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Firestorm of Criticism for Cabinet Nominee Front-Runner Chuck Hagel

January 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
From pro-Israel groups to gay rights advocates, vested interests are already weighing in on speculated nominees for positions in President Obama's cabinet. Ray Suarez reports on the criticism leveled against Chuck Hagel, one of the front-runners for defense secretary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A number of news organizations reported today that President Obama will nominate former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense next week. But there was no official confirmation from the White House.

This latest news caps several weeks of a public campaign for and against Hagel’s nomination.

Ray is back with this story.

NARRATOR: Hagel says military action is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.

President Obama, for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option.

RAY SUAREZ: Former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel has not, so far, been nominated for the top Pentagon job, but attacks like this TV ad began shortly after news accounts named Hagel the front-runner. They focus mostly on whether he’s sufficiently pro-Israel.

NOAH POLLAK, Emergency Committee for Israel: There is an incredible level of concern about the kind of secretary of defense he would be, based on his foreign policy views and his foreign policy record, and the things he’s said over the past dozen years of his political career.

RAY SUAREZ: Noah Pollak is executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, which produced the TV ad.

Under federal law, the committee doesn’t have to disclose the sources of its funding, but it’s one of several pro-Israel groups opposing Hagel.

NOAH POLLAK: You take an issue like Iran, which is the — probably the single greatest national security threat and problem that we will have to deal with in the coming few years, and Chuck Hagel has already come out and said that he’s against — he thinks military strikes are not a viable option. He’s even come out against sanctions. And you have to wonder, what kind of advice would he give to the president?

RAY SUAREZ: Hagel has also taken fire from gay rights advocates in his own party. In last Thursday’s New York Times, the Log Cabin Republicans posted a full-page ad that read, “Chuck Hagel: Wrong on Gay Rights, Wrong on Iran, Wrong on Israel.” The ad included remarks Hagel made in 1998 calling an ambassadorial nominee “openly, aggressively gay.”

The diplomat in question, Amb. James Hormel, has accepted Hagel’s apology. Log Cabin Republicans have not.

Last Sunday, President Obama was asked about the remarks on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

PRESIENT BARACK OBAMA: He apologized for it, and I think it’s a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people’s attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country. And that’s something that I’m very proud to have led, and I think that anybody who serves in my administration understands my attitude and position on those issues.

RAY SUAREZ: Indeed, Hagel already serves this administration. He’s co-chaired the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board since 2009, after he left the Senate. In his Sunday interview, the president called Hagel a patriot, but he also said there’s been no decision on a nominee.

This is the second time in recent weeks that a potential high-level Obama administration nominee has come under fire.

Last month, United Nations Amb. Susan Rice withdrew her name from consideration as a future secretary of state. She’d come under fierce Republican criticism over public statements she made about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Hagel has run into stiff opposition from Senate Republicans. He alienated many of them when, as a senator, he criticized the Iraq war, after voting for it initially.

CHUCK HAGEL, former U.S. senator: We’re beyond disarray. We’re beyond division. We have got anarchy and very clearly defined tribal sectarian civil war in Iraq. That’s happening right now.

But, most important, those men and women that we ask to fight and die, they deserve a policy worthy of their sacrifices. They, in my opinion, do not have that policy today.

RAY SUAREZ: On “FOX News Sunday” last weekend, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham made clear that Republicans have not forgotten or forgiven.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: I can tell you there would be very little Republican support for his nomination. At the end of the day, there will be very few votes.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, a group of Republican and Democratic officials have written to the president expressing their support for Hagel, and they’re mounting a campaign with radio ads.

THOMAS PICKERING, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations: I have know him since his early days in the Senate. We have consulted and talked often about foreign policy.

RAY SUAREZ: Former Amb. Thomas Pickering is one of Hagel’s supporters. Over a long career, he’s gone through the confirmation process nine times.

Does this process that happens before a nomination and before a hearing get you better nominees, get you better confirmed Cabinet members, get you a better government?

THOMAS PICKERING: Would the pre-confirmation process, as it’s now unrolling, and all of its panoply, be a good thing? I would say no. I think that, in effect, if we could find a way to avoid it, and I’m realistic enough and spent enough time in this town to know that that will be hard.

RAY SUAREZ: Dov Zakheim served as undersecretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration. He is not part of the campaign to save Hagel’s potential nomination. He says claims that Hagel is anti-Israel are unfounded.

DOV ZAKHEIM, former U.S. undersecretary of defense: He voted on some things that upset some pro-Israeli folks, no question. But you look at the record, it’s pretty much overwhelmingly pro-Israel.

And with only 6,000 Jewish folks in Nebraska, and I don’t know how many evangelicals, it’s not a critical issue for him in that respect.

So, if he voted for Israel, it’s because he felt that was the right thing to do. He’s a man of integrity. He does what he thinks is right. Is he anti-Israel? Absolutely not. There is not a shred of evidence of that.

RAY SUAREZ: Still, Zakheim acknowledges the road to Senate confirmation won’t be an easy one for Hagel, if he is nominated.

DOV ZAKHEIM: He would have to convince Senate Republicans in particular, and Republicans on the Hill in general, that whatever he may have said in the past is not what he feels about now.

FORMER SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN I-Conn.: There are real questions to be raised.

RAY SUAREZ: Retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman also hinted at a potentially difficult confirmation process in a recent interview with the NewsHour.

JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: I wouldn’t say that I’m opposed to Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. Of course, I’m not going to be here if he’s nominated to consider his nomination.

But if I were here and on the Armed Services Committee still, I would have a bunch of questions to ask and want to have answered before I would say I could support his nomination.

RAY SUAREZ: In the meantime, other names have surfaced as potential nominees, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense.

For now, the man who will make the final decision on a nominee remains on vacation in Hawaii.