War Stories

Intelligence Failure

Winners and losers in the knock-down fight over Charles Freeman’s aborted appointment.

Charles Freeman 

Discomfiting as it is to say so, President Barack Obama was right to cut Charles Freeman loose—but not for the reasons that Freeman’s foes might think.

It’s always discomfiting when nominees to high office are done in by mendacious pressure campaigns—and that’s clearly what happened to Freeman, who was about to be named chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the interagency group that produces the official National Intelligence Estimates.

But in this case, while the campaigners are no doubt celebrating their victory now, they may find that in the long run they’ve committed a strategic blunder.

When news of Freeman’s impending appointment leaked last month, two sets of opposition groups leapt into action. Pro-Israel lobbyists, bloggers, and legislators protested that Freeman was hostile to Israel and in the pay of the Saudis. Some human rights groups, especially those sympathetic to Tibetans, complained that he was an apologist for China’s ruling dictators, even for their crackdown on dissidents at Tiananmen Square.

The position of NIC chairman does not require Senate confirmation, but several senators—Democrats and Republicans—expressed their deep misgivings, publicly and privately, and they were heard at the highest levels. On Tuesday, Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, defended Freeman at a Senate hearing. If President Obama had intended to put up a fight, he or one of his spokesmen would have backed up Blair’s defense. But the White House stayed mum—and Freeman’s doom was thus sealed.

Freeman’s friends and former colleagues—many of whom had worked with him during his many years as a foreign service officer and a senior Pentagon official—decried the whole scummy process. During the struggle for his nomination, which was carried out almost entirely in the blogosphere, they mustered evidence showing that Freeman’s critics were distorting his statements, taking them out of context, in some cases wildly so.

For the most part, his defenders were right. For instance, the critics claimed that Freeman once said that Chinese officials had acted with restraint at Tiananmen Square and that they should have plowed down the dissidents more quickly—when, in fact, he said that they were more restrained and slower to act than Mao Zedong would have been. He certainly did not condone the crackdown. And though his speeches on the Middle East have been more critical of Israel than of the Palestinians—here his critics had a point—his critiques have been more unbalanced than wrong; his main sin has been to hold Israel even partially at fault. (For more on the things he has and hasn’t said, click here.)

But a debate on the merits is beside the point. Once Freeman became a lightning rod—once his impending job became about him and some of the things he’s said since leaving government for the world of think tanks—President Obama had no choice but to abort the appointment. Otherwise, he would have faced not only a struggle over personnel but a never-ending series of struggles over policy.

In the coming months, if he can be taken at his word, President Obama will open talks with Syria and invite Iran to join a regional conference on Afghanistan and Pakistan. China will have to play some part in this conference, too, as it will with forums on North Korea. And if any progress is made toward Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, he will have to pressure the Israelis to make compromises on policy toward Gaza and the settlements.

All of these things will be difficult enough. They will be harder still if domestic critics can scream that Obama’s policy is being manipulated by “that Saudi agent” or “that Chinese apologist” who’s running the intelligence community.

Or let’s look at the present, not the future. On Tuesday, Adm. Blair testified that the Iranians have neither enriched their uranium to the point where it can be used as a weapon nor decided whether to enrich it any further—that is, whether to build nuclear weapons at all. Blair is respected in all quarters. Some senators may not have liked this assessment—it implies that the Iranian threat isn’t so clear, much less urgent—but they had to treat it seriously, given the source. However, if Freeman were NIC director, Blair’s words would have been received with cocked eyebrows and howls of protest over “the politicization of intelligence.”

The accusations, now or in the future, would have been absurd. The chairman of the National Intelligence Council is not involved in making policy. Nor does he even have much impact on the contents of National Intelligence Estimates. Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence analyst who spent 26 years working in NIC sessions, told me in an e-mail today that the agency specialists—the National Intelligence Officers on specific regions or subjects—hammer out a consensus and write the resulting reports. The NIC chairmen coordinate these meetings, set the parameters of the discussion, pose questions about assumptions, and sometimes push the participants for more evidence—all of which can certainly affect an estimate—but rarely do they influence its conclusion. White and several other former officials who have known Freeman for many years say that he would have been an excellent chairman and that, though he certainly holds views, he would never have let them get in the way of hard analysis.

But, again, this is irrelevant. Intelligence has to be credible as well as correct, and it’s credible only if it appears to be objective. Its politicization during the Bush-Cheney era only sharpens this point—and heightens President Obama’s sensitivity to its dictates.

If Obama wants to change foreign policy in controversial ways, intelligence will play a supporting role—and that means it will have to be, and appear to be, purer than usual. Can anyone name the last two or three NIC chairmen? (I can’t.) They aren’t high-profile figures, and there’s a reason for that.

Chas Freeman is a high-profile figure. He became one by his own design, through public speeches, some of them deliberately provocative. Making him NIC chairman would—unjustly but unavoidably—hurl all intelligence, and all policy based on intelligence, into the fray of fractious politics.

However, this is where Freeman’s foes misplayed their hand. Had they let Freeman step into the job, they could have used him as the whipping boy for all foreign-policy measures they don’t like—especially those involving the Middle East and China—and it might have been easier for them to rally opposition. But now it will be indisputably clear that the president is the one making policy. They’re left with Barack Obama as their target—and one thing that’s clear, so far, is that those who sling mud at Obama wind up hitting themselves.