A lot can happen in three weeks. Back in early February, few had ever heard of Charles “Chas” Freeman. All that changed mid-month, when Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair formally nominated the former Clinton-era Ambassador to Saudi Arabia to serve as the new head of the intelligence community’s top analytical body, the National Intelligence Council.
The nomination touched off a firestorm of controversy, with critics in the media and on Capitol Hill highlighting his anti-Israeli animus, his apologia for the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown at Tiananmen, and his close links with Saudi Arabia’s corrupt, autocratic regime as signs that Freeman was unfit for duty. (See, for example, here, here and here.) As repugnant as they might be, however, Freeman’s personal views were not the real issue. Rather, it was his former service on the advisory board of China’s state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), and the fact that the think tank he founded, the Middle East Policy Council, receives not insignificant sums of money from the Saudi government, which raised insurmountable conflicts of interest that ultimately torpedoed his nomination. It was publicly withdrawn yesterday.
That someone closely linked to two regimes of significant concern to the national security of the United States – one an emerging strategic competitor and potential military challenger, the other the world’s leading exporter of radical Islamist ideology – would raise red flags among policymakers should come as a surprise to no one, least of all a career diplomat. Freeman doesn’t see it that way, however. “The libels on me and their easily traceable email trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East,” he wrote in an email message to supporters. “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.” Never mind that the coalition opposing Freeman’s nomination was made up of much more than simply pro-Israel supporters, or that it was Freeman himself who had forged the commercial links to China and Saudi Arabia that ultimately disqualified him from being an impartial arbiter of intelligence.
In the grand scheme of things, the Freeman affair is a flash in the pan. The position for which the good ambassador was vying was not a confirmable one, or even one particularly well understood by those not versed in the ways of Beltway politics. But the lessons to be gleaned from it are significant, and international in scope. After years of their surrogates operating in Washington’s corridors of power with relative impunity, Riyadh and Beijing have both been put on notice that their ability to peddle influence will no longer be as uncritically accepted. And that, in the end, is an unequivocally good thing for an administration that came to power promising greater transparency and an end to politicized intelligence.