A president's Secretary of State had to represent the country's policies soberly and predictably around the world. His National Security Advisor had to coordinate and evenhandedly present the views of the various agencies. His White House press secretary had to take great care in expressing the official line to the world's media each day. His Director of National Intelligence had to give him the most sober and responsible precis of what was known and unknown about potential threats.
For any of those roles, a man like Freeman might not be the prudent choice. But as head of the National Intelligence Council, my friend said, he would be exactly right. While he would have no line-operational responsibilities or powers, he would be able to raise provocative questions, to ask "What if everybody's wrong?", to force attention to the doubts, possibilities, and alternatives that normally get sanded out of the deliberative process through the magic known as "groupthink." As Dan Froomkin of NiemanWatch wrote in an item that called Freeman "A One-Man Destroyer of Groupthink,"
He has... spent a goodly part of the last 10 years raising questions that otherwise might never get answered -- or even asked -- because they're too embarrassing, awkward, or difficult.
For him to be put in charge of what [Laura Rozen of Foreign Policy] calls "the intelligence community's primary big-think shop and the lead body in producing national intelligence estimates" is about the most emphatic statement the Obama Administration could possibly make that it won't succumb to the kind of submissive intelligence-community groupthink that preceded the war in Iraq.
Again, I don't know Freeman personally. I don't know whether the Saudi funding for his organization has been entirely seemly (like that for most Presidential libraries), which is now the subject of inspector-general investigation. If there's a problem there, there's a problem.
But I do know something about the role of contrarians in organizational life. I have hired such people, have worked alongside them, have often been annoyed at them, but ultimately have viewed them as indispensable. Sometimes the annoying people, who will occasionally say "irresponsible" things, are the only ones who will point out problems that everyone else is trying to ignore. A president needs as many such inconvenient boat-rockers as he can find -- as long as they're not in the main operational jobs. Seriously: anyone who has worked in an organization knows how hard it is, but how vital, to find intelligent people who genuinely are willing to say inconvenient things even when everyone around them is getting impatient or annoyed. The truth is, you don't like them when they do that. You may not like them much at all. But without them, you're cooked.
So to the extent this argument is shaping up as a banishment of Freeman for rash or unorthodox views, I instinctively take Freeman's side -- even when I disagree with him on specifics. This job calls for originality, and originality brings risks. Chas Freeman is not going to have his finger on any button. He is going to help raise all the questions that the person with his finger on the button should be aware of.
Read carefully this NiemanWatch Q-and-A with Freeman from 2006 (or read any of Freeman's recent policy articles here) and ask yourself two questions: do these sound like the views of an unacceptable kook? And, would you rather have had more of this sensibility, or less, applied to U.S. policy in recent years?