Security Picks Put Obama On Defensive
DOD, CIA Nominees to Face Tough Questioning by Senate
President Barack Obama listens in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, where he announced that he is nominating Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, John Brennan, center, as the new CIA director; and former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, right, as the new defense secretary.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama and his choice for Defense Secretary, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, left, listen as he choice for new CIA Director, current Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, John Brennan, speaks during the announcement in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013 in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, to announce that he is nominating Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, John Brennan, second from the right, as the new CIA director; and former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, second from the left, as the new Defense Secretary, to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, far left. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Demonstrators from the groups CodePink and Witness Against Torture protest President Barack Obama's choice of current Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan to head the CIA, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, in front of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, president Barack Obama's choice for defense secretary, speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, where the president made the announcement. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, John Brennan, President Barack Obama's choice for CIA director, speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, where the president Barack Obama made the announcement. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama, center, walks away from the stage in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, after announcing that he is nominating Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, John Brennan, second from the left, as the new CIA. From right to left are; Acting CIA Director Michael J. Morell, the president, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Brennan. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama and his choice for Defense Secretary, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, left, laugh as current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, where the president announced his nomination of Hagel. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Washington — Digging in for a fight, President Obama riled Senate Republicans and some Democrats, too, yesterday by nominating former senator and combat veteran Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon and anti-terrorism chief John Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Hagel and Brennan, in separate Senate confirmation hearings, will face sharp questions on a range of contentious issues, including U.S. policy about Israel and Iran, targeted drone attacks and harsh interrogation tactics. Of the two men, Hagel is expected to face a tougher path, though both are likely to be confirmed.
Hagel would be the first enlisted soldier and first Vietnam veteran to head the Pentagon.
“These two leaders have dedicated their lives to protecting our country,” Obama said, standing alongside them and the men they would succeed during a ceremony in the White House East Room. “I urge the Senate to confirm them as soon as possible so we can keep our nation secure and the American people safe.”
For Obama, a pair of combative confirmation hearings could turn into a distraction as he opens his second term. But the president signaled he was ready to take that risk.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, has been criticized as hostile toward Israel and soft on Iran. Opponents also have highlighted his 1998 comments about an ambassador nominee whom he called “openly, aggressively gay” — a comment for which he recently apologized.
Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, was under consideration to run the agency after Obama won the 2008 election but withdrew his name amid criticism from liberal activists who questioned his connection to the harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA during the George W. Bush administration.
One of Hagel’s toughest critics, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., called his former colleague’s foreign policy views “outside the mainstream” and said he would be “the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history.”
Perhaps even more concerning for Hagel’s prospects has been the tepid response from some Democrats. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said Hagel had earned the right to a full and fair confirmation hearing, but he reserved judgment on whether he would back him. And Maryland’s Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin said he and other lawmakers “have questions that have to be answered” specifically on Hagel’s views on Iran and Israel.
Obama called Hagel “the leader our troops deserve” and someone who could make “tough fiscal choices” in a time of increasing austerity. The Pentagon is facing the potential of deep budget cuts in the coming months.
The 66-year-old former senator has defended his record on Israel and Iran. In an interview yesterday with the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star newspaper, Hagel accused his opponents of having “completely distorted” his views.
Hagel has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. During his tenure in the Senate, he voted against unilateral economic sanctions on Tehran, though he supports the joint international penalties Obama also prefers. Hagel also irritated some Israel backers with his reference to the “Jewish lobby” in the United States. The White House focused instead yesterday on the military record of Hagel, who was awarded two Purple Hearts.
“Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction,” Obama said. “He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary.”
The president, who prefers to keep a tight inner circle, has close ties to both Hagel and Brennan. Obama and Hagel served together in the Senate and made several trips overseas. Brennan has become one of the president’s most trusted advisers, working with him during the planning of the raid that led to the death of Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and holding broad authority over the administration’s counterterrorism operations.
If confirmed, Hagel and Brennan will join Secretary of State nominee John Kerry as Obama’s key national security advisers in his second term. Kerry, a longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts, is expected to be easily confirmed by his Capitol colleagues.
At the top of Obama’s national security agenda will be winding down the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Key decisions on troop withdrawals are looming, and Hagel is expected to favor a more rapid drawdown than some generals have suggested. Brennan, having served as Obama’s top counterterrorism aide for the past four years, would bring to the CIA a deep understanding of al-Qaida in the region.
For Brennan, yesterday’s nomination represents a second chance at the spy agency’s top job after his withdrawal from consideration in 2008.
In a letter to Obama at that time, Brennan said he was “a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration, such as the pre-emptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding.”
White House officials say they don’t expect Brennan to face similar trouble this time around given his four years of service in the Obama administration.
“The issue has been removed from the debate because the president and John Brennan, as his top counterterrorism adviser, brought those techniques to an end,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
But some lawmakers and outside groups aren’t as easily convinced. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., issued a statement about Brennan saying he had “many questions and concerns about his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, especially what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs.”