The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

L’Affaire Freeman: The rise and fall of an appointment

Yesterday, just hours after he defended his pick of former Amb. Chas Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and just shy of two weeks after he had notified Congress of his intention to make the appointment, Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair (ret.) sent out a terse, ...

587846_090311_blair2.jpg

Yesterday, just hours after he defended his pick of former Amb. Chas Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and just shy of two weeks after he had notified Congress of his intention to make the appointment, Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair (ret.) sent out a terse, two-line statement saying he’d accepted Freeman’s decision to withdraw from the position “with regret.”

What happened?

In short, Freeman came to believe that he couldn’t do the job that he had agreed to do for Blair, given the controversy. Instead of helping the NIC, he came to believe, his presence would hurt it. And so he withdrew.

Freeman’s purpose in accepting, a source familiar with his thinking said, “was to raise the quality and the credibility of the intelligence community’s output.” But by the time Freeman spoke with Blair Tuesday, it had become clear to both men that Freeman’s presence at the NIC would engender sharp attacks on anything the intelligence community said, and that the credibility of the intelligence product would suffer, not be enhanced. Under the circumstances, Freeman felt that the best thing for the NIC and the country was to withdraw.

Freeman “only accepted the job because he was schooled to put his country’s interests ahead of his own,” the source familiar with his thinking said. He “withdrew for the same reason.”

(He expressed his decision more fully in a statement to colleagues Tuesday.)

After the reports of Freeman’s withdrawal of his candidacy, several legislators suggested that expressing their opposition to it to the White House had played a role — among them House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who was said to be incensed on behalf of Chinese human rights issues, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Rep. Steven Israel (D-NY). Freeman told Foreign Policy it was between him and Blair.

For its part, the White House said it would have no comment on the matter. “I don’t have anything to add from what Admiral Blair discussed yesterday in accepting Mr. Freeman’s decision that his nomination not proceed and that he regretted it,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said at Wednesday’s press briefing. 

A U.S. official who asked for anonymity said that the White House had not pulled the plug. Freeman, the source said, decided that the criticism was never going to go away, and that therefore he couldn’t do the job.

As for Blair? His office said he wouldn’t have more on the matter than was in his statement.

A former Hill foreign-policy hand speculated that career military officials such as Blair, however brilliant, may not be fully attuned to Beltway political realities — such as how Freeman’s writings on the Middle East might have made him a lightning rod for a “no-drama Obama” administration that has become anxious to avoid more troubles over its political appointments. “They don’t know how the game is played,” he said, referring to military officials.

A former colleague of Blair’s, who asked to speak on background, said the former Pacific commander and former Rhodes Scholar is “intellectually brilliant” but “not a Leon Panetta.” The CIA director and former Clinton chief of staff, he said, “is a creature of the Washington establishment — a former member of Congress who understands the political nuances of the Beltway.”

“Blair,” he continued, “is what we in the military call an operator. Meaning that he has a bias for action. He believes in doing things… His strong suit is he is intellectually brilliant. He was a classmate of Bill Clinton at Oxford; they were Rhodes scholars; he was way up in his class at the Naval Academy. He can think — faster than anybody in town — he can absorb and process information” like a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama, an attribute also ascribed by many of his former diplomatic colleagues to Freeman.

Blair’s former colleague also said that like all new administrations, and many high-level figures on the Obama team, Blair is “clearly handicapped now by lack of staff.”

But on Wednesday afternoon, Blair’s staff sent three press e-mails, announcing three new staff members: Arthur House, a former White House fellow and Fletcher School Ph.D. and dean as the DNI’s first director of communications, Wendy Morigi, former spokesperson for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, as the DNI’s director of public affairs, and Lt. Gen. John F. “Jeff” Kimmons, a deputy chief of staff and top intelligence officer at the Pentagon, as the new director of the ODNI intelligence staff. (An ODNI official notes that Morigi had been on the job since mid-February, House since the beginning of February, and Kimmons since the beginning of this month.)

“I told you,” his former colleague said in response to the moves. “He moves fast.”

Photo: TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Laura Rozen writes The Cable daily at ForeignPolicy.com.