03.10.09

Obama Intelligence Nominee Withdraws

Charles "Chas" Freeman, Obama’s pick to head the National Intelligence Council, has withdrawn from contention for the job. The Daily Beast’s Max Blumenthal reported that the leader of the campaign against Freeman was Steven Rosen, a former director of AIPAC awaiting trial on espionage charges, who has a long history of attacking and undermining anybody he deems hostile to Israel.

The assault on Charles “Chas” Freeman Jr., a former ambassador tapped to lead the National Intelligence Council, is the first blow in a battle over the Obama administration’s Middle East policy. Steven Rosen, a former director of the American Israel Political Affairs Committee due to stand trial this April for espionage for Israel, is the leader of the campaign against Freeman’s appointment. In his wake, a host of critics from the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg to the New Republic’s Marty Peretz have emerged to assail Freeman’s comments on Israeli policies and demand that Obama rescind the diplomat’s appointment. The campaign against Freeman spread to Congress, where a handful of representatives including the top recipient of AIPAC donations, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), called for an investigation of Freeman’s business ties to China and Saudi Arabia.

Rosen’s tactics follow a familiar pattern he has displayed throughout his career, in which he viciously undermined anyone in the foreign-policy community deemed insufficiently deferential to Israel—even his own boss.

But it was Rosen who first publicly accused Freeman of unholy ties to foreign governments and Rosen who first attacked Freeman’s relatively benign statements about the Israeli occupation. His tactics follow a familiar pattern he has displayed throughout his career, in which he viciously undermined anyone in the foreign-policy community deemed insufficiently deferential to Israel—even his own boss. But with Rosen’s indictment for spying for a foreign government, his attacks are resonating less strongly than in the past.

“What’s so strange is that the face of the campaign against Freeman is Steve Rosen, and he is the weakest possible face,” said M.J. Rosenberg, a former colleague of Rosen’s at AIPAC who now serves as policy director for the Israel Policy Forum. “You couldn’t have picked anyone less credible to lead the charge.”

The effort to dislodge Freeman still has the potential to impact the Obama administration’s policies toward Israel, however discredited its architect may be. This is, of course, the underlying objective of many of Freeman’s critics. “Freeman is stuck in the latest instance of the deadly power game long played here on what level of support for controversial Israeli government policies is a ‘requirement’ for US public office…” foreign-policy analyst Chris Nelson wrote in his Nelson Report, an influential private daily newsletter read by Washington policy makers. “If Obama surrenders to the critics and orders [Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair] to rescind the Freeman appointment to chair the NIC, it is difficult to see how he can properly exercise leverage, when needed, in his conduct of policy in the Middle East. That, literally, is how the experts see the stakes of the fight now under way.”

The Israeli lobby’s mounting frustration with the intelligence community suggests another reason for its opposition to Freeman. As NIC director, Freeman would oversee the production of National Intelligence Estimates, the consensus judgment of all 16 intelligence agencies—essentially the official analysis of the U.S. government on global realities. When the December 2007 NIE found that “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear-weapons program,” and that Iran was “less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005,” advocates for a preemptive U.S. strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities reacted with anger and dismay. Neoconservative scholar Daniel Pipes—Rosen’s new boss at the Middle East Forum— decried the NIE as “a shoddy, politicized, outrageous parody of a piece of propaganda.”

“It’s clear that Freeman isn’t going to be influenced by the lobby,” Jim Lobe, the Washington bureau chief of Inter Press Service, remarked to me. “They don’t like people like that, especially when they’re in charge of products like the NIE. So this is a very important test for them.”

Hand-picked to lead the NIC by Obama’s director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, Freeman brings a wide-ranging resume to the job. He has spearheaded key U.S. initiatives from Africa to Europe to East Asia while gathering experience in the Middle East as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. Having cut his teeth as President Richard Nixon’s translator during his historic trip to China, Freeman is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. Pat Lang, a retired senior officer of U.S. Military Intelligence and U.S. Army Special Forces colonel, described Freeman as “a man awesomely educated, of striking intellect, of vast experience and demonstrated integrity.” A letter signed by 17 current and former ambassadors published in the Wall Street Journal underscored the career diplomat’s credibility. “We know Chas [Freeman] to be a man of integrity and high intelligence who would never let his personal views shade or distort intelligence assessments,” the ambassadors wrote.

But Freeman’s professional qualifications are irrelevant to Steven Rosen. “This is a profoundly disturbing appointment,” he wrote in a February 19 entry on his Obama Mideast Monitor, a blog he writes for Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum. Of particular issue to the former AIPAC director was a 2005 Freeman speech in which he partially blamed the failure of the peace process on U.S. support for the Israeli occupation on the West Bank. The next day, Rosen pronounced his alarm at a 2006 address by Freeman that called for “a break from the past” in U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine, calling for a new peace process suggested by the framework offered by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2002—a proposal praised by President Obama in his interview with al Arabiya. The Atlantic’s Goldberg echoed Rosen three days later, claiming Freeman was “well-known for his hostility toward Israel.” Goldberg’s sole piece of evidence was the 2006 speech Rosen had highlighted. From there, criticism of Freeman spread to the Weekly Standard, the National Review, and the New Republic.

Rosen’s campaign against Freeman follows the tactics he honed during a series of internecine battles within AIPAC against the Middle East peace process and to gain control of the organization. In 1988, Rosen overthrew his chief rival, legislative director and chief lobbyist Douglas Bloomfield, after the Reagan administration recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization. “Bloomfield was fired in a blast of unwelcome publicity airing AIPAC’s inner turmoil,” The Washington Post’s Lloyd Grove reported in 1991. “Rosen had won.” His method, according to the Post, “indulged an appetite for the ad hominem, warning of conspiracies among various Jewish organizations to undermine AIPAC's mission.”

According to M.J. Rosenberg, the former AIPAC staffer, Rosen then trained his sights on the man who hired him, AIPAC director Tom Dine. “Rosen didn’t like the fact that Dine was a Democrat,” Rosenberg told me, “and even more than that, he didn’t like having a boss.” When Rosen learned of alleged remarks by Dine that seemed to disparage Orthodox Jews as “smelly” and “low-class,” he rushed to AIPAC’s board of directors to complain. In short order, Dine was drummed out. But Rosen’s real agenda was to undermine the Oslo peace process initiated by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In 1993, the second-ranking AIPAC lobbyist, Harvey Friedman, a Rosen ally, called Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin " a little slime-ball" for advocating Rabin’s land-for-peace policy. Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Itamar Rabinovich, demanded an apology, which was publicly offered by Dine. That prompted Rosen’s counterattack, Dine’s ouster, and his control of the group. According to Douglas Bloomfield, in an article published last week in the New Jersey Jewish Week, Rosen “coordinated with Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, when he led the Israeli Likud opposition and later when he was prime minister, to impede the Oslo peace process being pressed by President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.”

Rosen’s machinations eventually precipitated his undoing. In 2005, federal prosecutors indicted him and two other AIPAC staffers for allegedly violating the Espionage Act by furnishing top-secret U.S. documents to reporters and foreign officials. The one-time power broker suddenly became persona non grata on Capitol Hill. In 2007, Rosen announced a new mission to The Forward’s Nathan Guttman: avenging “the strong anti-Israel sentiment among individuals in America’s intelligence community, which he believes is what led to the investigation against him in the first place.” In November 2008, Rosen started blogging for the Middle East Forum, a neoconservative think tank founded by Pipes, who once called for “razing villages” in Palestine.

Rosen’s former employer denies any role in fueling the Freeman controversy. “We’re not really interested in Freeman,” AIPAC director of communications Josh Block told me. “It’s not something we’re working on.” But when I asked Block whether anyone at the group had circulated information about Freeman to reporters, he declined to comment.

Spencer Ackerman, a national-security reporter for the Washington Independent, first reported the rumors. “Reporter friends of mine have told me that AIPAC has been shopping oppo research on Freeman around,” Ackerman wrote on March 5. Ron Kampeas, a reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, told me that after he published his first report on Freeman, “[Josh] Block called to say, ‘Wow, that’s interesting stuff you found out!’ But it wasn’t as if he had some material to give us,” Kampeas added. “We had the background on Freeman in the first place.” Kampeas said that many of the Freeman quotes furnished by critics “were not out of the mainstream in terms of Middle East policy… And a lot of what we’re seeing is smears.”

While AIPAC has attempted to avoid the appearance of being involved in any way in the attacks on Freeman, Rosen has taken a leading role. In assuming such a prominent part, he has violated his own rule: “A lobby is like a night flower,” Rosen once wrote in an internal AIPAC memo. “It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.”

“The way it used to work in the case of someone like Freeman or people in Jewish community who broke from the consensus,” Rosenberg remarked, “you'd never know why he lost his job or didn't get the appointment. But now people focus on this and people know why it's happening. What did they think? That this wouldn't become a huge story?”

Max Blumenthal is a senior writer for The Daily Beast and writing fellow at The Nation Institute, whose book, Republican Gomorrah (Basic/Nation Books), is forthcoming in Spring 2009. Contact him at maxblumenthal3000@yahoo.com.