I had the opportunity to interview Amb. Charles “Chas” Freeman late last week, and below are excerpts that are somewhat longer than what IPS ran Wednesday.
Appointed two months ago by the Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair to chair the National Intelligence Council (NIC), the body charged with producing analyses on key issues on behalf of all 16 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community, ret. Amb. Charles “Chas” Freeman withdrew his name in mid-March after a sustained campaign against the appointment by right-wing leaders of the so-called “Israel Lobby” concerned about his past criticism of Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbours, and particularly its treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
One of the most highly regarded and experienced diplomats of his generation, Freeman, now 66, was strongly supported not only by Blair, but also by many retired senior intelligence and foreign-service officers, including former UN Amb. Thomas Pickering and Samuel Lewis, both of whom had themselves served at one time as ambassadors to Israel. They, along with 15 other top-ranking retired diplomats, praised Freeman as a “man of integrity and high intelligence who would never let his personal views shade or distort intelligence estimates.”
Q: Because much of the talk around Washington after your appointment – before, during and after your withdrawal — has so narrowly focused on a few issues, there was never much public debate about what you hoped to accomplish in the job of NIC Chairman.
A: I was, frankly, approaching this with a fairly well thought out but still hypothetical focus on process with some additional questions of substance that I wanted to explore. I say hypothetical, because you never know until you encounter bureaucratic or other realities whether your notion of what needs to be done is in fact realistic or feasible.
But my sense was there have been several problems with the intelligence community and its output in recent years. Obviously, there’s been a problem of quality, illustrated along with the other problem – credibility — very nicely in the run-up to the Iraq War and the credulity with which the intelligence community responded to assertions by exile and special interest groups and others, and its willingness to slice and dice its conclusions to suit the political taste of its principal consumers.
Q: What sorts of procedural changes were you thinking about implementing?
A: In general, I would’ve tried very hard to encourage members of the intelligence community to use classified information as a form of corroboration for information that is not classified, or is not terribly sensitive even if it is classified. In other words, I would urge analysts to write down rather than write up terms of levels of classification. The theory here is that, whereas many people in the (NIC) have tended to see the value of intelligence as directly proportional to its level of classification, this, in fact, misunderstands the nature of intelligence. Intelligence is simply information that is relevant to statecraft or decision-making. If it’s on the front page of the (Financial Times) or Inter Press or has been stolen out of the Kremlin safe, the key question is what is its reliability and how much can you rely upon it in understanding the situation you confront and in forming policies to deal with that situation.
In other words, I would have liked to have tried to change the culture to value lower levels of classification rather than higher in terms of output – obviously, to take advantage of all of the secret information one has, but to use it basically to corroborate (or test) what alert minds in the open-source world have been able to figure out. The purpose of this would be to build some checks and balances into the system and reduce the chances of sycophancy and the trimming of intelligence to fit the politically correct or politically convenient conclusions.
I must say much of the criticism of my appointment focused on the apparently horrifying possibility that I might actually produce intelligence that might not conform to political convenience or correctness but reached some other conclusion – intelligence that wouldn’t fit the preconceptions or policy preferences of its consumers. And that would be unacceptable. In other words, instead of being simply a supply of ammunition for political polemics and argumentation in favor of policies that have been cooked up without regard to the facts, intelligence might actually be a guide to decision-making. This notion is apparently very threatening.
Q: What about the approach to gathering and assessing intelligence?
A: The tendency has been very much to focus on the short-term, on current intelligence – for example, how many tunnels collapsed in Gaza under Israeli bombs yesterday? — and not to think about longer-term issues. What does it mean that tunnels are collapsing under Israeli bombs? What does it mean for Israel? What does it mean for Egypt? What does it mean for Palestinians in Gaza? What does it mean for the international community? Most importantly, what does it mean for U.S. interests and U.S. policy? What are the longer-term consequences of the absence of peace for Israelis and the continued squeeze on Palestinians for them?
I would’ve tried to shift toward a more consistently medium- or long-range focus. I would’ve hoped that the material provided to the president could include feature writing, to use a journalistic analogy, as well as reporting on current events….
What about longer-term strategic issues that may not be getting enough attention?
One is very apposite today, and that is the future of the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency. At Bretton Woods, the dollar became the global reserve currency, backed by gold. A quarter century later, Nixon eliminated the gold backing for our currency. Dollar hegemony has been central to our ability to basically go off the tracks fiscally and financially here. It has enabled us to avoid addressing all sorts of problems with which we’re now afflicted, and it has enabled us to avoid having financial discipline being imposed on us of the sort we have insisted be imposed on every other country under IMF (International Monetary Fund) guidelines.
The role of the dollar as a universal currency for reserve and trade settlement purposes is absolutely central to our international power and reach. (…) Furthermore, we have used the fact that the dollar is an extension of our sovereignty to impose unilateral sanctions all over the place and to manipulate the global banking sector to enforce our policies, even when those policies — say, with respect to Iran — are not supported by others. So we have a big stake in this, and when we get the dollar into trouble, as we have done, this is very, very fundamental. We now have China, Russia, Brazil, India, South Korea, at least, and very likely others, calling for the gradual elimination of the dollar as a reserve currency and its replacement by stages with something else — in the case of the Chinese proposal, with special drawing rights under the IMF. I’ve seen this coming for well over a year, and have been talking about it. It’s now upon us, and it is not a problem you can send the fleet to solve. In the end, if you create a situation where people don’t want dollars, there’s nothing you can do about that. So I think this is a strategic issue.
There’s another one that no one’s paying any attention to, and that is the consequences of the erosion of the world order that we crafted after World War II and for the post-colonial era that followed. Both depended on what I would call Euro-American or Atlantic-community notions of the rule of law and the sanctity of international agreements and common notions of civil and human rights, including the idea that all states – even the United States – should be subject to the same rules. (…) Now we’re looking at a world in which the center of gravity in many ways is moving to Asia — to countries like China and India — non-western nations that were not participants in the crafting of this Atlantic consensus on the rule of law.
This raises a big question: if we and the Europeans don’t work together to sustain the heritage that we created, will it survive? Or will new rules and a new order be dictated by people whose values are not the same as ours? And what are the consequences for us of an order based on values that differ from our heritage?
There’s another issue that is vital to the future of this country, and that is the question of our international competitiveness. We became the great society we are because we were open to both foreigners and foreign ideas. (…) But this is changing. Homeland security, an obstructive visa process, an unwelcoming face at the border, tightening security restrictions that discourage contact with foreigners, limited opportunities for graduates from our universities who are foreign by birth to stay here — all of these things have had the effect of undercutting our openness and competitiveness. In many respects, research and development and design have moved away from the United States and lodged elsewhere. (…) There are many, many reasons to be concerned about the long-term effects on our scientific and technical leadership, which can’t be taken for granted. In this regard, I think it is a legitimate task of the intelligence community to try to find ways of establishing metrics by which one can intelligently measure the success or failure of policies or assess trends affecting our national strength accurately rather than simply anecdotally.
There is a lot rethinking that needs to go on. To put all this in a broader context, the United States has been following strategies that are largely inchoate rather than deliberately developed. That is, they have been implicit in our activities, rather than developed by an explicit reasoning process. (…) I don’t think we can afford this anymore. We have come close to the end of the line on quite a range of issues and relationships with foreign regions and nations. We need to re-examine our strategies systematically. (…) It may be that I’m wrong on the specifics and, if so, I’d be happy to be corrected, but I do not think it deniable that we need to examine what is happening, why it’s happening, and that we need to judge whether allowing it happen is in our interests or not, and, if not, to consider what might be required to reverse it.
Q: Why do you think Blair picked you for the job of NIC chairman?
A: In some ways, he and I think very much alike. He asked me to do this, and my initial reaction was I didn’t want to do it, because I had spent 30 years working for the government, and – in my view — that was 30 years enough, and I didn’t want to do it again. But he convinced me in the end that my way of thinking and range of experience, which does include Latin America, Africa, South Asia, East Asia, South East Asia, the Arab world, the Middle East, Europe, defense policy, and Russia and central Asia, as well as Japan and South Korea — that this level of experience is not easily duplicated. Second, I have been told that I have a reputation for thinking strategically and looking at long-term implications of issues rather than dwelling on the short-term. I’ve also been accused of the sin of realism and objectivity. And maybe I’m seen as an iconoclast. Admiral Blair convinced me that he couldn’t easily find anyone else with these characteristics, and that I therefore had a duty to the country to volunteer, so I did. I knew I would be controversial for the reason that I have been indifferent to political correctness.
I came to believe that I could improve the quality of the process; I could build in checks and balances against sycophancy; I could reestablish the credibility of the product. I could produce things that were sufficiently low in classification or maybe unclassified that they would really be useful to the Congress and others participating in a national discussion about what to do. But when it became apparent that this little gang of Likudniks who were after me were going to stay on my case and continue their defamatory activities and use me as an excuse to discredit any judgment from the intelligence community that they found uncongenial, I concluded I could do everything I intended except restore the credibility of the product. The only consolation I have to offset the viciousness of their attacks is that I think they rather overplayed their hand. Instead of reinforcing the suffocation of debate, they may have opened it up.