Freedom's Watch (FW) was a well-funded pro-Iraq War advocacy group set up by prominent conservatives to "protect America's interests at home and abroad, foster economic prosperity, and strengthen families." It was active during 2007-2008. Supported by a number of major Republican Party figures—including supermarket magnate Melvin Sembler, Las Vegas Sands owner Sheldon Adelson, and former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer—Freedom's Watch was closely linked to an assortment of hardline, pro-Israel groups, including the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC).
Described as a "conservative answer to MoveOn," Freedom's Watch supported the "surge" in Iraq and advocated for U.S. intervention in Iran. Pointing to the strong ties between the RJC and Freedom's Watch, one observer wrote that "the chief motivation behind the participation of the RJC's bigwigs ... in FW is all about their notions of how best to secure Israel against any and all possible threats."
The group's high-profile political activity—combined with its secret donor list and $56-million budget for the two years it was active—eventually attracted scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which in 2010 conducted an audit of the group's political activities. Freedom's Watch operated as a tax-exempt "social welfare" organization, which meant it could technically only engage in political activity if such activity was not its "primary purpose."
The following year, according to a 2013 Wall Street Journal report, five unnamed Freedom's Watch donors were also singled out for audits, this time to assess whether the donors should be held liable for "gift taxes" applied to large donations to certain kinds of organizations. (Gifts to 501(c)4 groups like Freedom's Watch are not exempt from gift taxes, although it is apparently uncommon for the IRS to collect them.) Coming amid other revelations that the IRS had singled out Tea Party groups and other right-wing organizations for special scrutiny at the time, the report provoked an angry reaction from Freedom Watch's supporters, spurring Fleischer to complain that "It's perfectly plain to see that Freedom's Watch's donors were singled out … in a complete break with decades of precedent and IRS procedure."
The 2011 audits were part of an effort by the IRS to levy gift taxes on a number of so-called "social welfare" organizations, which proliferated in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United ruling that abolished many federal restrictions on corporate campaign spending. The IRS eventually abandoned the effort under pressure from congressional Republicans, which according to Bloomberg "led to a 'free-for-all' by donors" and closed off a considerable amount of revenue that would otherwise be available to the IRS. "If you're a revenue-collecting agent at the IRS, you get paid to bring in big bucks," said one tax attorney. "These were huge targets."
Freedom's Watch faced a number of other controversies and internal problems during its brief existence. In September 2007, Larry Klayman—a conservative lawyer and head of Judicial Watch who gained notoriety for his many lawsuits against the Bill Clinton administration—filed a lawsuit in which he claimed to have been using the "Freedom's Watch" name since 2004. An erstwhile supporter of the Iraq War who eventually turned against many Bush administration policies, Klayman told the Washington Post, "These arrogant political lobbyists and rich Bush 'yes men' … are not furthering freedom, but in fact harming it." The website of Klayman's similarly named Freedom Watch USA appears to have begun operations in late 2010.
In March 2008, Fleischer-associated Freedom's Watch made headlines when its president, Bradley Blakeman, resigned. In a statement posted on the group's website, Blakeman said that although he would continue to support the group's work, he had decided to "transition from [his] current responsibilities." Citing a string of purported successes during the group's first eight months, including fighting "liberal" efforts to end the war in Iraq, Blakely wrote, "In short, I accomplished what I set out to do, and now it is time to pass the torch."
According to the Washington Post, Blakeman's resignation "follow[ed] hard on several other senior-level departures from the group, including those of Matt David and Robert Terra. Both men were veterans of Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, leaving as part of a huge staff shake-up in August. After stints at Freedom's Watch, both have moved on to work for [California] Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger." Asked by the Post if he had been forced to resign because of donor displeasure with the direction of the group, Blakeman said, "I resigned. They didn't ask for my resignation." Commenting on the resignation, an unnamed Republican Party strategist told the newspaper that "Freedom's Watch has not figured out its role in the conservative/Republican universe. Organizations like this have to fit in, but so far it's either been so ambitious it could not possibly accomplish its goals or too timid to actually do anything."
FW's introductory act was the unveiling in August 2007 of a $15-million ad campaign. According to information collected by the left-leaning MoveOn.org, in its initial ad buy Freedom's Watch spent nearly $6 million in ads targeting some 41 congressional districts, of which 37 were represented by Republicans. In an open letter to Ari Fleischer, MoveOn.org's Tom Matzzie wrote, "The revival of your role as salesman-in-chief for the White House's failed war policy is ... welcome. We were looking for a way to connect this mysterious 'Freedom Watch' outfit to the White House Iraq PR machine. And then it turned out that you made our job very simple—you are in charge. This is the 'White House Ad campaign.'"
Republican politicians who had soured in their support for the Iraq War were prime targets of these early Freedom's Watch television and radio ads. In an August 22, 2007 press release, Freedom's Watch said that it was "launching a nationwide grassroots campaign aimed at ensuring Congress continues to fully fund the troops with the ultimate goal of victory in the War on Terror." In one ad, a woman who lost family members in Iraq and the 9/11 attacks urged viewers to call their congressional representatives and say that withdrawing from Iraq would lead to more terrorist attacks in the United States. She concluded, "Surrender is not an option. Victory is America's only choice."
The ads, which ran on CNN and Fox, were reportedly rejected by CNBC and MSNBC. Writing for the right-wing PowerLine blog, John Hinderaker claimed, "Ari Fleischer wrote this morning on behalf of Freedom's Watch to let us know that CNBC and MSNBC have stubbornly refused to air the pro-war ads, even though they have run issue ads on other controversial topics." He added that Freedom's Watch's Blakeman "has written to CNBC and MSNBC to protest their decision."
Describing the group's initial motivations, Fleischer, who left the Bush administration in 2003, told the Washington Post, "The notion we could lose this war in Iraq because Congress pulled out scared me. That's why I got back involved. That's the only issue that could draw me back in. It's fair to say that since 2004 this debate has been dominated by one side. All the passion, all the organization, all the energy has been on one side. Now the cavalry is coming. My side will get a chance to get its say. That's really what drove us."
Freedom's Watch also focused its efforts on Iran, sponsoring a conference in October 2007 on "radical Islam" and the direction of Bush administration policy toward Iran. According to the New York Times, among those invited to the conference were several "experts" from AEI, whose passel of hawkish writers had consistently argued that success in Iraq depended on whether the United States would take action against Tehran. The New York Times also reported that one of the group's TV ads called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "a terrorist."
Citing a New York Times report that Freedom's Watch hoped to raise some $200 million by November 2007, journalist Jim Lobe concluded that the group was poised to play an influential role in the debate on Iran policy. He wrote, "While peace groups like MoveOn.org have pooh-poohed FW's appearance as unlikely to make much of an impact on public opinion regarding the Iraq War, its almost-certain efforts to rally support for attacking Iran should be taken very seriously, particularly given the extraordinarily deep pockets of its funders and the fact that the future of the Surge—which was FW's initial raison d'etre—has, for all practical purposes, been settled, at least until next March. With that battle behind it, FW can now focus its potentially vast resources on the Iranian threat, amplifying the hawks' charges, as it did in last week's ad, that Tehran is killing U.S. soldiers and marines in Iraq."
Funders and Supporters
Freedom's Watch was supported by a number of other pro-war advocacy groups, including Vets for Freedom and the Center for Vigilant Freedom, which helped distribute the group's video ads on the web.
Other hardline nationalist groups also helped promote Freedom's Watch, including the group Move America Forward, which is led by right-wing pundit Melanie Morgan. Morgan once argued on MSNBC's Hardball that journalists reporting on the government's program to track terrorist bank transactions "should be tried for treason. If they were found guilty of treason, I would have no problem with them being executed"; she later defended her comments.
Regarding Freedom's Watch, Morgan wrote in WorldNetDaily, "I've been working with a broad array of pro-troop advocates to help make such efforts as the 'Freedom's Watch' ad buy a reality. As the chairman of Move America Forward, the nation's largest pro-troop organization, I've been honored to work (conspire, if you are an anti-war liberal reading this column) with a coalition of pro-troop and veterans organizations that believe in peace through strength, and who also support victory for our troops."
According to Politico's Mike Allen, Freedom's Watch funders included: "Anthony Gioia, a Buffalo businessman who was Bush's ambassador to Malta; Kevin Moley, who was Bush's ambassador to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva; Howard Leach, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman who was Bush's ambassador to France; Dr. John Templeton of Pennsylvania, chairman and president of the John Templeton Foundation; Ed Snider, chairman of Comcast Spectacor, the huge Philadelphia sports and entertainment firm; Sheldon Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and ranked by Forbes magazine as the third-wealthiest American; and Richard Fox, who is chairman of the Jewish Policy Center and was Pennsylvania State Chairman of the Reagan/Bush campaign in 1980."