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Chuck Hagel Defends Record at Confirmation Hearing

January 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, nominee for secretary of defense, faced pointed questioning at his confirmation hearing. Fellow Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, interrogated Hagel on his past opposition to the surge of U.S. troops into Iraq. Judy Woodruff reports on the contentious exchanges in Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel faced a hostile reception today from half of the committee that must sign off before he can become secretary of defense.

His Senate confirmation hearing centered heavily on criticism from his one-time Republican colleagues.

The atmosphere was friendly enough at the outset, as Chuck Hagel began his big day before the Armed Services Committee. He quickly sought to allay concerns on both sides about his positions on everything from Iran to Israel to nuclear weapons.

FORMER SEN. CHUCK HAGEL, R-Neb.: No one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record. My overall world view has never changed, that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world.

I believe, and always have believed, that America must engage in the world, not retreat from the world, but engage from — the world. My record is consistent on these points.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as a Nebraska senator, in 2007, Hagel angered fellow Republicans when he opposed the surge of U.S. troops into Iraq. Today, his former close friend Arizona Sen. John McCain made clear they haven’t forgotten.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: Question, were you correct or incorrect when you said that the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect? Yes or no?

CHUCK HAGEL: My reference to the surge being the most dangerous …

JOHN MCCAIN: Are you going to answer the question, Sen. Hagel? The question is, were you right or wrong? That’s a pretty straightforward question. I would like to you answer whether you were right or wrong and then you are free to elaborate.

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer.

JOHN MCCAIN: Well, let the record show that you refused to answer that question. Now please go ahead.

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, if you would like me to explain why …

JOHN MCCAIN: No, I actually would like an answer, yes or no.

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no. I think it’s far more complicated than that. As I have already said, my answer is, I will defer that judgment to history.

JOHN MCCAIN: I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it. And your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Florida Democrat Bill Nelson came to Hagel’s defense, asking the decorated Vietnam War veteran how his experience in that war had guided his approach to Iraq.

CHUCK HAGEL: I saw the consequences and the suffering and the horror of war. So, I did question a surge. It wasn’t an aberration to me ever. I always ask the question, is this going to be worth the sacrifice? Because there will be sacrifice. In the case of the surge in Iraq, we lost almost 1,200 dead Americans during that surge and thousands of wounded.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hagel has also been excoriated over his criticism of pro-Israel lobbying efforts, and Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker raised it again.

SEN. ROGER WICKER, R-Miss.: You have suggested that there is an effective lobby out there, whether you call them the Jewish lobby, the Israeli lobby or the Israel lobby, and that they succeed in doing dumb things through intimidation, and that U.S. policy has been the wrong approach because the intimidation has worked.

CHUCK HAGEL: I have already said I regret referencing the Jewish lobby. I should have said pro-Israel lobby.

I think it’s the only time on the record that I have ever said that. On the use of intimidation, I should have used influence, I think would have been more appropriate. I shouldn’t have said dumb or stupid, because I understand, appreciate there are different views in these things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham argued that Hagel’s larger record on Middle East policy is equally troubling.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: Do you believe that the sum total of all of your votes, refusing to sign a letter to the E.U. asking Hezbollah to be designated a terrorist organization, being one of 22 to vote to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, being one of two on two occasions to vote against sanctions that this body was trying to impose on Iran, the statements you made about Palestinians and about the Jewish lobby, all that together, that the image you have created is one of sending the worst possible signal to our enemies and friends at one of the most critical times in world history?

CHUCK HAGEL: No, I wouldn’t agree with that, because I have taken actions and made statements very clear as to what I believe Hezbollah and Hamas are as terrorist organizations.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: If you had a chance tomorrow, today, after lunch, to vote to say that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was a terrorist organization, would you still vote no?

CHUCK HAGEL: The reason I voted no to start with…

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, I know why. You told me that.

My question is, would you reconsider and would you vote yes this time? Or would you still vote no?

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, times change. I recognize that. And, yes, I would reconsider.

But …

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, thank you. That is encouraging.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As for Iran and its nuclear program, and the potential for military action against it. Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss asked whether Hagel still supports direct talks with the Islamic republic.

CHUCK HAGEL: I think the president has gone as far as he should go publicly on that. And he said clearly that, in his words, he has Israel’s back. He said that his policy is not to allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon.

If in fact the military option is the only one required, I think we’re always on higher ground in every way, international law, domestic law, people of the world, people of the region to be with us on this, if we have tried and if we have gone through every possibility to resolve this in a responsible, peaceful way, rather than going to war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If he’s confirmed, one of Hagel’s first challenges could be tens of billions of dollars in automatic defense spending cuts, starting in early March. He warned today of serious harm, unless Congress acts to prevent those.

CHUCK HAGEL: When you hang that kind of uncertainty over any institution, but especially the institution charged with national security in our country, it’s very dangerous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By day’s end, it was unclear exactly what Hagel’s prospects are. Most of the Senate’s 55 Democrats are believed to back him. Only one Republican has said publicly that he will vote to confirm.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can watch more highlights from Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings on our website.