The Obama administration on Thursday named as chairman of the National Intelligence Council a veteran former diplomat who heads a think tank that has received major financing from Saudi Arabia.
The appointment of Chas W. Freeman Jr. - who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War and has major expertise regarding China - brought praise from some quarters but criticism from elements of the pro-Israel community and from congressional Republicans.
Since 1997, Mr. Freeman has been president of the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), a Washington think tank. In 2007, he accepted a $1 million donation from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud that, according to a press release at the time, was meant for “future projects” for the council.
MEPC Vice President Anne Joyce said the donation was intended to fund an endowment for the council, which, she said, aims to further U.S.-Arab relations and widen the range of debate in Washington from what the group sees as an excessively pro-Israel focus.
Ms. Joyce said the council’s annual budget was about $700,000.
In his new position - which does not require Senate confirmation - Mr. Freeman will oversee production of national intelligence estimates and other analyses that represent the consensus judgments on which national security policy is based.
A fluent speaker of Chinese and several other languages, Mr. Freeman has served in several high-profile diplomatic posts and was President Nixon’s principal interpreter on his historic trip to China in 1972.
“Ambassador Freeman is a distinguished public servant who brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise in defense, diplomacy and intelligence that are absolutely critical to understanding today’s threats and how to address them,” said Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, in announcing the appointment.
“The country is fortunate that Ambassador Freeman has agreed to return to public service and contribute his remarkable skills toward further strengthening the intelligence community’s analytical process.”
However, members of pro-Israeli community have privately criticized the choice of Mr. Freeman since rumors of the appointment leaked earlier this week.
Republican members of Congress also have objected.
On Thursday night, Rep. Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois began circulating a letter to the inspector general of the Office of the Director for National Intelligence urging a review of Mr. Freeman’s organization.
“Given his close ties to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we request a comprehensive review of Ambassador Freeman’s past and current commercial, financial and contractual ties to the Kingdom to ensure no conflict of interest exists in his new position,” the letter said.
House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia said, “Chas Freeman’s past associations and positions on foreign policy are deeply alarming. His statements about the U.S.-Israel relationship raise serious concerns about his ability to support the administration’s attempts to bring security, stability and peace to the Middle East.”
In an interview in 2006 with the Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service, Mr. Freeman said, “These are obviously very difficult times for any organization attempting to promote better understanding and stronger ties between the United States and the Arab world. Attitudes are extremely negative.
“Financial support has been very negatively affected both by the deterioration in the atmosphere [and] the sense on the part of many of our Arab donors that nothing can be done to fix the negative image of the Arabs in the United States at present.”
The interview was publicized last week on the blog of a former foreign policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Steven J. Rosen.
In 2006, MEPC republished a paper by scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer that argued that the U.S.-Israel lobby had conspired to launch the Iraq war on behalf of the interest of Israel, but not America.
Noting the reaction to the appointment on many blogs, Ms. Joyce said Thursday, “It’s ironic there was a great deal of publicity generated by our publication of the paper by Mearsheimer and Walt on the Israel lobby, and yet the reaction to the Freeman appointment has been by people who are acting like a lobby.”
Paul Pillar, former Middle East chief on the National Intelligence Council, praised the choice of Mr. Freeman.
“I have considerable respect for him,” Mr. Pillar said. “He has exactly the kind of breadth and ability to cut right to the core on a range of issues needed in that job.”
Mr. Pillar dismissed concerns that Mr. Freeman might have become too close to Saudi Arabia, China or other governments because of business connections after leaving the Foreign Service.
“It is perhaps hard for some people who have not been professionals in the foreign service, military or intelligence to understand the concept of serving the government of the day without having a policy agenda,” Mr. Pillar said.
“I have confidence that someone of Ambassador Freeman’s experience will bring objectivity and a professional approach to the performance of his duties.”