Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus’ articles on U.S. national security and intelligence matters have been must-reads for years. But not for the controversy over Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair’s (Adm. USN, Ret.) selection of Charles “Chas” W. Freeman Jr. to head the National Intelligence Council.
Pincus and The Post’s news side largely followed the lead of Freeman and his defenders. The latter tried to deflect attention from the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia’s Saudi and Chinese ties and his often unhinged criticism of Israel. The coverage breakdown was especially noticeable, given the more thorough examination presented on the editorial and Op-Ed pages before and after Freeman withdrew. News reporting done by The Washington Times outpaced The Post’s.
Pincus’ first article on the controversy, “GOP Senators Question Intelligence Pick’s Ties” (March 10), came four days after The Washington Times’ “Inspector to vet Freeman’s links to Saudi Arabia; Potential conflict of interest eyed” (March 6) by reporter Eli Lake. Lake reported that the inspector-general of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would examine conflict-of-interest concerns raised by members of Congress. Senators and representatives focused on Freeman’s presidency of the partially Saudi-funded Middle East Policy Council and on the board of the government-controlled China National Offshore Oil Corp.
Pincus’ lead in the late follow-up did note that “all seven Republican members of the Senate intelligence committee … joined a small chorus of voices on Capitol Hill criticizing the choice of a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia for a senior intelligence position, concerned about his views on Israel and his past relationships with Saudi and Chinese interests.” He added that an aide to committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.) said the senator was aware of the Republicans’ concern “but does not see a need to get involved in the matter. The White House has also been largely mum on Freeman’s appointment. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked last week about the objections, but he ducked the question.” This superficial coverage contrasted with Pincus’ reputation for in-depth reporting that breaks national security news.
So did the narrow view that “opposition to Freeman’s appointment has been led by several pro-Israel groups and advocates in the United States, joined by some members of Congress.” In fact, key opponents to Freeman as NIC chairman included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of Congress’ 200-plus member Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. They objected strongly to the former ambassador’s dismissal of the Chinese government’s record of human rights violations and its oppression of Tibet.
Although Pincus told readers that “Freeman has also been faulted for statements about the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 …. [And] his serving four years, beginning in 2004, on the board of the China National Offshore Oil Corp.,” he did not directly quote those statements, explain that Freeman was paid for CNOOC board service, or detail the corporation’s role in securing petroleum supplies from Sudan, for example, regardless of Khartoum’s bloodshed in Darfur.
The Post’s report concluded by quoting DNI Blair’s spokeswoman, who downplayed the controversy.
The Washington Times difference
In contrast, Lake ended his same day Washington Times article, “GOP senators vow scrutiny over Freeman; Appointment sends ‘the wrong message'” (March 10) with news omitted by The Post: “… [T]wo leading China human rights advocates, Xiaorong Li and Perry Link, sent members of that panel [the Senate Armed Services Committee] a letter expressing concern about Mr. Freeman and a copy of a letter from 87 rights activists sent Friday to Mr. Obama.”
Lake’s “Freeman pulls out as queries over ties mount; Hill pleased with decision” (March 11), trumped Pincus’ “Impartiality Questioned, Intelligence Pick Pulls Out” (March 11). Lake provided detail, for example, quoting both Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Freeman.
Schumer charged that “Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position …. His statements against Israel were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration.” Lake provided an example, quoting Freeman in 2006, apparently subscribing to an ex post facto al Qaeda rationalization for its Sept. 11, 2001 attacks: “We have paid heavily and often in treasure in the past for our unflinching support and unstinting subsidies of Israel approach to managing its relations with the Arabs. Five years ago we began to pay with the blood of our citizens.”
Pincus’ journalistic short-hand did not fully reveal Freeman’s extreme views:
“Freeman had come under fire for statements he had made about Israeli policies and for his past connections to Saudi and Chinese interests …. Freeman has occasionally criticized the Israeli government’s position and U.S. support for those policies. In 2007, for example, he said, ‘The brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation shows no sign of ending …. American identification with Israel has become total.”
This reduces Freeman’s erroneous charges to an unrebutted sound bite. But the U.N.’s 2005 report on Arab human development, for example, showed Palestinian Arabs under Israel’s “brutal oppression” faring better than residents of a number of Arab countries. Israel ended its occupation of the Gaza Strip two years before the Freeman broadside Pincus quotes without qualification. And Washington’s “total identification” with Jerusalem includes refusal to supply it with certain advanced weapons for a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and outreach to Iran and Syria regarded apprehensively in Israel.
The Post did not investigate the work of Freeman’s Middle East Policy Council. This incl uded, according to a Washington Times Op-Ed printed before Pincus’ first article on the subject, not only publication of a journal filled with anti-Israel rants but a bizarre teachers guide on Islam claiming that Muslims inhabited the New World before Columbus’s arrival. Instead, The Post spotlighted Freeman slamming pro-Israel critics.
The Post sketched Rep. Israel and Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s (I-Conn.) opposition to Freeman, but stressed Blair'” forceful defense” of his appointee and concluded with Sen. James Webb’s (D-Va.) praise of Blair.
The headline on The Post’s March 12 editorial read “Blame the ‘Lobby’; The Obama administration’s latest failed nominee peddles a conspiracy theory.” But Pincus’ news article that day, “Intelligence Pick Blames ‘Israel Lobby’ For Withdrawal” mostly let the former ambassador do just that, quoting fragments of Freeman’s withdrawal blast at Israel that The Post editorial correctly termed “a diatribe.”
Pincus’ news report quoted TIME magazine’s Joe Klein that Freeman “was the victim of a mob, not a lobby” and cited Prof. Stephen Walt to the same effect. Walt was described as “one of two writers who in 2006 famously described the influence of the Israel lobby as dangerous … ” (In fact, Walt and Prof. John Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby is a poorly-researched, strawman argument claiming Israel’s America supporters distort U.S. foreign policy for the benefit of a country that’s not really an ally.)
Rather than detail Freeman’s Saudi and Chinese connections or his unsubstantiated anti-Israel charges, Pincus highlights early opposition to the former ambassador’s selection by supporters of Israel. The sources of opposition were newsworthy, but with so little attention to the Chinese/Tibet/Saudi issues, the account was one-sided and misleading.
Pincus’ fourth news article of the cycle on the subject did not investigate what happened to Freeman’s selection and why. It did not dissect the ex-ambassdor’s voluminous, often bizarre paper trail (including references to Saudi King Abdullah as “the Great,” and “9/11 shows that when you bomb people, they bomb you back”). Rather, it summarized Middle East news coverage of the controversy under the headline “Mideast Press Questions Obama; Top Intelligence Pick’s Pullout Blamed on ‘Pro-Israel Hawks’,” March 15).
Press review pieces are easy to do. When not part of a larger story with context — and this one wasn’t — they often add little.
The Post newsroom’s tardiness to recognizing in Freeman’s selection an important story, and Pincus’ focus on “the Israel lobby’s” objections rather than legitimate questions about the former ambassador’s fitness for the job missed, if not avoided, real news.