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Lawmakers Promise Tough Questions for Defense, CIA Nominees

January 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Judy Woodruff reports on President Obama's nominations of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary and John Brennan for CIA director. Gwen Ifill talks to Jessica Tuchman Mathews of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Reuel Marc Gerecht of Foundation for Defense of Democracies about the president's picks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today’s announcement at the White House sets up a pair of potential confirmation fights. President Obama’s choices to oversee the Pentagon and the CIA will now be called on to answer questions about everything from Israel to Iran to interrogations.

There had been much speculation about both nominations, but the president made them official this afternoon in the East Room of the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My choice for two key members of my national security team, Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense and John Brennan for director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hagel is a Vietnam veteran who would replace the retiring Leon Panetta. He would also be the first defense secretary who saw combat as an enlisted soldier.

BARACK OBAMA: In Chuck Hagel, our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength. They see one of their own. Chuck’s a champion of our troops and our veterans and our military families.

As a leader at the VA, he fought to give our veterans the benefits they deserve. As head of the USO, he devoted himself to caring for our troops.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The former senator from Nebraska who left office in 2009 said he especially wants to serve those in uniform.

CHUCK HAGEL, defense secretary nominee: These are people who give so much to this nation every day, with such dignity and selflessness. This is particularly important at a time as we complete our mission in Afghanistan and support the troops and military families who have sacrificed so much over more than a decade of war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, on Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear his fellow Republican will face close scrutiny when the confirmation process begins.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: I think there will be a lot of tough questions of Sen. Hagel, and — but he will be treated fairly by Republicans in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even independent Angus King of Maine suggested it may be a rough ride.

SEN. ANGUS KING, I-Maine: I’m going to want to ask some serious questions, hear from Sen. Hagel about the issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For Republicans, the reservations can be traced to Hagel’s vocal opposition to the Iran war, after he initially voted for it, and to the 2007 troop surge that he called:

CHUCK HAGEL: The most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hagel’s views on Israel could pose greater problems. In 2008, he referred to Israel’s U.S. supporters as the Jewish lobby, drawing concern from senators in both parties.

Iran is still another flash point. As a senator, Hagel voted against trade sanctions and more recently has criticized talk of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites. The president today defended Hagel’s maverick refutation, going back to when they served together in the Senate.

BARACK OBAMA: I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind, even if it wasn’t popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom. That’s exactly the spirit I want on my national security team, a recognition that, when it comes to the defense of our country, we are not Democrats or Republicans; we are Americans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president is also close to John Brennan, who has been counterterror adviser since 2009 and was instrumental in planning the operation to capture Osama bin Laden.

BARACK OBAMA: A 25-year veteran of the CIA, John knows what our national security demands, intelligence that provides policy-makers with the facts, strong analytic insights, and a keen understanding of a dynamic world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the CIA, Brennan would succeed retired Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned last year after admitting to an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

Brennan said today that the CIA needs the support of the country as it faces growing challenges.

JOHN BRENNAN, CIA director nominee: If confirmed as director, I will 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Brennan too may face tough questions. He took himself out of the running for the CIA job four years ago, amid criticism for supporting so-called enhanced interrogation when he ran the NationalCounterterrorismCenter under President Bush.

Brennan has also defended renditions, the practice of sending terror suspects to other countries, where they might be subject to torture, as he did on the NewsHour in 2005.

JOHN BRENNAN: I think it’s an absolutely vital tool. I have been intimately familiar now in the past decade with the cases of rendition that the U.S. government has been involved in.

And I can say without a doubt that it has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And last year, Brennan spoke at length about another much-debated tool in the U.S. war on terror: using unmanned drones to kill terror suspects.

JOHN BRENNAN: There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield. Al-Qaida has been left with just a handful of capable leaders and operatives and, with continued pressure, is on the path to its destruction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both Brennan and Hagel will now prepare for their confirmation hearings, likely to be scheduled later this winter.

So what so what do the president’s choices tell us about his second-term national security priorities?

GWEN IFILL: For that, we turn to Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She’s held posts at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff. And Reuel Gerecht, a former case officer at the CIA, he’s now a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

So, let’s step back from the two individuals we just saw Judy talk about there. And tell us what these selections tell us about this administration’s foreign policy, national security priorities.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I think you heard the president say it. He wants people with personal weight, with experience, and who are non-ideologues, who are open to hearing facts as they come.

You know, there is a kind of personal gravitas that comes with decades of experience that you can’t substitute with briefing books or anything else. It’s there or it’s not. Both these gentlemen have it.

GWEN IFILL: Reuel Gerecht?

REUEL MARC GERECHT, Foundation for Defense of Democracies: Well, I suspect the president has revealed his strategic vision, particularly with the choice of Sen. Hagel at Defense.

I think the two men share a view that is skeptical of the use of American power abroad. I think that they doubt the beneficence of American hegemony.

I also suspect that, in these times, economic times, that the president wants someone at Defense who is willing to cut the defense budget by a substantial amount.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about that, because, in fact, Sen. Hagel was quoted in 2011 as saying that the Defense Department is bloated, and he believes that there is room for a reduction.

Is that — is that wise? Is that a way to get confirmed as defense secretary?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Well, there is nobody who is being honest who doesn’t believe there is bloat inside the defense budget and that there are, if it’s done intelligently, ways to capture several hundred billion dollars without harming national security.

GWEN IFILL: How do we know that he knows how to do it intelligently?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: He can’t do it alone.

And that’s why it’s so important, this essence of qualification, which I think has been the missed central issue in this whole debate so far. The important issue is not whether he once said Jewish lobby instead of Israeli lobby. The issue is, is he qualified? Does he know the portfolio that he’s going to be asked to carry?

And, in this case, I think the answer is an unequivocal yes.

GWEN IFILL: Your response to that?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Well, I would say that, one, there’s not hundreds of billions of dollars that you can cut from the Defense Department. I would say that Iraq and the Afghan wars reveal that actually we need to increase defense spending.

In particular, I think the Navy and the Army are in serious need of repair, and that the notion that you can continue to slice away at the defense budget as a means of showing some type of restraint with the budget, I think, is a terrible, terrible mistake.

GWEN IFILL: Does the president’s selection of Sen. Hagel in particular, but also Mr. Brennan, speak at all to his philosophy of intervention around the world? For instance, there is some discussion about what Sen. Hagel’s views are about what we should — whether and how we should step into or deter Iran.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: He has expressed reservations about going to war and about the use of military force as a way to solve problems.

I think that’s a credential that the U.S. would want in every secretary of defense. He’s seen the face of war personally. So he knows what its pluses and minuses are. But in terms of whether he’s a believer in American hegemony or not, this is a guy, as I said before, who is not an ideologue. He doesn’t come in with a neo-imperialist, neocon view.

He comes in — he’s a pragmatist. He’s very like the president, I think, in that respect. And he’s a listener. He doesn’t — and he’s open enough to hear what’s being said to him, so — by non-Americans. I think it would be very difficult to read into his appointment any particular policy on any particular question.

REUEL MARC GERECHT: I disagree with that.

I think Sen. Hagel actually is fairly ideological, in the sense that he is consistently opposed to American intervention abroad. He’s, I think, very skeptical that the United States, when it exercises its force abroad, is doing the right thing, is helping the good.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Would you say that about a man who volunteered to go to Vietnam?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: I don’t think that’s a relevant issue.

I think it’s quite noble and honorable that he did so. But I think if you asked his friend Sen. McCain, who also went to Vietnam and suffered quite horribly, they have a different view about the exercise of American power.


GWEN IFILL: But do you think that that Vietnam experience and how it has influenced whatever his thinking is today is a good thing or a bad thing?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Well, I would say in Sen. Hagel’s case it has been a profound — it has a profound impact. I mean, he’s the first generation of what you might call the Vietnam syndrome, that he’s scared of the use of force abroad.

I would just suggest that, since World War II, I think the order that we have known, the prosperous, more or less peaceful order that we have known, has been because of the exercise of American power abroad. And I think Sen. Hagel was wrong on Iraq. He’s wrong on Afghanistan. And I think these are very dangerous times.

And he’s in fact in serious disagreement with the president. The president made it very clear that, if Iran doesn’t stop its nuclear program, that he will take the United States to war to stop it.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: And, obviously, the president is satisfied that he’s appointing somebody with whom he sees eye to eye on this critical issue.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you’re talking about somebody he sees eye to eye.

Here’s someone, John Brennan, someone the president is also very close to, who has been basically in his ear at the White House for some time now and is most — to the extent that he’s identified in the public eye at all, it is his connection to his oversight of the drones program, the targeted killing from the drones. Is that something which he’s going to get serious questioning on Capitol Hill?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Yes. I think there are more serious substantive questions that are open with respect to John Brennan, although there are also the same set of strengths.

This is — the CIA, of all government agencies, has its own culture. And you need to — to lead it effectively, you need to be part of that culture and respected by the people inside. And he is. He has 25 years there, but he also is associated with a set of still very open policy questions.

GWEN IFILL: Including enhanced interrogation, by the way.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Water-boarding, enhanced interrogation, rendition, and the use of drones, and the question about what precedents we are setting up with this very vigorous use of drones that we may not wish to live with.

So, I — to be honest, I think that Reuel’s characterization of Sen. Hagel is a caricature. I don’t see anything in his long decades of service that qualifies for what you have just described.


JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: But I think that there are real issues…

GWEN IFILL: About Brennan?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: … that are still somewhat open with respect to…

REUEL MARC GERECHT: I take the opposite view.

I think Mr. Brennan is probably going to have a fairly easy confirmation. I think the left and some on the right, but mostly on the left, are a bit upset with his past with rendition.

Certainly, people inside of the agency, I think, in the clandestine service — I still prefer to call it the director of operations — are a bit upset with the way Mr. Brennan flipped on the issue of aggressive interrogation, where he once was a fairly enthusiastic backer of it and then, as they would say, changed his tune on that when he joined up with now President Obama.

GWEN IFILL: Well, here’s one of the interesting things. He was quoted as saying after the killing of Osama bin Laden that they had decapitated the head of the al-Qaida snake.

We now know al-Qaida is still alive and well in different areas of the world. Was he right about that?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: I think it was an overstatement.

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Yes, I agree. I think that was a little bit…

GWEN IFILL: But not a disqualifying one?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: No, I wouldn’t disqualify him for that at all.

Again, I think Mr. Brennan isn’t probably — if he can get over the hurdles of the way he’s conducted the drone campaign — and I don’t think there are going to be that many queries about that.

I think, on the Republican side, there is going to be more or less agreement on that. And even on the Democratic side, I don’t think they’re going to go against the president on this issue.

GWEN IFILL: You’re not crazy about either of these two nominations.

You support them both.

How much latitude do you think the president should have in the end in these kinds of Cabinet nominations, first with you, Jessica Mathews?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Well, so you’re asking, what is the role of advice and consent for the Senate?

To my mind, it is largely a question of qualification. And I think both these — these two nominees pass that bar by a long shot.

GWEN IFILL: Reuel Gerecht?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Well, I think it’s a fairly elastic issue. The Senate obviously can be fairly aggressive. It doesn’t have to be. I think a certain leeway should be given to the president.

But I think there should be substantial debate. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the nominees going before the Senate and that have to answer very vigorous questions. I think that’s healthy for everybody concerned.

GWEN IFILL: Reuel Gerecht, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, thank you both very much.