WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has just suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the lobbyists the president vowed to keep in their place, and their friends on Capitol Hill. The country has lost an able public servant in an area where President Obama has few personal credentials of his own — the handling of national intelligence.
Charles Freeman, the man who was slated to be chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the high-level interagency group that prepares evaluations for the president and other senior officials, suddenly withdrew his name Tuesday night.
I know it was a sudden decision, because I had had breakfast with him that morning. He thought at the time he could ride out the storm caused by his outspoken comments on policy toward China and the Middle East — and the enmity that he had incurred from lobbies supporting Israel and human rights in Tibet.
“I think their goal is not to stop me but to keep others from speaking out, and to assure that AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) is part of the vetting process for future nominees,” he told me.
But after another visit to members of Congress, Freeman was gone.
It was an ignominious end to one of the most distinguished international careers in American government. As a young man fluent in Mandarin, he was the translator for Richard Nixon on his first trip to China. Later, Freeman held diplomatic posts in Africa and Asia, served as assistant secretary of defense handling NATO expansion, and, after adding Arabic to his repertoire of languages, was sent to Saudi Arabia as ambassador just before the first Gulf War.
As retired Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence who appointed Freeman, told me the night before his withdrawal, “We are so fortunate, with the challenges we face in Asia and the Middle East, that he could be persuaded to come back to government.”
None of that mattered much to the lawmakers — mostly Republicans but also some key Democrats — who joined the lobbyists in running him off. They flooded blogs and fed reporters with Freeman quotes — many of them pretty startling. He once referred to a clash between Tibetan demonstrators and Chinese guards as “a race riot” and talked about Israeli efforts “to smother Palestinian democracy in its cradle.”
The rhetoric is inflammatory, but Freeman in person is low-key, thoughtful, and obviously smart as hell. His great strength, Blair said, is his ability to think through how situations look to the people on the other side. Had our intelligence system been cued to do that, Freeman told me, we never would have assumed we’d be greeted as liberators in Iraq.
The council he would have headed is not a policymaking body but the place where the best thinking in our 16 spy agencies can be assembled and tested. “The last thing I wanted to do was impose my views on them,” Freeman said.
Had the lobbyists not prevailed, Freeman would have assigned the intelligence analysts this week to figure out why the Chinese provoked a naval incident off their coast and what lessons we could draw from the mixed reactions of other nations.
Over time, he said, he would have challenged analysts to remember that “it is not how highly classified information is, but how reliable, even if it’s on the front page of the newspaper.” He would have undermined the insularity of the intelligence world by asking them to meet with outside experts whose insights “may be worth more than security clearances.” And he would have turned them loose even on “domestic” questions such as: “If we are 38th in the world in health, what could we learn from the other 37?”
All of this now gone, because, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Blair, Freeman’s views are “beyond the pale.”
Blair said that the White House told him that if he wanted Freeman, he’d have to fight for him himself. When I asked the White House on Tuesday if Obama supported Freeman, a National Security Council spokesman said he would check, but he never got back to me. Freeman vanished without a squawk from Obama.
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.