President Obama on Monday nominated former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Appearing with the two men in the East Room of the White House, Obama called Hagel “the leader that our troops deserve” and a “champion of our troops and our veterans and our military families.” He said Hagel, a former Army sergeant, would be the first person of enlisted rank and the first Vietnam War veteran to head the Defense Department.
“Maybe most importantly, Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction, Obama said.
In Brennan, Obama said, the CIA “will have the leadership of one of our nation’s most skilled and respected intelligence professionals.”
Standing alongside the nominees were outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and acting CIA director Michael J. Morell.
“I hope that the Senate will act on these confirmations promptly,” Obama said. “When it comes to national security, we don’t like to leave a lot of gaps between the time that one set of leaders transitions out and another transitions in. So we need to get moving quickly on this.”
In a brief speech accepting his nomination, Hagel pledged to work to “strengthen our country and strengthen our country’s alliances, and advance global freedom, decency and humanity as we help build a better world for all mankind.” He said he would always give Obama “my honest and most informed counsel.”
Brennan, who described himself as “neither a Republican nor a Democrat,” said he would “make it my mission to ensure that the CIA has the tools it needs to keep our nation safe, and that its work always reflects the liberties, the freedoms and the values that we hold so dear.”
If confirmed by the Senate, the nomination of Hagel would add a well-known Republican to the president’s second-term Cabinet at a time when he is looking to better bridge the partisan divide, particularly after a bitter election campaign. But the selection has drawn sharp criticism, particularly from Republicans, who have questioned Hagel’s commitment to Israel’s security.
While noting that Hagel “served our nation with honor in Vietnam,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement: “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 also said he has “many questions and concerns” about Brennan’s nomination, “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.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) strongly denounced the nomination of Hagel, calling him “the wrong man for the job at such a pivotal time.” The second-ranking House Republican said Hagel’s “views and inflammatory statements about Israel are well outside the mainstream and raise well-founded doubts that he can be trusted to manage the special relationship the United States shares with our greatest Middle East ally.”
Cantor also charged that Hagel’s “reported views” on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and defense spending “represent a call for a broad retreat” from America’s preeminent role in the world.
But former defense secretary Robert M. Gates, a Republican holdover from the George W. Bush administration who served as Obama’s first Pentagon chief, praised Hagel.
“While there are issues on which I have disagreed with him, such as the 2007 surge in Iraq, he is a man of complete integrity and deep patriotism,” Gates said in a statement. “He is also the president’s choice. The country and our men and women in uniform would be well-served by his swift confirmation.”
In an interview published Monday by the Lincoln Journal Star, Hagel said critics have “completely distorted” his record, and he denied that he is “anti-Israeli.” He vowed to set straight a record that he said would show “unequivocal, total support for Israel” and endorsement of tough international economic sanctions against Iran, the paper reported.
The choice of Hagel sets up a confirmation fight of the sort that Obama appeared unwilling to have over Susan E. Rice, his preferred pick for secretary of state. Rice pulled out of consideration for that job last month after facing sharp Republican criticism about her characterization of the September attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Obama subsequently nominated Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state when she steps down.
In an appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called Hagel’s selection an “in-your-face nomination.”