The neoconservatives have demonstrated that their power in Washington remains strong as they have succeeded in keeping veteran diplomat Chas Freeman out of a top intelligence job.

Freeman dropped out of the running for chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which oversees preparation of intelligence estimates about threats to the United States, after an intense campaign spearheaded by neocons angered over Freeman’s criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

In effect, the neocons showed that their influence over the national news media, especially the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, combined with solid Republican support and some key Democratic backing, still lets them blackball potential government appointees who favor a more evenhanded approach toward the Middle East.

The neocons directed a powerful media campaign against Freeman denouncing his criticism of Israel and his associations with the Saudi and Chinese governments. One influential column, entitled “Obama’s Intelligence Blunder,” was published Feb. 28 on the Washington Post’s op-ed page, written by Jon Chait of The New Republic, another important neocon journal.

As Republicans on the congressional intelligence committees, Connecticut Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman and New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer joined the fight against Freeman, the former U.S. Ambassador found himself facing formidable – perhaps unprecedented – opposition to a choice for a staff position in the U.S. intelligence community.

Freeman said the attacks took some of his comments out of context, such as a quotation suggesting that the Chinese government had moved too slowly to suppress the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Freeman claimed he was only explaining how the Chinese government viewed its own actions.

What the successful neocon campaign against Freeman also showed was that there is little media power at the national level to defend a public figure who comes under sustained assault of this type. Several articles defending Freeman appeared on the Internet, and the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity published a supportive letter, but those efforts paled in comparison to the neocon barrage.

Freeman bowed out on Tuesday although his potential boss, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, defended him and complained that Freeman’s past comments had been distorted.

Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Freeman had the sort of “inventive mind” that would resist “precooked pablum judgments.” [NYT, March 11, 2009]

In a message at the Foreign Policy magazine’s Web site, Freeman traced the campaign against him to pro-Israel groups that won’t countenance a balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“Tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth,” Freeman said.

Flexing Muscles

The larger point, however, is that the neocons were able to flex their muscles against someone they deemed a hated “realist” and draw the line against the inclusion of such people at key jobs in the Obama administration.

Without doubt, the neocons have lost the overall dominance they held during much of George W. Bush’s presidency when they played a central role in distorting intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion.

But they retain “credibility” in the strange world of insider Washington, largely through their influence within the elite media and their prominence at dinner parties. They also remain well-entrenched at powerful think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute.

By using their media platform to launch the assault that kept “realist” Freeman out of the National Intelligence Council, the neocons brought together two central elements of their long-term strategy for influencing Washington: targeting the CIA’s analytical division and the national press.

As I describe in my book, Secrecy & Privilege, the neocons recognized early on that they could advance their agenda if they seized the two main levers of information inside Washington. So they set out more than three decades ago to dominate – or intimidate – the CIA’s analytical division and the Washington press corps.

The origins of this extraordinary assault on reality can be traced back to 1976 when a young neocon named Paul Wolfowitz joined with a band of Cold War hard-liners to gain access to the CIA’s raw intelligence on the Soviet Union for what became known as the “Team B” experiment.

At the time, CIA analysts were spotting systemic weaknesses in the Soviet system, a finding that encouraged Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford to pursue a policy of “détente” aimed at reducing tensions with Moscow and possibly ending the Cold War.

However, “détente” was anathema to the neocons and the hard-liners – many of whom had ties to the military-industrial complex – so “Team B” not surprisingly concluded that the Soviet Union was actually on the rise and on the march, possessing new military technologies that were creating a “window of vulnerability” for the United States.

Under political pressure from Ronald Reagan and the ideological Right, President Ford scrapped any talk about “détente” and the stage was set for reigniting the Cold War (with massive new U.S. military spending) when Reagan became President in 1981.

Reagan then credentialed many of the key neoconservatives, the likes of Elliott Abrams and Richard Perle, who continued their collaboration with old-time hardliners like CIA Director William Casey. He began purging the CIA analytical division of “realists” who stubbornly kept seeing evidence of the Soviet Union’s rapid deterioration.

Casey’s key action officer within the CIA’s analytical division was a young up-and-comer named Robert Gates, who ousted or marginalized analysts who refused to march to the new ideological drummers.

Gates’s politicization of the analytical division proved so effective regarding the issue of the Soviet decline that the CIA and the U.S. government were caught off-guard when the East Bloc and the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. [In 2006, Gates became George W. Bush's Defense Secretary, a post he has retained under President Obama.]

Media Wars

Also, in the 1980s, a parallel operation, run out of Reagan’s National Security Council, went after journalists who uncovered unwelcome facts about the administration’s support for brutal right-wing despots in Central America and Africa – or who dug up critical information about policies in the Middle East, especially anything that reflected poorly on Israel.

As intellectuals who followed the elitist philosophy of Leo Strauss, the neocons understood the vital need to control and shape the information that reached politicians and the public, all the better to manipulate them. This concept was known internally as “perception management.”

When George W. Bush took power in 2001 and many of the Reagan-era neocons returned, they simply picked up where they had left off. The neocons were back twisting intelligence analyses to fit their policy desires and spinning reporters who then published slanted stories, scaring the American people and ultimately clearing the way to the Iraq War.

Only after years of Bush’s catastrophes did American voters push back, stripping the Republicans of congressional control in 2006 and handing the Democrats the White House in 2008.

But the neocons and other rightists retain one important bastion of power: the U.S. news media, which can roughly be divided between the right-wing media infrastructure, from print to radio to TV to the Internet, and mainstream journalism, which includes important pro-neocon outlets like the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and The New Republic.

Now, that strength within the national news media is serving as the neocons’ reserve army, launching counterattacks after its front-line troops of the Bush years were routed.

By driving back the appointment of Chas Freeman, the neocons also have made the point that they have no intention of surrendering to the forces of “realism” or letting go their influence over the country’s intelligence analysis.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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