WASHINGTON // A former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia resigned yesterday from his new post as chairman of the National Intelligence Council following congressional criticism for comments about the Israeli government and alleged ties to foreign governments. Charles Freeman's resignation came just hours after the National Intelligence director Dennis Blair said at a Senate hearing that he was standing behind his appointment of Mr Freeman as chairman of the council, which analyses national security issues.
Mr Freeman had not yet begun his work as chairman, and Mr Blair said he accepted the resignation "with regret". The council draws information and analysis from all US intelligence agencies to produce national intelligence estimates (NIE). NIE's are the intelligence agencies' most comprehensive statements and are meant to be unvarnished and apolitical. "I have concluded that the barrage of libellous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office," Mr Freeman wrote in a posting on the website for the magazine Foreign Policy.
"The effort to smear me and to destroy my credibility would instead continue. I do not believe the National Intelligence Council could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack by unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country," he wrote. Mr Freeman has aggressively criticised the Israeli government, the war in Iraq and the war on terror. In the last two weeks almost three dozen lawmakers, primarily Republicans, have questioned his ability to be objective in his analysis.
Mr Freeman's financial, personal and business ties with the governments of China and Saudi Arabia have also been called into account. He was president of the Middle East Policy Council, which received some funding from the Saudi government, and he is on the international board of advisers to a Chinese-government owned oil company. The congressional complaints resulted in an inspector general's investigation into Mr Freeman's ties to the Saudi government.
On Monday, all seven Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee sent a letter to Blair expressing concerns about Freeman's suitability for the job. They joined more than a dozen members of the House who over the last two weeks have sent similar letters and requested the inspector general's investigation. Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent, warned Mr Blair at a hearing yesterday that the Freeman controversy would not be going away anytime soon.
Mr Blair stood firm, saying Freeman's strong opinions would be valuable on the council. "I think I can do a better job if I am getting strong analytical viewpoints than if I am getting precooked pabulum," Mr Blair told the committee. Representative Steve Israel, a Democrat who is one of Mr Freeman's chief critics, said yesterday that Mr Freeman's resignation "preserved the impartiality of US intelligence".
"We learned from eight years of the Bush administration that intelligence cannot be cherry-picked. It cannot be coloured by opinion or even the appearance of conflict," Mr Israel said. Mr Freeman, in his online statement, criticised as dishonourable and deceitful the tactics of the "Israel lobby" he said aims to control the policy process by vetoing the appointment of people "who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favours".