President Barack Obama said he’s choosing former Senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as CIA director to help the U.S. “meet the challenges of our time.”
Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran, “is the leader our troops deserve” and will be able to manage the “tough fiscal choices” necessary amid shrinking budgets, Obama said in announcing the nominations today at the White House. Brennan’s experience at the Central Intelligence Agency means he “knows what our national security demands,” the president said.
Obama is filling his national security and foreign policy team for a second term. The president previously announced his choice of Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, as secretary of state, replacing Hillary Clinton.
The selections are subject to Senate confirmation, and some Republicans are threatening a fight over the nomination of Hagel. The 66-year-old former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska would be taking over the Pentagon job as the Defense Department is facing budget cuts and management of the full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Obama urged the Senate to act quickly to avoid leaving any national security gaps during the transition of department and agency heads.
Hagel’s critics have focused their questions on whether he sufficiently supports Israel and stepped-up U.S. sanctions on Iran, as well as on his previous remarks about the “bloated” defense budget.
It’s “an in-your-face nomination,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said yesterday on CNN. “This will be a controversial choice, and we’ll see where the votes go.”
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based defense research organization, predicted Hagel ultimately will be confirmed as defense secretary, succeeding Leon Panetta, because “when Republicans look closely, they’ll discover he’s one of them.”
“Chuck Hagel was a very conservative senator, so there really isn’t much there in his record to make most Republicans dislike him,” Thompson said in a telephone interview.
While Hagel has come under fire for citing the influence of the “Jewish lobby” in Washington on behalf of Israel, doubts about his support for Israel may not be persuasive, Thompson said. During Hagel’s eight years in the Senate, he “voted for something like $40 billion in aid to Israel,” Thompson said. The early opposition is “more partisanship than an assessment of Hagel’s credentials,” he said.
Hagel told the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper in his home state that his opponents have distorted his record on Israel.
There is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one vote that matters that hurt Israel,” Hagel said in the interview published online today. What bothers some critics is that “I have also questioned some very cavalier attitudes taken about very complicated issues in the Middle East,” he said. “The distortions about my record have been astounding.”
Brennan, 57, may face questions over his 25-year career in the CIA and his support for administration policies such as targeted drone strikes and about alleged national security leaks from the administration.
He would replace retired Army General David Petraeus, who resigned the CIA post in November following the revelation of an extramarital affair.
Brennan worked in various posts involving data collection, covert action and analysis, including as CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia. He served as deputy executive director of the agency under Bush.
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said in a statement that he planned to examine what role Brennan may have had “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.”
Brennan was considered the front-runner to head the CIA when Obama won election in 2008. He withdrew from consideration after some Democrats voiced concerns about his links to the agency under Bush and the CIA’s use of techniques such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning, when questioning captured or suspected terrorists.
In an October 2008 interview, Brennan said he opposed waterboarding and any other interrogation practices that critics regard as torture.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican leader, has concerns about Brennan’s nomination, because he hasn’t been “exonerated” yet as a source of leaks of national security information that are the subject of a Justice Department investigation, said Megan Mitchell, the lawmaker’s press secretary.
Cornyn and some other Republicans say the White House leaked intelligence information to bolster Obama’s national- security credentials ahead of last November’s election.
Obama has denied that White House officials leaked classified information, calling the notion that they would do so “offensive.”
Brennan served as a campaign adviser to Obama in 2008 and has been as close to the president as any member of the White House national security team.
As deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, Brennan helped plan and advise in the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. A specialist on the Middle East, he has overseen the efforts to attack al Qaeda’s affiliates in such places as Somalia and navigate the challenges of the Arab Spring uprising.
“For four years, he has seen the president every day, and been by his side for some of his toughest decisions, including the decision to launch the bin Laden raid,” according to a White House statement.
It was Brennan who the administration picked to deliver the public narrative about the assault on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and the killing of the al-Qaeda leader.
He’s also been an advocate of the use of drones to target and kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan and the Horn of Africa, which has drawn criticism from some Democrats and Republicans. In a speech last year marking the anniversary of the bin Laden killing, Brennan defended drone strikes as legal and ethical.
“There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield,” Brennan said at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.
Hagel will face confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, while Brennan goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
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