An unlikely object lesson

My college roommate Paul Pillar argues that the aborted appointment of Chas Freeman will inflict “damage to objectivity and professionalism in the U.S. intelligence community.” He bases his argument in large part on the notion that the Freeman affair will deter intelligence officers from “muster[ing] [the] courage” to “buck[] political orthodoxy” when they perform their work.

The timid intelligence officer who bends to the political winds seems to be a stock figure in Paul’s writing. Whether such officers exist to a meaningful degree or whether Paul invented them as an excuse for key mistakes the CIA made when he was there, I do not know. Assuming they do exist, Paul’s attempt to enlist them in the service of Freeman fails at several levels.

First, Freeman’s problems were hardly confined to deviance from “political orthodoxy.” To the extent an intelligence officer aspires to a plum government job in the future, Freeman’s fate certainly counsels against heading up an organization that receives substantial funding from a shady foreign government and its royal family. It also counsels against sitting on the international advisory board of a foreign corporation in which an often hostile foreign government and its state-owned companies own a majority share. Because these were prominent among the arguments against Freeman, there is no basis for concluding that, in their absence, Freeman’s appointment would have failed.

It is true, though, that the beliefs one holds can assist or impair one’s prospects for plum government jobs in the intelligence community and elsewhere. Individuals holding certain views will not obtain such positions in Republican administrations; individuals holding other views will not get them under the Democrats. For example, it is virtually inconceivable that President Obama would select a known neo-conservative for a key foreign policy or national security position. We did not need the Freeman affair to teach us this.

There are also some views that are sufficiently outside the mainstream that those who hold them cannot expect to be appointed to key positions under either a Democratic or Republican administration. The view that 9/11 was an inside job would, I think, fit that description. So too, I suspect, would the view that the expansion of radical Islam is in the interests of the United States.

What about the views that (a) the Tiananmen Square massacre was an overly cautious reaction to dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government and (b) a sinister Lobby renders the American public unable to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for U.S. policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics? I hope that these views weigh heavily against selection for important office. The first view is odious (which is why Freeman and his supporters deny, unconvincingly, that he held it); the second view is wildly inconsistent with the evidence, as the Washington Post’s editors have demonstrated. Again, though, because Freeman’s selection was so poor in so many respects, it is impossible to say whether one or both of these views cost him the job.

Either way, we should not fear the impact of Freeman’s demise on the ability of even timid intelligence officers to analyze intelligence with candor. Intelligence officers are not called on to state their view of the moral quality of actions like the Tiananmen Square Massacre or of the influence of the Israel lobby. It is clear, moreover, that one can assess intelligence in ways that diverge from the assessments of “the ruling faction in Israeli politics” and still have a fine career at the CIA (the reverse is, perhaps, more difficult to pull off). Indeed, the American intelligence community’s assessment on the issue most importance to Israel – what Iran is up to with respect to nuclear weapons – is essentially the opposite of Israel’s assessment.

Paul’s lurid belly-aching over the plight of intelligence officers (including his Faulkner-length sentence about “forc[ing] water down the throat of a policymaking horse” and then “stomping on the intelligence community’s chest with its hooves”) may or may not bear a relation to reality. But his attempt to wedge his disappointment with the demise of the one-of-a-kind Chas Freeman into his dubious construct is entirely unpersuasive.

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