Since February 26, I’ve written several times (here, here, here, and here) about the battle over the nomination of Charles W. (“Chas”) Freeman as chairman of the National Intelligence Committee. On Tuesday, he withdrew his name from consideration after what I called a “thunderous, coordinated assault” against him by the Israel lobby and its neoconservative allies.
On Friday, three days after he withdrew — in the midst of a media storm, including front page stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post — Freeman and I spoke in an exclusive interview for The Nation. Here is the unedited transcript:
Q. When were you first approached by Admiral Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence?A. It was in early to mid-December. My initial reaction was that I was reluctant to go back to the government at all. And then my reaction was about, as I’ve been quoted saying, giving up my freedom, my leisure, most of my income, undergoing a mental colonoscopy, and resuming a daily commute to a job with long hours and a ration of political abuse.
Q. So when did you accept the position?A. Probably late January. It took me five, six weeks to overcome common sense and agree to do it.
Q. And what happened between January and the leak of your appointment?A. Two things happened. One, I began to notify the various organizations I nominally head or on whose boards I sit that I would be leaving to go into the government, though I didn’t say where, and when I was approached to join new activities I replied that I would be grateful but that I couldn’t consider it because I was going into government. And, two, I took the various business activities I was engaged in and looked at them to see how I could bring projects that were ongoing to a stage where I could responsibly walk away.
Q. Did you start to work with Blair in terms of defining your job?A. I had a series of conversations with him in which we discussed the need for the Obama administration to have a strong National Security Council policy process that could re-examine things on the strategic level, which is clearly long overdue. To look at the preconceptions of policy and to take a zero-sum look at quite a range of issues, including some connected with the Middle East, and a few, not very many, connected with China, because I don’t see too much broken there: the alliance relationships, the NATO-Russia relationship, the emergence of narco-states within Mexico spilling over our border, the increasingly defiant stance of countries in Latin America to our influence, issues of order and state collapse in Africa, the issue of Indo-Pakistani relationship, “Pashtunistan” on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, how to understand the possibility of an orderly withdrawal from Iraq, and what remains as the basis for a mutually agreed upon Arab-Israeli settlement. And a lot of economic issues, too.
Q. Then the appointment was reported by Laura Rozen at Foreign Policy?A. Oh, I think I can probably reconstruct how Laura Rozen got the information. I think it was an innocent thing. I think the person who leaked it thought it was a ‘good news’ story. And didn’t have any idea of the level of opposition that would quite quickly congeal.
Q. Were you planning an announcement?A. There would have been an announcement when I got on the job, which is the normal way these things are done. And I had figured on taking all or most of March to complete the process of disengagement.
Q. So after the Foreign Policy report …A. Yes, and within a day or two the Steve Rosen and Daniel Pipes crowd began piling on. And there were various, well, you watched it all. [Note: Steve Rosen, a former AIPAC official, blogs for Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum.]
Q. You were confident that you could withstand this assault until just before you dropped out.A. Oh, I could have withstood it anyway. I don’t mind criticism… The issue was, in the end, that while in my own mind I thought I could make rather significant improvements in the integrity of the analytical process, I couldn’t enhance its credibility, because anything that it produced that was politically controversial would immediately be attributed to me as some sort of political deviant, and be discredited. These guys would pile on with their usual lies, and half-truths, and distortions, and everything else.
Basically what Denny Blair wanted was a broadly experienced iconoclast, which some people says fits me as a description. And somebody who wasn’t afraid to tell it like he saw it, or to ask people writing things for him why he’s so sure about X, Y, or Z. Do they know that because everybody knows it, or do they have some evidence? And one could argue that is fairly critical in a number of contexts.
The only thing I regret is that in my statement I embraced the term ‘Israel lobby.’ This isn’t really a lobby by, for or about Israel. It’s really, well, I’ve decided I’m going to call it from now on the [Avigdor] Lieberman lobby. It’s the very right-wing Likud in Israel and its fanatic supporters here. And Avigdor Lieberman is really the guy that they really agree with. And I think they’re doing Israel in.
I had a really amazing outpouring of support, privately, not just from individuals, from Jewish-Americans of other views who hope that this was going to open up room for a discussion.
Q. How did your discussions on Capitol Hill go?A. Well, they didn’t go badly. But I’m one guy talking to one or two people, and they’re quite a number of people and they’re feeding all sorts of disinformation in, and they have established channels and they also have clout. So there wasn’t much hope on my part that I could get many people to stand up and support me, because the down side of doing that is so obvious. Because if you go against this group, they either curtail your contributions or they arrange to contribute to an opponent. So it’s not realistic to expect courage on the Hill. And I didn’t.
Q. You say that you retain confidence in the president. You don’t think that a quiet word from him to members of Congress might have stopped all this?A. Oh, I think it might well have, particularly at the beginning when it was still a purely partisan matter. Before Nancy Pelosi jumped on the bandwagon. When you had the seven Republican members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence writing a letter that was particularly partisan, that’s when, if the White House were going to weigh in, it might have done some good.
Q. So the White House might have jumped in quicker. Certainly the White House suffered a loss of credibility as a result, now.A. Yes. They probably could have avoided that appearance of embarrassment. Would I have preferred to have been backed? Of course. But it wouldn’t have altered the basic problem, that anything that the NIC said under my chairmanship would have been subjected to a slanderous attack.
Q. The Israel lobby wasn’t too happy with other Obama appointments, such as James Jones, George Mitchell, Samantha Power. Why do you think they went after you and let them slide by?A. Because I was seen as particularly vulnerable. I’m precisely not the things they accuse me of being. I’m not a lobbyist. I haven’t had a profile on the Hill. I think they probably very early figured out that this appointment, while presumably known to Jim Jones – well, I know it was known to Jim Jones – that there wasn’t a specific White House buy-in because there didn’t need to be anybody in the White House to buy in, and it was a nice way of, as the Chinese say, killing a chicken to scare the monkeys.
Q. Do think that’s working? Are the ‘monkeys’ scared? Is the administration deterred?A. By ‘monkeys’ in this analogy I mean people who might accept an appointment in the administration who are independent, who have an open as opposed to a closed mind on these matters. I don’t think it’s working. But, I mean, I’m the last person to be able to judge that.
Q. Have you heard from members of the Jewish community and Israelis?A. Yes, of course, quite a few. Including many of those who are themselves concerned about Israel’s settlement activities and other aspects of the occupation. What it shows is that despite efforts by the ‘Lieberman lobby’ to make it seem like members of the American Jewish community speak with one voice, on behalf of Liebermanesque policies in Israel, in fact the American Jewish community has a broad diversity of opinion, and a good deal of it, maybe a majority, doesn’t agree with this particular perspective and feels terribly afraid that it can’t speak out without being trashed. So you’re either anti-Semitic or you’re a self-hating Jew. Either way it’s an awful accusation to have to endure.