Freedom House, a U.S. government-funded pro-democracy organization founded in 1941, describes itself as "an independent watchdog organization that supports the expansion of freedom around the world. Freedom House supports democratic change, monitors freedom, and advocates for democracy and human rights."
Best known for its annual "Freedom in the World" survey as well as its clandestine support to opposition groups in countries like Cuba and Iran, since the 9/11 attacks and the onset of the "war on terror" Freedom House has devoted considerable energy to assessing the impact of "radical Islam" both in and outside the United States, including promoting policies in countries that have been targeted as part of U.S. anti-terrorism campaigns.
Although in recent years the organization has appeared to relax its close association with hawkish U.S. policies, its leadership remains heavily represented by individuals affiliated with neoconservatism and it has continued to support projects aimed at bolstering aggressive U.S. foreign policies.
As of mid-2011, Freedom House's executive director was David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state during the George W. Bush presidency whose experience includes working as a fellow for the Project for the New American Century and the German Marshall Fund. Chair of the board of trustees was William H. Taft IV, a professor at Stanford Law School and deputy secretary of defense in the second Ronald Reagan administration.
Freedom House touts itself as having a "bipartisan character," and to a great extent this is reflected in its board of trustees. However, as of mid-2011, the board included a number of people who have been associated with rightist advocacy endeavors, including Ruth Wedgwood, who has also served on the board of the Geneva-based UN Watch, a group affiliated with the American Jewish Committee; Thomas A. Dine, former director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and adviser to the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq; Max Kampelman, a retired diplomat who has worked with several neoconservative groups, including the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Kenneth Adelman, a former arms control diplomat who has supported the work of groups like the Project for the New American Century and the Committee on the Present Danger; Paula J. Dobriansky, the Bush administration's under secretary of state for democracy who has work for the Hudson Institute, the Independent Women's Forum, among other rightwing groups; Joshua Muravchik, a prominent neoconservative writer formerly based at the American Enterprise Institute; and Mark Palmer, a retired diplomat, member of the Committee on the Present Danger, and vice president of the Council for a Community of Democracies.
Past Freedom House advisers and associates have included former CIA Director James Woolsey; the late UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick; conservative Rolling Stonewriter P.J. O'Rourke; the late Samuel Huntington, the Harvard professor known for his "clash of civilizations" thesis; Arthur Waldron, a longtime foreign policy hawk who has been a leading advocate for a hardline China policy; Mark Falcoff; the late Penn Kemble; Nina Shea, and Daniel Pipes.
From the Cold War to the War on Terror
Freedom House was founded in 1941 by Wendell Willkie and Eleanor Roosevelt in an effort to support President Franklin Roosevelt's advocacy of U.S. entrance in World War II at a time when, according to Freedom House's in-house history, "isolationist sentiments were running high in the United States." When the war ended, "Freedom House took up the struggle against the other 20th century totalitarian threat, Communism. ... The organization's leadership was convinced that the spread of democracy would be the best weapon against totalitarian ideologies. Freedom House thus embraced a mission to work to expand freedom around the world and to strengthen human rights and civil liberties in the United States. Freedom House thus strongly endorsed the post-war Atlantic Alliance, as well as such key policies and institutions as the Marshall Plan and NATO."
Since the end of the Cold War, Freedom House's work has shifted in line with the changing priorities of U.S. foreign policy, particularly after the 9/11 attacks, when the organization began focusing on radical Islam and countries targeted as part of the "war on terror." Among its initiatives have been a 2005 study purportedly showing the pervasive influence of radical Islam in U.S. mosques, the initiation in 2004 of a special study entitled Citizenship and Justice: A Survey of Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, and U.S.-funded campaigns within Iran.
A March 2003 "Statement on the Iraq War" highlighted Freedom House's efforts to mirror the Bush administration rhetoric. The statement repeated a core claim of the Bush administration—that the Iraq War would help create democratic reform throughout the Middle East: "The building of a democratic Iraq will require a serious long-term commitment of time and resources. Freedom House will do its part to press our government and other governments to make a serious commitment to this effort. For we believe that if the effort is made, it can have major positive implications for the future development of the Middle East, particularly the Gulf Region. Throughout most of its history, the oil rich Gulf region has been prey to colonial rule and domestic despotism. But the potential for democratic change in the Gulf is now increasingly evident. The Gulf monarchies of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar are moving toward constitutional rule in which significant power resides with democratically elected representatives. There is widespread democratic ferment and overwhelming public support for democracy in Iran. Together with successful democratic reform in Iraq, the Gulf has the potential of making a clean break with a past rooted in repression and entering into the growing global community of democratic states."
During a March 2006 speech at Freedom House, Bush emphasized the group's work on Islamic countries, saying: "Freedom House has declared the year 2005 was one of the most successful years for freedom since the Freedom House began measuring world freedom more than 30 years ago. From Kabul to Baghdad to Beirut and beyond, freedom's tide is rising, and we should not rest, and we must not rest, until the promise of liberty reaches every people and every nation. In our history, most democratic progress has come with the end of a war. After the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II and the collapse of communism in the Cold War, scores of nations cleared away the rubble of tyranny and laid the foundations of freedom and democracy. Today, the situation is very different. Liberty is advancing not in a time of peace, but in the midst of a war, at a moment when a global movement of great brutality and ambition is fighting freedom's progress with all the hateful violence they can muster. In this new century, the advance of freedom is a vital element of our strategy to protect the American people, and to secure the peace for generations to come. We're fighting the terrorists across the world because we know that if America were not fighting this enemy in other lands, we'd be facing them here in our own land."
Observers at the time noted that Freedom House's support for Bush policies reflected funding it received from the U.S. government. Commenting on Bush's Freedom House speech, the Financial Timesreported: "Few in the Washington audience on Wednesday realized that Freedom House, an independent institution founded over 60 years ago by Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady, is one of several organizations selected by the State Department to receive funding for clandestine activities inside Iran."
More recently, in March 2011, Freedom House and the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) created the Iran Strategy Task Force in an effort to "formulate new approaches to dealing with Iran and make recommendations after meeting with key policymakers in the Obama Administration, Members and Staff in the U.S. Congress, other experts from the U.S. and abroad, and the diplomatic community." Task force members included a number of people closely associated with the "Israel lobby" as well as several high-profile proponents of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the Iraq. Chairing the task force were PPI's Josh Block, a former spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Freedom House's Andrew Apostolou, a former director of research at the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Commenting on the task force, Politico's Ben Smith wrote, "With democratic revolutions shaking the Middle East, a Democratic think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, and the pro-democracy group Freedom House are launching a new task force aimed at shifting American policy on its central regional foe, Iran, toward a more aggressive focus on democracy." Steve Clemons of the Washington Note offered a cautious response to the group's launching, writing on his blog, "I think America's options on Iran are limited right now—and depend somewhat on how growing fissures and feuds among Iran's ruling elites evolve, but short of adding another war to America's already too full plate, I'm interested in what the Task Force comes up with. If it's a roster of a long list of other coercive measures, I'm doubtful the Task Force will move the US-Iran policy needle very much."
Democracy and Freedom Promotion
Freedom House is perhaps best known for its yearly "Freedom in the World" report, which rates countries according to their level of political rights and civil liberties. The group has also served as an umbrella organization for a number of more specialized groups, like the Center for Religious Freedom (at one time led by Carol Adelman and now based at the neoconservative Hudson Institute) and the now-defunct American Committee for Peace in Chechnya. Aside from its two offices in the United States (in Washington DC and New York City), Freedom House also maintains overseas offices in Mexico, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Serbia, North Africa, Jordan, and Hungary.
Observers have long questioned the fairness and objectivity of the group's advocacy efforts. During the Reagan administration, Freedom House was criticized for serving as a U.S. propaganda instrument, supporting the death squad-linked ARENA party in El Salvador while attacking the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, championing Contra leaders like Arturo Cruz, and serving as a conduit for funds from the National Endowment for Democracy (see GroupWatch Profile: Freedom House).
Freedom House's "Freedom in the World" reports are widely cited by the press but often receive less credibility in the academic world. For example, Marc Rosenbaum and Idean Salehyan, writing in an article for the Journal of Peace Research, argued that they chose the so-called Polity dataset, an alternative to Freedom House's country dataset, because of "concern that the Freedom House indicators are biased in the direction of U.S. foreign policy preferences."
Justin Raimondo, the libertarian editorial director of the popular website Antiwar.com, voiced a similar concern: "The U.S. government-funded organization known as 'Freedom House' has recently delivered a Christmas present to Russian President Vladimir Putin: his country has been downgraded, from 'partially free' to 'not free.' Israel, of course, is deemed completely 'free,' in spite of treating its Arab subjects worse than Sparta ever treated its helots. Putin is no Jeffersonian democrat, but neither has he rounded up and imprisoned an entire people and sought to ethnically cleanse them from their homeland. Freedom House standards are elastic, bending to the dictates of American foreign policy."
Freedom House's work on radical Islam has also been criticized on the same grounds. One example is the Center for Religious Freedom, which was created in 1986 to report "on the religious persecution of individuals and groups abroad." Before the center moved to the Hudson Institute in 2006, its website revealed a highly selective agenda that said that the center "insists that U.S. foreign policy defend Christians and Jews, Muslim dissidents and minorities, and other religious minorities in countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iran, and Sudan. It is fighting the imposition of harsh Islamic law in the new Iraq and Afghanistan and opposes blasphemy laws in Muslim countries that suppress more tolerant and pro-American thought."
In early 2005 the center published "Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques," an 89-page study of some 200 documents allegedly "disseminated, published, or otherwise generated by the government of Saudi Arabia and collected from more than a dozen mosques in the United States." The study concluded that a "totalitarian ideology of hatred" is being "mainstreamed within our borders through the efforts of a foreign government, namely Saudi Arabia."
Commenting on the study's findings, Daniel Pipes, head of the hardline neoconservative Middle East Forum, wrote in a 2005 op-ed: "The insidious Saudi assault on America must be made central to the (misnamed) war on terror. The Bush administration needs to confront the domestic menace that the Wahabi kingdom presents to America. That means junking the fantasy of Saudi friendship and seeing the country, like China, as a formidable rival whose ambitions for a very different world order must be repulsed and contained."
However, the center's study on Saudi hate ideology was criticized for drawing stark conclusions based on inadequate, selective research. In this case, Freedom House seemed to rifle through the libraries of only a handful of mosques across the United States and then implied in its conclusions that what it found in these mosques applied generally to mosques throughout the country. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) opined in a review of the Freedom House report: "The study clearly shows that these 15 American mosques included some very hateful books in [their] libraries. However, to suggest that all American mosques are filled with such publications is a stretch."
ISPU criticized the center for its "uncritical" support of the view, promoted by Hisham Kabbani and Stephen Schwartz, that 80-85 percent of American mosques are controlled by Wahabbis. The institute pointed to its own 2004 study of Detroit-area mosques, which found that only 6 percent of the city's mosque-attending population had salafist/wahabbi views, and concluded "the vast majority of American Muslims eschew extremist views." Although its study received widespread attention and was released months before the Freedom House report, says ISPU, the Center for Religious Freedom failed to acknowledge or refer to its results.
ISPU concluded: "American-Muslim leaders must thoroughly scrutinize this study. Despite its limitations, the study highlights an ugly undercurrent in modern Islamic discourse that American-Muslims must openly confront. However, in the vigor to expose strains of extremism, we must not forget that open discussion is the best tool to debunk the extremist literature rather than a suppression of First Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution."
Freedom House has also participated in a number of advocacy efforts apparently spearheaded by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a group founded in 2009 by several high-profile neoconservative figures, including William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Dan Senor. In 2009, FPI began publishing open letters to leading U.S. political figures, including President Barack Obama, urging greater commitment to human rights in U.S. relations with other countries. These letters often included signatories from several neoconservative and rightwing groups groups, including Freedom House, as well as representatives from established human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Among the FPI-published letter signed by Freedom House-associated figures (including David Kramer, Joshua Muravchik, Max Kampelman, and Paul Schrieffer) were a July 2009 letter to President Obama on human rights in Russia; an October 2010 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on human rights in China; a January 2011 letter to President Obama on human rights in China; and a January 2011 letter to Secretary of State Clinton on democracy in Belarus.
Despite its often close association with official U.S. policies, Freedom House has at times been critical of Washington. One notable example was the 2006 letter to President Bush urging the government to bring its interrogation and detention practices in the war on terror into compliance with international humanitarian law: "We are writing because we believe that the continuation of current U.S. policies and practices related to interrogation and detention have directly undermined the success of those efforts. ... While Freedom House has documented the extraordinary expansion of freedom over the last three decades, we remain concerned about the millions of people around the world who do not enjoy fundamental freedoms. Countries around the world continue the practice of torture and physical abuse. The United States has been—and should be—the international leader in combating those practices. To continue to do so effectively, the United States must lead by example. Sadly, that example has been tarnished in the last several years."
Freedom House receives much of its funding from U.S. government sources, receiving more than $20 million in federal grants in fiscal 2006, which accounted for most of its operating budget that year. The remainder was covered by private funders, including many rightwing foundations, such as the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, Sarah Scaife, and the Olin Foundation.
In 2007, Smith Richardson gave almost $430,000 in donations and the Bradley Foundation gave $130,000, $50,000 of which was earmarked for "Developing Civic Leadership in Cuba." In 2008, the Smith Richardson Foundation gave another $300,000. From 1996 to 2008, the Smith Richardson Foundation gave nearly $3.7 million. In the last two decades the Sarah Scaife Foundation gave Freedom House close to $1.5 million. But by far the biggest donor has been the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which has given the organization $7.3 million since 1986.
In 2003, Smith Richardson gave $200,000 to support work by Nina Shea on U.S. policy toward the spread of Sharia law, work on the state of civil liberties around the globe, and peace-building efforts by Freedom House's now-defunct American Committee for Peace in Chechnya. Scaife and Bradley donated a combined total of $270,000 to the Center for Religious Freedom's "Sharia project" and related work in the same year.
(For more on Freedom House's funding from conservative foundations, see Media Matter's Freedom House page.)