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Freeman withdraws as Intelligence Council chief

Responding to criticism about his connections to Saudi and Chinese interests, the former ambassador withdraws as chairman of the council that oversees production of national intelligence estimates.

March 11, 2009|WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Charles W. Freeman Jr. withdrew Tuesday from his appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council after questions about his impartiality were raised among members of Congress and with White House officials.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said he accepted Freeman's decision "with great regret." The withdrawal came hours after Blair gave a spirited defense of the outspoken former ambassador on Capitol Hill.

Freeman had come under fire for statements he had made criticizing Israeli policies and for his past connections to Saudi and Chinese interests.

The National Intelligence Council oversees production of intelligence estimates and shorter assessments on specific issues, tapping experts from among the 16 intelligence agencies. The chairman's position does not require Senate confirmation.

In an e-mail sent Tuesday evening to friends, Freeman said he had concluded that the attacks on him would not end once he was in office and that he did not believe the NIC "could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack."

He wrote that those who questioned his background employed "selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record . . . and an utter disregard for the truth."

Such attacks, he said, "will be seen by many to raise serious questions about whether the Obama administration will be able to make its own decisions about the Middle East and related issues." And he said he regretted that his withdrawal may cause others to doubt the administration's latitude in such matters.

One of the first congressmen to raise questions about Freeman, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), said Tuesday that he spoke of his concerns last week to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and later sent him materials about the former ambassador's statements and associations.

Israel, a member of the House Appropriations Committee's Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, said in a phone interview, "As I was leaving the White House this afternoon, they told me of Blair's statement" of Freeman's withdrawal. "I think Blair's defense of Freeman was indefensible, and people in the White House realized that."

White House officials did not return a call seeking comment.

Freeman had been ambassador to Saudi Arabia and deputy chief of mission in China, and since 1997 he has presided over the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that is funded in part by Saudi money. In that role, Freeman has occasionally criticized the Israeli government's positions and U.S. support for those policies. In 2007, for example, he said, "The brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation shows no sign of ending," adding, "American identification with Israel has become total."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) questioned Blair about the appointment Tuesday when the intelligence chief came before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Lieberman cited Freeman's past relationships and statements which, the senator said, "appear either inclined to lean against Israel or too much in favor of China."

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