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Salon’s Glenn Greenwald defends the Chas Freeman nomination at NIC

Friday, March 13, 2009

HH: Over the last three or four days, I have been telling you about the controversy surrounding the nomination of Ambassador Charles Freeman to be the head of the NIC. And one of the people I’ve had on to criticize the nomination, Mark Steyn earlier in the day, I now want to balance out with Glenn Greenwald, columnist for He was a supporter of the Freeman nomination, and a critic of the critics of Freeman. Glenn, welcome back to the program, good to have you.

GG: Great to be back, Hugh, thanks.

HH: Can you summarize your argument in support of Freeman?

GG: Sure, I would begin with the fact that Freeman was chosen not by Barack Obama, but by Admiral Dennis Blair, who is a four star admiral who has one of the most impressive military records in the United States, formerly commander of the Pacific Fleet. And what he said, both publicly and privately, is that Freeman is a great patriot who has an ability to analyze intelligence in a very unique way that would be of great assistance to Admiral Blair in carrying out his primary function, which is to protect the people of the United States and preserve American national security. And when an admiral like Dennis Blair says something like that about Charles Freeman, and the way that he would help Blair carry out his duties, that creates a very significant presumption, at least in my mind, that Freeman ought to be in that position. It’s a rebuttable presumption, but it’s certainly a very positive thing. And when you add on to that the fact that virtually everybody who has worked with Freeman over his long service to his country have all said that essentially the same thing, that he’s a great patriot with a great analytical mind, the ability to spark exactly the kind of debate within our intelligence community that a director of national intelligence would need. I also consider that highly credible, the people who know him saying very praiseworthy things about him. And then finally, I would say that the objections that have been raised by his critics are uniquely unpersuasive to me. I think we need more debate over our policy toward Israel, not less. I think the orthodoxies need to be shattered. Obviously, Admiral Blair thinks that, too. And I think the attempts to tie him to China and to Saudi Arabia, when you look at how much more powerful people inside the United States are tied to the Saudi regime without any kind of controversy like this arising, I think those are clearly pretexts.

HH: In a post yesterday, and you’ve written a great deal about this at, you title it, Charles Freeman Fails The Loyalty Test. Loyalty to whom?

GG: To Israel. I think that, and you know, it’s interesting, I think you see many more people in the mainstream who are willing now to talk about this than every before as a result of this. But clearly, there is a litmus test within our political culture on both sides of the aisle that in order to be accepted into the mainstream, you need essentially to refrain from criticizing Israel on any sort of fundamental or aggressive way. And you basically need to affirm that our blind and lockstep support for whatever the Israelis do is something that ought to continue, and if you don’t accept that, those orthodoxies, if you don’t pledge your loyalty to our policies toward Israel and to Israel, essentially what will happen to you is what just happened to Charles Freeman. You’ll be demonized and have your career ended.

HH: If you don’t pledge your loyalty to Israel, you’ll be demonized and have your career ended. Are you sure about that, Glenn?

GG: Yeah, look at what happened, Hugh, when, and I think we talked about this, or maybe it happened after I was on your show the last time, but look at what happened with the Israelis were at war in Gaza, an incredibly controversial war. Public opinion was very sharply divided in the United States, and even more so around the world. And yet look at what happened when a resolution was introduced in both houses of the Congress to express unequivocal support for Israel. Democrats and Republicans from the left to the right, from every part of the country, almost unanimously, there were five votes against it, voted for it. That’s pretty remarkable orthodoxy for an issue that divisive. And I think it reflects exactly what I just said.

HH: Now let me ask you about the two charges you, I think you believe are illegitimate, that he was too close to the Saudis. He was on the payroll of a center funded largely by the Saudis, correct?

GG: No. He was the chairman of an organization that had a relatively miniscule budget, it was about $600,000 dollars a year, which for a think tank or an organization is very small. The Saudis funded, the Saudi government funded 1/12th of it, less than $50,000 dollars a year. And Freeman had a salary that he received for the 12 years that he ran that organization of $76,000 dollars. I mean, these are very small amounts of money. And only a portion, a small portion of it was actually funded by the Saudi government.

HH: Okay, and so is that the extent of the Saudi support you’ve been able to investigate?

GG: That’s the extent that I’m aware of the Saudi government support, financing for the organization that Freeman ran.

HH: And should any amount of Saudi funding, is there some level that you would agree would disqualify him in light of too close of an association with Saudi Arabia?

GG: I guess if it ever got near the levels of the Bush family’s involvement with the Saudi government, I would start to think that it was a more reasonable objection. But then again, George Bush was actually the president of the United States for eight years, and his father was for four years before that. I think the position of National Intelligence Council chairman is less significant, and I think it would have to rise to a higher level before those kind of concerns were raised. But sure, if it approached the Bush family’s involvement with the Saudis, I think there would be a stronger argument.

HH: But if, for example, half of the support for his center had come from Saudi Arabia, would that raise an alarm bell in your mind?

GG: No, I just don’t think that for a position that pays somebody, a lifelong diplomat of that stature, $76,000 dollars a year, that there ought to be an assumption that he’s been corrupted by that amount of money. I mean, I think that it’s a reasonable issue to raise, I think he ought to be asked about it, but the idea that that ought to be disqualifying, if you look at the person who’s running the State Department right now, and the involvement of her family with all sorts of foreign governments, and like I said, the Bush family, I just think it’s incredibly disingenuous to suggest that that level of ties to the Saudi regime ought to disqualify somebody for a position like that.

HH: Now the second objection that you brought up that is much brought up is his relationship with the People’s Republic of China, both in his rhetoric about Tiananmen Square Massacre, and with his serving on a board of a company connected with the PRC. Let’s take the latter one first. Does that alarm you?

GG: No, and you know again, I think anytime that any public servant is going to be put in a position where they have financial ties that pertain to their duties, it’s a very legitimate ground to ask about them. I mean, I was opposed, for example, to the Tom Daschle nomination because I thought he was hopelessly conflicted between his ties to the health care industry and what his job would have been. But here, I think that given that our policy towards China is essentially set, I mean, we’re dependent on the Chinese, nobody on either party of any significance wants to challenge our policy towards China, we need the Chinese, we can’t challenge them, or we have no leverage against them…

HH: What about his rhetoric on Tiananmen Square? We’ve got about a minute to the break, Glenn.

GG: Yeah, when I first heard about the e-mail of Tiananmen Square, I thought that was a legitimate grounds for concern. I thought his comments were disturbing. I’ve since read the entire e-mail, which was not a public speech, but a private e-mail discussion. And his supporters saying I think there was a good argument to make, but the context was not that he was saying that he thought the Chinese government should have been more aggressive, but that that was the lesson that he thought the Chinese government would have drawn. I think it’s unclear, but I think a stray comment like that over the course of a thirty year career doesn’t undermine the credibility that someone has.

– – – –

HH: In one of your posts on this, Glenn, you write that, “Lynch mob leader Jonathan Chait spent the last week denying…” blah, blah, blah. Do you think that’s a fair characterization of a critic of Freeman as a lynch mob leader?

GG: I don’t think every critic of Freeman is part of a lynch mob, but I think there is a group that very reliably attacks not just the positions and policies, but the character and person of anyone who dares to criticize Israel. And many of the writers at the New Republic, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, are among them. And Jonathan Chait is certainly one of the leaders. And I think a lot of people, Time Magazine’s Joe Klein, for instance, referred to the people attacking Freeman as exactly that, not a lobby, but a mob, a lynch mob. And I think it is accurate.

HH: Now you also write that what I find most mystifying is that, “Israel-centric fanatics actually think it’s a good thing for Israel to impose these sorts of Israel-based loyalty tests and orthodoxies on American politics.” Is Chuck Schumer an Israel-centric fanatic?

GG: Oh, definitely.

HH: Is Rahm Emanuel?

GG: Yes, I think Rahm Emanuel is.

HH: Joe Lieberman?

GG: Yeah, absolutely.

HH: Hillary Clinton?

GG: No, I wouldn’t say Hillary Clinton is. I mean, she certainly became a lot more supportive of Israel, and a lot more along those lines when she began running for the Senate in New York, for obvious political reasons. But I wouldn’t say that she’s a true believer. And in fact, she’s actually provoked a lot of opposition on the part of that faction by criticizing the Israelis for blocking humanitarian aid into Gaza and expanding settlements. So I wouldn’t include her in that.

HH: President Obama obviously has made his number one guy Rahm Emanuel, an Israel-centric fanatic in your words, chief of staff. Does that make President Obama an abettor of Israel-centric fanatics?

GG: No, I think he surrounded himself with a lot of people. And what he does with Israel, I think, is a big question mark. I mean, there were times when he was running in the primary when he said things like I really resent the idea that you have to support Likud in order to be considered a friend of Israel. And I thought that was quite positive. And once he got the nomination, he went to AIPAC and sort of read a standard pro-AIPAC speech. So no, I wouldn’t say the fact that he named Rahm Emanuel is evidence, dispositive evidence that he intends to take that line. I think there’s going to be a lot of factions pulling on him when it comes to Middle East policy, and we’ll see what direction he goes in.

HH: The Israeli-centric fanatics you listed, Schumer, Emanuel and Lieberman, do you think they put the interest of Israel ahead of the interest of the United States?

GG: I think they see, they believe that they’ve convinced themselves, and they operated on the premise that Israeli interests are the same as American interests, and that they don’t distinguish between those two. Do they see a conflict between them and opt for Israel over America? Or do they convince themselves that they’re equal? I can’t say what’s in their mind. What I do know is that they constantly, at the center of their political advocacy, place the Israeli interest as an overarching priority. I wouldn’t accuse them of being disloyal or anything like that, but clearly Israel plays an extremely significant role in their political view.

HH: Do they have divided loyalties in your opinion, Glenn Greenwald?

GG: Again, I mean that depends on whether they think there’s a divergence of conflict. I mean, I grew up in Miami where there’s a very strong Cuban-American community. They’re very patriotic American, but they have great allegiance to Cuba, and care about Cuba as well. Is it divided loyalty? Is it dual loyalty? Is it the fact that they have affection for other countries? There’s Irish who have that, Mexican-Americans who have that. I think that’s semantics. But clearly, there are lots of factions in this country that have affection for and dedication to foreign countries besides the United States, and absolutely there’s a large segment of Jewish-Americans who do as well.

HH: And historically, of course, the charge of divided loyalty is a cornerstone of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Do you worry about having the appearance of that rhetoric in your columns?

GG: No, I worry, my goal when I write is to describe things as truthfully and honestly as I can. I mean, obviously you can cross a line rhetorically. That’s inflammatory. I try and avoid that. At the same time, though, you know, it’s like saying is it a concern if you talk about African-Americans being imprisoned at a higher rate, that you’re playing into racist stereotypes? It’s possible to play into those racist stereotypes by discussing that reality, that there’s a high percentage of African-Americans in prison, but if you’re sober and careful and honest in your discussion, I think the charge that you’re being racist by discussing that is a bogus one, just like I think the charge that you’re being anti-Semitic if you talk about what’s obvious in front of everybody’s face, that is the import of Israel and to a lot of American Jews is just bogus.

HH: Glenn Greenwald, I appreciate you taking the time to join us, to present the anti-anti-Freeman case, and I look forward to having you back again soon.

End of interview.

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