From Ben Smith at the Politico:
The controversial appointee to chair President Barack Obama’s National Intelligence Council walked away from the job Tuesday as criticism on Capitol Hill escalated.
Charles W. Freeman Jr., the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, had been praised by allies and by the director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, as a brilliant, iconoclastic analyst. Critics said he was too hard on Israel and too soft on China, and blasted him for taking funding from Saudi royals.
Freeman “requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed,” Blair’s office said in a statement. “Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret.”
In our view, Mr. Freeman’s positions in support of China (and against Israel) were enough to disqualify him for the NIC job. Lest we forget, the council is supposed to provide policymakers with unvarnished and unbiased information. Given his obvious biases, any National Intelligence Estimate coordinated under Freeman’s watch would have been suspect, at best.
But there was another (and equally important) reason to reject Ambassador Freeman as the next council chair: his lack of intelligence experience. As a career diplomat, Mr. Freeman is a long-time consumer of intel information, but he has virtually no expertise in the underlying trade craft.
At at time when the intelligence community is desperate for independent, rigorous analysis and reporting, appointing a biased–and inexperienced–refugee from Foggy Bottom to the NIC post was an invitation to disaster. Freeman’s decision to pull his name from consideration (amid withering Congressional criticism) is a blessing in disguise.
Unfortunately, we don’t know who President Obama’s next nominee will be. It would be hard to do worse than Charles Freeman, but the new administration already has a track record of strange choices for key intelligence posts.
With retired Admiral Dennis Blair now serving as Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta running the CIA, Mr. Obama has entrusted two of the most important intel posts to men with a wholesale lack of prior intelligence experience. Obviously, there is no shortage of experienced personnel in both organizations, but crucial decisions often fall on the shoulders of their leaders, influenced by their own intelligence experience and expertise.
Suffice it to say that the President Obama’s senior intel advisers are among the least experienced in recent memory. The Freeman nomination simply continued an appointment pattern that is anything but reassuring, given the threats we face.
ADDENDUM: To be fair, we should note that the intel community has produced its share of duds who have led the NIC. The infamous 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear program was created under the auspices of then-NIC Chair Thomas Fingar, a long-time leader of the State Department’s intelligence division (INR).