also noted that Freeman's connections with the bin Laden family went beyond business: Freeman's Middle East Policy Council, a think tank dedicated to Mideast issues, was receiving “tens of thousands of dollars a year from the bin Laden family” at that time. Since the rumors of his appointment broke, Freeman has been criticized because the pro-Saudi MEPC also accepted donations in the millions of dollars from the Saudi royal family.

Subsequent investigation by US intelligence agencies and journalists of bin Laden family ties to Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden raised questions about the authenticity of the family's claim of financial and emotional distance from the world's most-wanted terror leader. A number of experts, including Vincent Cannistro, a former CIA counterterrorism specialist, assert that while some members of the bin Laden family have disowned Osama bin Laden in a complete sense, other factions have not. Carmen bin Laden, a sister-in-law of Osama, told Der Spiegel that "bin Ladens never disowned Osama; in this family, a brother remains a brother, no matter what he has done."

Freeman's appointment for the top intelligence post, which would task Freeman with creating and occasionally directly presenting President Obama with national intelligence estimates, has also sparked a firestorm among groups supportive of Israel who have accused him of bias. Freeman's MEPC was one of the loudest supporters of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, written by Stephen Walt and John Mearshimer, which was criticized by scholars for the paper's factual errors and shoddy scholarship.

Freeman has also spoken critically, and in unusually frank terms, about US policy after the September 11 attacks. In 2006, in a speech to the United States Information Agency Alumni Association, Freeman compared George W. Bush to Caligula and criticized America as a country that “stifles debate at home, that picks and chooses which laws it will ignore or respect, and whose opposition party whines but does not oppose.”

Pundits expect that although reportedly already picked for the NIC chair, the strong response emerging from both sides of the political spectrum might force the administration to re-calculate the political cost-benefit of Freeman's appointment.

A search of campaign finance records reveals that Freeman’s Projects International Inc. donated more than $1,000 to Obama's presidential campaign, which might further complicate what's already a tangled appointment.

Ashley Rindsberg is an independent writer and researcher who focuses on media and politics.