Chas Freeman’s Saudi fable

The other day, I brought this January 2004 quote from Chas Freeman, just named to head of the National Intelligence Council (NIC):

The heart of the poison is the Israel-Palestinian conundrum. When I was in Saudi Arabia, I was told by Saudi friends that on Saudi TV there were three terrorists who came out and spoke. Essentially the story they told was that they had been recruited to fight for the Palestinians against the Israelis, but that once in the training camp, their trainers gradually shifted their focus away from the Israelis to the monarchy in Saudi Arabia and to the United States. So the recruitment of terrorists has a great deal to do with the animus that arises from that continuing and worsening situation.

I offered this as evidence for Freeman’s view of the roots of anti-American terrorism—his thesis that terrorism is America’s punishment for supporting Israel. But some readers saw it as real evidence that terrorists are recruited through a bait-and-switch process. Bait: Fight the Israelis. Switch: Kill fellow Saudis and Americans. So I decided to check whether Freeman’s story held water. Did the television show related to him by his “Saudi friends,” and which he related to us, actually report what he said it did? After all, Freeman told this anecdote in Washington, on a panel in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and he drew rather far-reaching conclusions from it. So it should hold water, right?

Freeman told the anecdote on January 23, 2004. He prefaced it by saying that he had visited Saudi Arabia “a week ago.” The episode described to him by his “friends” would have been the dramatic broadcast on Saudi TV1 (state television) on January 12. Lasting 67 minutes, it featured several anonymous Saudi members of “terrorist cells” (their faces were shadowed) who gave brief details of how they were recruited, followed by commentary from Saudi experts. The program was a big deal, and was much commented upon by the Saudi press and foreign wire services. (Examples: Associated Press, BBC, and Agence France-Presse.) The official Saudi Press Agency provided a very detailed report, and the Foreign Broadcast Information Service prepared an exhaustive account of the program (both here).

And guess what? There is nothing in the program to substantiate Freeman’s “bait-and-switch” version of it. In almost thirty short segments in which the terrorists described their recruitment, only one made reference to something said by a recruiter on Palestine: “I sat with them and heard them speaking about jihad, the duty of jihad, and jihad as an individual duty [fard ayn] that has become incumbent on every Muslim for almost 50 years, since the Jews entered Palestine.” But another recruiter used this message: “We want to establish an Islamic state and carry out the prophet’s tradition [Hadith]. He says with great pride: The prophet removed the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula.” Some recruiters talked about the afterlife: “We ask them: What are we doing here? What do we get in return? And, they say it is in return for paradise.” Then there was Afghanistan: “Two so-called mujahidin, who were in Afghanistan, came to me and told me stories about jihad, conquest, Afghanistan, the rewards of the steadfast, the graces bestowed on mujahidin, and the glory of jihad.” Recruiters incited recruits against Saudi authority: “They only speak against Saudi rulers and men of religion. They concentrate all their efforts on Saudi Arabia.” And they plied recruits with various radical fatwas and books.

Nothing in the program suggests that the recruitment of these terrorists had “a great deal” to do with Palestine, or much to do with it at all. Palestine was one message in a barrage of messages directed by recruiters toward recruits, and not in any particular order or priority either. There is not a shred of evidence for the “bait and switch” thesis in the program. Judge for yourself.

And yet the notion is out and about in America, thanks to Chas Freeman. He didn’t see the television program; he said he was relying on his “Saudi friends.” If so, he obviously didn’t perform any due diligence on what they told him, before repeating it on Capitol Hill and drawing far-reaching conclusions from it (“the heart of the poison” and all that). It’s not hard to see how this might serve some Saudi public relations interest. But can the United States afford to tolerate this kind of method at the top of the National Intelligence Council? And isn’t the only explanation for this shoddy approach to evidence a combination of political spin and uncritical reliance on foreign “friends”—the most dangerous infections for any intelligence organization?

Freeman is hailed by some as a “contrarian” and “gadfly.” After checking out this one episode, he looks to me like a shill or a sucker. Get your red pencils sharpened for those National Intelligence Estimates.

Update, late afternoon, March 10: Put the red pencils away. This announcement is just in: “Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair announced today that Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. has requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret.”

Chas Freeman’s crystal ball

It is May 2000. You are Bill Clinton, contemplating what you still might achieve in the Middle East in your last eight months in the White House. You call in one of your intelligence chiefs, and ask a bottom-line question. Where is the Middle East headed? Your wise man gives you this answer:

I believe that over the coming year there will be some sort of Arab-Israeli peace. Israel will then reach out first to Iran and then to Iraq, in its own interest. If Israel does that, it will partially cure the frontal lobotomy that we are about to inflict on ourselves with this election. Then possibilities for movement in American relations with first Iran and then Iraq may well emerge.

You shrug off the bit about the lobotomy—it’s just his colorful way of describing the effect on Washington of every change in administration. But the rest is eye-popping—enough that you say to yourself, maybe I should throw my presidential weight into getting that Arab-Israeli peace. After all, you’ve just been told that it’s coming, and that anything is possible if you can get it. Israel will reach out to Saddam’s Iraq! And even to Iran! Think of the possibilities. So you say to yourself: if the Israelis come with a plan for the big breakthrough, I’ll run with it. Keep Camp David stocked with non-alcoholic beverages.

One year later, you’re out of office, nursing a massive regret that you ever allowed yourself to believe that any of this fairy tale was true. You pushed, alright—and you helped to push Israelis and Palestinians into the abyss. They weren’t ready for a peace deal, especially that jerk Arafat. And Saddam and the Iranians? Your failure has emboldened them. You scratch your head, wondering where you first heard that fantastic sky’s-the-limit prognosis.

From Chas Freeman. No, he wasn’t an intel chief in May 2000, he was just running his Middle East Policy Council. I made up the scenario—but not the quote. Freeman made that exact prediction on a panel he chaired in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on May 4, 2000. The National Intelligence Council (NIC)—which Freeman has been appointed to chair—is the nation’s chief crystal-baller. The NIC is supposed to look into the future—sometimes as far as fifteen years. It would be good to have someone with an unbroken record of on-spot predictions in that job. Freeman is freethinking, alright. Maybe that’s why his record is broken.

Update, late afternoon, March 10: This announcment is just in: “Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair announced today that Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. has requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret.”

Chas Freeman and preemptive cringe

Charles “Chas” Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia who is slated to become chair of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), is being praised by his supporters as a brilliantly “contrarian” analyst. But has anyone gone back to examine the analyses? Here is an example from June 2002:

I’m a very practical man, and my concern is simply this: that there are movements, like Hamas, like Hezbollah, that in recent decades have not done anything against the United States or Americans, even though the United States supports their enemy, Israel. By openly stating and taking action to make them—to declare that we are their enemy, we invite them to extend their operations in the United States or against Americans abroad. There’s an old adage which says you should pick your friends carefully. I would add: you should be even more careful when designating your enemies, lest they act in that manner.

So what has happened over the past seven years? The United States hasn’t budged on its designation of Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups. (In September 2002, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage even called Hezbollah “the A-team of terrorism” as compared to the B-team, Al Qaeda.) The United States has boycotted both organizations, and has insisted that others boycott them as well. Above all, it’s supported Israel to the hilt in two wars, in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, in which Israel pounded first Hezbollah and then Hamas for weeks with U.S.-supplied aircraft and ordnance. There’s little more the United States could have done, short of bombing Beirut and Gaza City itself, to demonstrate to Hezbollah and Hamas that they’re on America’s wrong side.

Yet here we are, nearly seven years later, and where is the wave of Hezbollah- and Hamas-sponsored international terror in and against the United States? It’s not materialized, for a host of reasons that were already clear back in 2002. Freeman’s warning was a classic example of preemptive cringe—in this case, shying away from merely naming an organization as terrorist for fear it might threaten you.

And this wasn’t the only time Freeman did it. In October that same year, as war with Iraq loomed, he raised the specter of Saddam attacking the United States. This came in response to a cost-benefit analysis of war made by the strategist Anthony Cordesman. Warning that Saddam “would will use every weapon in his arsenal” if attacked, Freeman asked:

Is Saddam so stupid and autistic that he hasn’t noticed that for several years the United States has been declaring our intention to come and get him—especially this president? And if he has noticed, do you think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he has prepositioned retaliation against the United States here in the United States? Inspectors can find and eliminate nuclear programs because they’re bulky, consume a lot of power and the like, and maybe they can do the same with chemical programs, but biological programs can be cooked up in the basement of relatively small houses. So I just wonder again, as we look at the possible benefits—and Tony [Cordesman] has made an eloquent case that, great as the risks are, the benefits are substantial, and waiting increases the risks—do we have a risk that we might experience an attack on our own homeland by unconventional means from this regime as it goes down?

“The problem with this argument is several-fold,” replied Cordesman gently. “First, it means Iraq has to be very confident that its intelligence operations are clever and subtle. But I have never been impressed by the cleverness and subtlety of Iraqi intelligence.” In any case, he added, “the threat of such risks also isn’t a valid argument against going to war,” since “presumably they can make the threat more sophisticated over time”—i.e., an Iraqi terror threat was an argument for U.S. action, not against it.

Of course, Saddam went down without launching an unconventional attack from a basement in America.

All this wouldn’t raise an eyebrow had Freeman warned us in advance of the possibility of a 9/11-style attack coming out of Saudi Arabia—and remember, he’d been U.S. ambassador to that country when the threat began to coalesce. Some “contrarians” did warn, but he didn’t, and he isn’t even credible in explaining the attacks after the fact. (Example: “What 9/11 showed is that if we bomb people, they bomb back.”)

So I don’t see anything realistic about Freeman’s sort of “realism,” and if this is what constitutes “contrarian” thought—conjuring up threats to intimidate ourselves—then we’ll only have dropped preemptive action in favor of preemptive cringe. Washington is teeming with real realists—rigorous thinkers who are independent of foreign billionaires and relatively free of that psychological scarring that induces an obsession with Israel. Is Chas Freeman the best this administration can do?

Update: Terrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn points out that Hezbollah did attack Americans more recently than Freeman allowed in his 2002 quote—to wit, the Khobar bombings, done by the Saudi Hezbollah in 1996 (here is the 2001 indictment). He asks how Freeman—supposed authority on all things Saudi—managed not to know that. It’s an excellent question. Joscelyn also reminds us that Hezbollah has had a hand in attacks on American forces in Iraq. True, but this is not what Freeman had in mind when he warned against designation of Hezbollah. There were no American forces in Iraq yet, so he was cringing over something different: an attack on the homeland or international terrorism against Americans. They haven’t happened.

Pointer: See my previous post on Freeman and 9/11.

Update, late afternoon, March 10: “Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair announced today that Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. has requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret.”