President Barack Obama on Monday named former Sen. Chuck Hagel as his pick for Defense secretary and counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan to run the CIA.
The decisions would put a combat veteran in charge of the Pentagon and a longtime CIA officer in charge of the spy agency.
“To have those who have been in the field, who’ve been in the heat of battle, who understand the consequences of decisions that we make in this town and how it has an impact and ramifications for everybody who actually has to execute our national security strategies, that’s something invaluable,” Obama said Monday in announcing the nominations.
While the Hagel pick in particular has drawn strong criticism from some in Senate, the president urged Congress to act as quickly as possible to confirm the two nominees given their importance in keeping the nation safe.
“We don’t like to leave a lot of gaps,” he said. “We need to get moving quickly on this.”
Obama noted that Hagel would be the first person of enlisted rank to serve as Pentagon chief, as well as the first Vietnam War veteran to run the department.
“Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction,” Obama said at the White House, flanked by Hagel, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Brennan and acting CIA director Michael Morrell. “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.”
Obama added, “Chuck represents the bipartisan tradition that we need more of in Washington.”
Hagel faces a tough fight from the GOP, with the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, calling him the “worst possible message” to allies in the Middle East. But former senators are almost never rejected by the Senate, and Obama has clearly decided to pick the fight. The Nebraska Republican is sure to face questioning about past statements he has made about negotiating with Iran and other groups in the region, America’s relationship with Israel and the war in Afghanistan.
Hagel did win the blessing of a key Democrat, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont. “He is a combat veteran who still carries shrapnel in his body from his wounds — he will not need on-the-job training.”
“On the Appropriations Committee those of us charged with handling the Senate’s work on the Pentagon budget will have to make more than a hundred billion dollars in cuts to begin with, and it will be good to work with someone like Chuck Hagel who can lead the Pentagon during a difficult time of transition,” Leahy said Monday in a written statement.
And Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., called Hagel “well qualified” and promised a prompt confirmation process.
But a number of Republicans have made it clear they oppose Hagel.
“Sen. Hagel’s record of opposing Iran sanctions is troubling,” Roger Wicker of Mississippi said Monday in a written statement, calling it a “divisive” choice. “His views and positions on the Middle East and Israel are contrary to the administration’s own stated policies, and there are concerns from members of both parties about this nomination.”
The outgoing ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain of Arizona, congratulated Hagel on Monday, but said he had reservations about the choice.
“I have serious concerns about positions Senator Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years, which we will fully consider in the course of his confirmation process before the Senate Armed Services Committee,” McCain said.
James M. Inhofe, the incoming ranking Republican on Senate Armed Services — which will hold the confirmation hearing for Hagel — said Monday the nomination deserves to be “fully vetted.”
“I am aware of the serious concerns about some of his policy positions, his record, and some of his comments that have been publicly reported,” Inhofe said in a written statement. “I will be seeking clarification from him about these concerns as his nomination proceeds.”
An Insider for CIA
Brennan has been the president’s counterterrorism adviser in his first term after spending decades at the CIA. Expect an airing of questions about the CIA’s extensive use of drones as a weapon of targeted assassination of terrorist targets. His current post at the White House includes the lead role in coordinating targeting decisions for drone strikes overseas.
“He has worked to embed our efforts in a strong legal framework. He understands we are a nation of laws,” Obama said. “In moments of debate and decision, he asks the tough questions and he insists on high and rigorous standards.”
The president and Brennan also spoke about there desire to have transparency — up to a point — and to have a good relationship with Congress on national security.
Brennan said he would ensure the CIA upholds “the liberties, the freedoms and the values that we hold so dear.”
Obama had originally contemplated naming Brennan to head the CIA at the start of his first term, but settled instead on Leon E. Panetta after some liberals who criticized Brennan’s past remarks on controversial George W. Bush administration surveillance and interrogation policies.
Brennan could also face some tough questions from Republicans, who could use his confirmation hearing to attack the Obama administration on several national security issues.
“The Obama administration has an abysmal record of national security and intelligence leaks when it benefits the president’s agenda,” Inhofe said, reacting to Brennan’s selection. “And, the tragedy in Benghazi still pose many questions that have not been adequately answered for those of us in Congress and for the American people.”
But the chairwoman in the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., praised the choice.
“Clearly, Mr. Brennan has the qualifications and expertise to be the next CIA Director,” she said in a written statement. “He has longstanding knowledge of the operations of this critical agency and also the strength to see that it follows the law.”
If confirmed, Brennan would take over the CIA after the resignation of its previous director, David E. Petraeus, over an extramarital affair with his biographer.
Emily Cadei contributed to this report.