Good Riddance, Chas Freeman

Chas Freeman, in the way he withdrew from consideration to be Chair of the National Intelligence Council, showed that Adm. Blair should not have selected him in the first place. The affair does not shed a favorable light on the new administration’s approach to building a national security team.

Those who have real jobs or even a hobby may not have noticed the Washington tempest in a tea pot over the suggestion that Chas[sic.] Freeman would chair the National Intelligence Council.

Freeman had a distinguished career as a Foreign Service Officer and then was called to serve in Les Aspin’s Pentagon by the Policy Undersecretary Frank Wisner. Freeman has managed to get the foreign policy establishment and its journalistic acolytes (David Broder, Roger Cohen, Jim Fallows, Joe Klein) to tut-tut about how his taking his name out of contention is a loss for the country, though some of the specifics cited seem odd. (Fallows produces a long and irrelevant email from someone who hasn’t been in close touch with Freeman in years, and Broder gushes over an idea of Freeman’s that the US intelligence community should spend resources and time assessing US health care policy). No one seems to be able to suggest one good thing Freeman did in the Clinton administration.

It seems that Freeman was selected by the then-nominee for Director of National Intelligence Adm. Blair based on previous personal contacts between the two men, probably when Blair was the Pacific regional Commander. No real vetting seems to have been done, making the administration unprepared to deal with his record of intemperate statements or defend against the charges that Freeman had been effectively in the pay of both the Saudi and Chinese governments.

Freeman then proceeded to act intemperately in dealing with the controversy, suggesting that any questioning of his record was an illegitimate–and seemingly successful– effort by the “Israel Lobby” to control US Policy. See here and here. On the issue that seems most responsible for his downfall — his email saying that the only mistake the Chinese government made in suppressing the Tiananmen square demonstration was that they should have acted sooner and more decisively– he seems to have misrepresented the facts to the New York Times, saying that he was talking about the views of the Chinese after the fact, not his own perspective. This is clearly contradicted by the text of the email, in which Freeman personally dismissed the rights of the democracy demonstrators by analogizing the Chinese action to that of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in suppressing the bonus army.

Those involved in intelligence analysis must be introspective and self-critical enough to understand the basis for their own positions. They cannot learn from their mistakes if they sweep them under the rug. Chas Freeman seems to be the kind of guy who expresses provocative ideas over cigars and port in wood-paneled club rooms; his advocates praise his brilliance and irreverence but not his responsibility.

Not everyone in the foreign policy establishment thinks Freeman was right for the job. After saying politely that Freeman is “brilliant…tremendously able,” Les Gelb, the President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that “The intelligence job requires a level of detachment and judiciousness that has not been characteristic of him in the past.” (Gelb said this on WAMU’s Diane Rehm show this morning, March 17).

I hope Blair and the White House will make a more deliberate search in coming up with the next choice for this job, and others, rather than relying on their own personal relationships within the foreign policy establishment.