Freedom’s Watch Bears Watching

It seems that last week’s full-page ad by Freedom’s Watch (FW) denouncing Columbia University for hosting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the New York Times was the tip-off to what will clearly be a high-powered, high-priced, and well-orchestrated campaign to rally support behind an attack against Iran. That assessment is bolstered by Sunday’s lengthy article by the Times’ Don Van Natta, Jr., entitled “Big Coffers and a Rising Voice Lift a New Conservative Group” (although Neo-Conservative would have been a better way to characterize it).

“Freedom’s Watch, a deep-pocketed conservative group led by two former senior White House officials, made an audacious debut in late August when it began a $15 million advertising campaign designed to maintain Congressional support for President Bush’s troop increase in Iraq.

“Founded this summer by a dozen wealthy conservatives, the nonprofit group is set apart from most advocacy groups by the immense wealth of its core group of benefactors, its intention to far outspend its rivals and its ambition to pursue a wide-ranging agenda. Its next target: Iran policy.

“Next month [October], Freedom’s Watch will sponsor a private forum of 20 experts on radical Islam that is expected to make the case that Iran poses a direct threat to the security of the United States, according to several benefactors of the group.”

The Times goes on to note that the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), described as “a Washington research group with close ties to the White House,” will be supplying many of those “experts,” who will also no doubt include various people from other Likudnik groups, such as the Center for Security Policy (CSP), the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and its Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), the Weekly Standard, and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which, in conjunction with all of the above, launched its own campaign for attacking Iran in early September. I imagine there will be some considerable overlap between the attendees of the upcoming conference and those who participated in the Bahamas and Prague conferences I described last summer.

According to one benefactor anonymously quoted by the Times, the group hopes to raise as much as $200 million by November 2008, although such a sum, it needs to be noted, represents a mere fraction of the total wealth (or even annual income) of one of the group’s funders, Sheldon Adelson, the chairman and chief of executive of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation that also operates highly profitable casinos in Macao. The Times notes that Adelson, who is close to Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu and who helped set up Natan Sharansky with his own institute at the pro-Netanyahu Shalem Center earlier this year, is rated sixth on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires. In an article about his recent launch of a new right-wing newspaper in Israel, The Forward described him as the world’s wealthiest Jew, whose foundation has given tens of millions of dollars to Birthright Israel, which provides all-expenses-paid trips by young U.S. Jews to Israel.

Adelson, like several other key FW funders and founders, is also on the board of directors of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC). It was at the RJC’s annual meeting in Florida last March – which was keynoted by Vice President Dick Cheney – that the idea of creating the new group was hatched, according to the Times. Indeed, as I noted in August, FW appears to be a virtual RJC spin-off. Besides Adelson, FW spokesman Ari Fleischer, Mel Sembler (the former chairman of the Scooter Libby’s legal defense fund who also serves on AEI’s board), and Richard Fox (a former RJC chairman) all serve on RJC’s board of directors, while Matthew Brooks, RJC’s current executive director, claims a spot on FW’s small board of directors. FW’s president, Bradley Blakeman, who is also Jewish, headed the Bush-Cheney public-relations efforts between the November, 2000, election and its controversial Supreme Court resolution that December, according to the Times, and subsequently served as Bush’s appointments secretary until 2004. Fleischer, of course, was Bush’s press secretary until his departure in mid-2003.

For more on FW, both RightWeb and SourceWatch offer useful profiles, although perhaps the best critique of the group – and particularly its relations to the RJC – has been written by Philip Weiss in his blog, Mondoweiss. I haven’t seen it posted on the web yet, but an article he published in the October 8 edition of “The American Conservative” entitled “Surge Protectors,” is well worth the newsstand price of the magazine itself. As he makes clear, the chief motivation behind the participation of the RJC’s bigwigs (there are a few non-Jewish funders, as well) in FW is all about their notions of how best to secure Israel against any and all possible threats.

While peace groups like have pooh-poohed FW’s appearance as unlikely to make much of an impact on public opinion regarding Iraq War, its almost-certain efforts to rally support for attacking Iran should be taken very seriously, particularly given the extraordinarily deep pockets of its funders and the fact that the future of the Surge – which was FW’s initial raison d’etre – has, for all practical purposes, been settled, at least until next March. With that battle behind it, FW can now focus its potentially vast resources on the Iranian threat, amplifying the hawks’ charges, as it did in last week’s ad, that Tehran is killing U.S. soldiers and marines in Iraq (which, as Sy Hersh makes clear in his latest New Yorker article, is most likely to be the official casus belli for an attack on Iran. In that respect, see Thursday’s lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Bush and Iran,” which, among other things, cites allegations by the cultish Mujahadeen-al-Khalq — listed by the State Department as a terrorist group — conveniently disguised by the Journal’s editorial writers as “an Iranian opposition group”).

Of course, the administration and its dwindling clutch of hawks have lost virtually all of the credibility they enjoyed in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. The hawks within the administration have also lost the control they once exerted over the government’s own formidable propaganda machinery. That is precisely why they must now rely to a much-greater extent than in 2002-03 on a “private-sector” group making their case and mobilizing behind it. Much like the White House Information Group (WHIG), whose purpose was to sell the Iraq invasion, FW may well become the hub of a new effort to create an “echo chamber” with the usual suspects at AEI, FDD, CPD, CSP, the Weekly Standard, the National Review, Fox News, the Journal’s editorial page, and sympathetic journalists and columnists for attacking Iran. As evidenced by last week’s vote on the Kyl-Lieberman amendment last week, it may be able to count on the timidity of Democrats, as well.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. So the usual suspects have gotten together to throw some more money at their project for perpetual war. One wonders what they hope to accomplish. We’re out of soldiers. If they’re lucky, they’ll help convince the gang in the Bush bunker to lob a few bombs at Iran’s nuclear facilities. Then what?

  2. Can you please publish more info on the scheduled October meeting of experts–place, attendees invited, etc, as you did for Bahamas.

  3. I sent a message to Freedom Watch. I find their goals repugnant. No mention of the four million refugees my tax dollar has created. There is nothing “free” about Freedom Watch. If they could they would like to silence all critics of this diabolical war. I am a patriotic American and am horrified at what has taken over America. The Neocons are truly bad people. Rosalind E.

  4. Just another example of people that push an agenda that benefits a foreign nation (guess which one?) while hurting this one.

  5. Thank you for the article on Freedom Watch. Talk about an Orwellian name. And American blood is being shed for the foreign policy dreams of these fools.

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