WASHINGTON — Digging in for a fight, President Barack Obama riled Senate Republicans and some Democrats, too, on Monday by nominating former Sen. 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.”
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., wasted little time Monday in saying he will oppose the nomination of the former Republican senator with his votes on both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate floor.
“Given Chuck Hagel’s statements and actions on a nuclear Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, I think his confirmation would send exactly the wrong message to our allies and enemies alike,” Vitter said in a prepared statement. “Israel, our strongest ally in the region, is dealing with a lot of threat and uncertainty right now; Hagel would make that even worse.”
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., did not respond to a request for comment Monday on the Hagel nomination.
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 Monday with the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star newspaper, Hagel accused his opponents of having “completely distorted” his views.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Tom Raum and Advocate Washington bureau reporter Jordan Blum contributed to this report.