WASHINGTON -- A former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia resigned Tuesday from his new post as chairman of the National Intelligence Council following congressional criticism for comments about the Israeli government and alleged ties to foreign governments.
Charles Freeman's resignation came just hours after National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said at a Senate hearing that he was standing behind his appointment of Freeman as chairman of the council, which analyzes national security issues. Freeman had not yet begun his work as chairman, and Blair said he accepted the resignation "with regret."
The council draws information and analysis from all U.S. intelligence agencies to produce national intelligence estimates. NIE's are the intelligence agencies' most comprehensive statements and are meant to be unvarnished and apolitical.
"I have concluded that the barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office," Freeman wrote in a posting on the Web site for the magazine Foreign Policy.
"The effort to smear me and to destroy my credibility would instead continue. I do not believe the National Intelligence Council could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack by unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country," he wrote.
Freeman has aggressively criticized the Israeli government, the war in Iraq and the war on terror. In the last two weeks almost three dozen lawmakers, primarily Republicans, have questioned his ability to be objective in his analysis.
Freeman's financial, personal and business ties with the governments of China and Saudi Arabia have also been called into account. He was president of the Middle East Policy Council, which received some funding from the Saudi government, and he is on the international board of advisers to a Chinese-government owned oil company.
The congressional complaints resulted in an inspector general's investigation into Freeman's ties to the Saudi government.
On Monday, all seven Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee sent a letter to Blair expressing concerns about Freeman's suitability for the job. They joined more than a dozen members of the House who over the last two weeks have sent similar letters and requested the inspector general's investigation.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., warned Blair at a hearing Tuesday that the Freeman controversy would not be going away anytime soon. Blair stood firm, saying Freeman's strong opinions would be valuable on the council.
"I think I can do a better job if I am getting strong analytical viewpoints than if I am getting precooked pablum," Blair told the committee.
Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., one of Freeman's chief critics, said Tuesday that Freeman's resignation "preserved the impartiality of U.S. intelligence."
"We learned from eight years of the Bush administration that intelligence cannot be cherry-picked. It cannot be colored by opinion or even the appearance of conflict," Israel said.
Freeman, in his online statement, criticized as dishonorable and deceitful the tactics of the "Israel lobby" he said aims to control the policy process by vetoing the appointment of people "who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors."
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The office of Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair has released a statement announcing that Chas Freeman will not be National Intelligence Council Chairman:
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair announced today that Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. has requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman's decision with regret.
Foreign Policy magazine's Laura Rozen has reprinted a long email that Freeman sent out explaining his decision to withdraw, which he blames mostly on the increasingly aggressive tactics of his critics. Here's a taste:
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. 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. The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.
There is a special irony in having been accused of improper regard for the opinions of foreign governments and societies by a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government - in this case, the government of Israel. I believe that the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence of the state of Israel. It is not permitted for anyone in the United States to say so. This is not just a tragedy for Israelis and their neighbors in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage to the national security of the United States.
Earlier on Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) summoned the ambassador to a chat with her fellow Senators to assuage their concerns.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has taken credit for Freeman's withdrawal:
"Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position. His statements against Israel were way over the top and went beyond anything I have seen from any administration official," he said in a statement. "I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing."
Update: Freeman denies that Schumer had any role in his withdrawal in an email to Foreign Policy late Tuesday.