Former Top Intel Candidate Responds To Critics

President Barack Obama's choice to lead the National Intelligence Council has withdrawn his agreement to serve in that position. Chas Freeman, a veteran diplomat, has accused those who opposed his selection for the job of attacking him with lies.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

President Obama's choice to lead the National Intelligence Council has withdrawn his agreement to serve in that position. Chas Freeman, a veteran diplomat, had come under fire for statements he's made in the past about China and Israel.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: The National Intelligence Council is supposed to inform government policy, not make it. The council's members rarely grant on-the-record interviews and generally stay out of the public eye. But Charles Freeman has a record of speaking his mind on U.S. policies regarding China and Israel in particular.

So Freeman's nomination faced opposition from the start. Though, a series of former U.S. diplomats rallied to his defense, all seven members of the Senate Intelligence Committee took a stand opposing Freeman's appointment. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair was defending him at a Senate hearing just hours before he withdrew. Blair called Freeman a person of strong views and an inventive mind. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: All seven REPUBLICAN members of the Senate Intelligence Committee opposed Freeman's appointment.]

Mr. DENNIS BLAIR (National Intelligence Director): And when we go back and forth with him, better understanding comes out of those interactions. And that's primarily the value that I think he will bring.

KELLY: Blair has since said he accepts Freeman's decision with regret. For his part, Chas Freeman has fired back at his critics, issuing a statement that says he has concluded, quote, "The barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office." And Freeman added he has never spoken on behalf of a foreign government, its interests or its policies.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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Freeman Withdraws From Key Intelligence Post

A head shot of Chas Freeman

Chas Freeman had served as president of the Middle East Policy Council, succeeding former Sen. George McGovern in 1997. Middle East Policy Council hide caption

itoggle caption Middle East Policy Council

Chas Freeman, picked by the Obama administration to lead the National Intelligence Council, has withdrawn his agreement to serve in that position.

Freeman, a veteran diplomat who was ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Persian Gulf war, had come under fire for statements he has made in the past about China and Israel and for alleged ties to foreign governments.

His withdrawal came just hours after National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said at a congressional hearing that he was standing behind Freeman as chairman of the council, which analyzes national security issues.

Last month, announcing that Freeman was his choice to serve in the post, Blair cited Freeman's "wealth of knowledge and expertise in defense, diplomacy and intelligence."

The council is a kind of think tank for the U.S. intelligence community, preparing "National Intelligence Estimates" for policymakers on key security issues and global hot spots.

Freeman served under the first President Bush as an assistant secretary of defense before becoming the U.S. envoy to Saudi Arabia.

He started his diplomatic career as a China specialist and was President Richard Nixon's interpreter on Nixon's groundbreaking 1972 trip to China.

But in recent years, as a private citizen, Freeman has been an outspoken critic of some U.S. policies regarding China and Israel, as well as aspects of the war on terrorism.

Because of that, his appointment to the National Intelligence Council was vigorously criticized.

Though a series of former U.S. diplomats rallied to his defense, all seven Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee took a stand opposing Freeman's appointment.

His selection was not subject to Senate confirmation, but Freeman apparently decided to halt the controversy. According to a statement from Blair's office, Freeman requested that his selection "not proceed." Blair said he accepted Freeman's decision "with regret."

In a message posted on The Cable, Foreign Policy magazine's blog, Freeman blamed the "Israel lobby" for his decision.

"The libels on me and their easily traceable e-mail 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 writes in the message. "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."

Freeman's financial, personal and business ties with the governments of China and Saudi Arabia have also been called into question. 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.

In The Cable message, Freeman writes, "I have never sought to be paid or accepted payment from any foreign government, including Saudi Arabia or China, for any service, nor have I ever spoken on behalf of a foreign government, its interests, or its policies. I have never lobbied any branch of our government for any cause, foreign or domestic."

Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), 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.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press.

Correction March 19, 2009

We mistakenly said that "all seven members" of the Senate Intelligence Committee opposed Freeman's appointment. We should have said all seven Republican members.

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