The Israel lobby tightens its grip on Washington

Charles Freeman was to have taken up a key intelligence appointment but after his selection became known, a media campaign was unleashed by those who took exception to statements the former US ambassador had been critical of US-Israeli relations and of Israel's approach to the Palestinians. The campaign led to Congressional pressure being placed on the Director of National Intelligence and the White House and eventually to Mr Freeman stepping aside.

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In the face of an onslaught of personal attacks from individuals associated with Washington's Israel lobby, a key intelligence appointee in the Obama administration has been pressured to withdraw his name. On Feb 26 the US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis C Blair announced his choice of Charles (Chas) W Freeman Jr to become chairman of the National Intelligence Council. In that position Mr Freeman would have been responsible for the production of national intelligence estimates (NIE) which represent a consensus among all US intelligence agencies. NIEs have historically been highly influential in shaping US national security policy. A 2007 NIE on Iran's nuclear programme led to a dramatic shift in tone in the Bush administration, steering it away from what had become an alarmingly bellicose posture. As soon as Mr Freeman's selection became known, a media campaign was unleashed by those who took exception to statements the former US ambassador had made critical of US-Israeli relations and of Israel's approach to the Palestinians. The campaign led to Congressional pressure being placed on the DNI and the White House and eventually to Mr Freeman stepping aside. In explaining his decision, while referring to attacks that have been made on him in the media, Mr Freeman wrote: "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 dishonour 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 favours. "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 neighbours in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage to the national security of the United States." Before Mr Freeman's announcement, Max Blumenthal at The Daily Beast wrote: "The effort to dislodge Freeman still has the potential to impact the Obama administration's policies toward Israel... This is, of course, the underlying objective of many of Freeman's critics. 'Freeman is stuck in the latest instance of the deadly power game long played here on what level of support for controversial Israeli government policies is a 'requirement' for US public office...' foreign-policy analyst Chris Nelson wrote in his Nelson Report, an influential private daily newsletter read by Washington policy makers. 'If Obama surrenders to the critics and orders [Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair] to rescind the Freeman appointment to chair the NIC, it is difficult to see how he can properly exercise leverage, when needed, in his conduct of policy in the Middle East. That, literally, is how the experts see the stakes of the fight now under way.' "The Israeli lobby's mounting frustration with the intelligence community suggests another reason for its opposition to Freeman. As NIC director, Freeman would oversee the production of National Intelligence Estimates, the consensus judgment of all 16 intelligence agencies - essentially the official analysis of the US government on global realities. When the December 2007 NIE found that 'in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear-weapons programme,' and that Iran was 'less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005,' advocates for a preemptive US strike on Iran's nuclear facilities reacted with anger and dismay. Neoconservative scholar Daniel Pipes... [at the Middle East Forum] decried the NIE as 'a shoddy, politicised, outrageous parody of a piece of propaganda.' " 'It's clear that Freeman isn't going to be influenced by the lobby,' Jim Lobe, the Washington bureau chief of Inter Press Service, remarked to me. 'They don't like people like that, especially when they're in charge of products like the NIE. So this is a very important test for them.' " On Tuesday, Charles Schumer, a Democratic senator for New York was succinct in expressing his satisfaction at the outcome of the dispute over the NIC appointment. "Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position. His statements against Israel were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration. I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing." At Salon, Glenn Greenwald wrote: "In the US, you can advocate torture, illegal spying, and completely optional though murderous wars and be appointed to the highest positions. But you can't, apparently, criticise Israeli actions too much or question whether America's blind support for Israel should be re-examined." The Washington Post reported: "One of the first congressmen to raise questions about Freeman, Rep Steven Israel, said yesterday 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 realised that.' "The congressman said Freeman's withdrawal 'preserved the impartiality of US intelligence,' and he expected Blair would move on and 'will find someone who is unimpeachable of intelligence matters'." The campaign against Freeman's appointment was led by Steven Rosen, a former director of the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (Aipac) due to stand trial this May accused of espionage for Israel. As John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt indicated in their landmark article on the Israel lobby, Aipac is the lobby's central pillar. "Aipac, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress, with the result that US policy towards Israel is not debated there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world. In other words, one of the three main branches of the government is firmly committed to supporting Israel. As one former Democratic senator, Ernest Hollings, noted on leaving office, 'you can't have an Israeli policy other than what Aipac gives you around here.' Or as Ariel Sharon once told an American audience, 'when people ask me how they can help Israel, I tell them: "Help Aipac".'... "Key organisations in the Lobby make it their business to ensure that critics of Israel do not get important foreign policy jobs. Jimmy Carter wanted to make George Ball his first secretary of state, but knew that Ball was seen as critical of Israel and that the Lobby would oppose the appointment. In this way any aspiring policymaker is encouraged to become an overt supporter of Israel, which is why public critics of Israeli policy have become an endangered species in the foreign policy establishment." A lobby that has thrived through its covert operations can claim another victory in reversing Mr Freeman's appointment, but this time its workings may have been too transparent for its own good. As Blumenthal notes: "While Aipac has attempted to avoid the appearance of being involved in any way in the attacks on Freeman, [its former director, Steven] Rosen has taken a leading role. In assuming such a prominent part, he has violated his own rule: 'A lobby is like a night flower,' Rosen once wrote in an internal Aipac memo. 'It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.' "