With Hagel and Brennan, Obama picks longtime advisors he trusts

President Obama appears at the White House with Chuck Hagel, left, his nominee for Defense secretary, and John Brennan, right, his choice for CIA director.
(Brendan Smialowski, AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — President Obama turned to two men with whom he has close personal ties to fill top national security positions Monday, brushing aside warnings of fights on Capitol Hill as he reinforced his preference for working with longtime advisors.

In nominating Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator, for secretary of Defense and White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan to lead the CIA, Obama warned that a prolonged Senate debate over their confirmations could risk the country’s safety.


“We don’t like to leave a lot of gaps between the time that one set of leaders transitions out and another transitions in,” he said. “So we need to get moving quickly on this.”

Republican senators promised extensive questioning of the nominees, although in Hagel’s case the opposition may have peaked.

Obama cast Hagel — a sergeant in Vietnam who would be the first veteran of that war and the first former enlisted man to become Defense secretary — as a “champion of our troops and our veterans and our military families.” He praised Brennan as the architect of the nation’s anti-terrorism strategy, which has damaged Al Qaeda and eliminated Osama bin Laden and other leaders.

Both men have long-standing relationships with Obama. Hagel was a friend in the Senate with whom he traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan. Brennan has been one of the president’s closest advisors.

By contrast, Obama’s first Defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, and his first CIA chief, Leon E. Panetta, came to his administration with independent reputations unrelated to the president’s support.

The selection of Hagel and Brennan also carried an additional bonus from the White House standpoint — embodying the president’s decision to stand up for his preferred choices. Facing fights with congressional Republicans on the budget and other issues, White House officials have tried to rebut the reputation that Obama developed in his first term for over-readiness to compromise. That reputation seemed reinforced last month when Obama allowed his initial choice as secretary of State, Susan Rice, to withdraw in the face of withering GOP criticism.

Hagel has come under intense criticism since his name first circulated as a possible nominee, especially from former Republican colleagues in the Senate. They have not forgotten his endorsement of Democrats for the Senate — particularly former Sen. Bob Kerrey’s 2012 comeback attempt in Hagel’s home state of Nebraska — or Hagel’s denunciations of the George W. Bush administration’s policies in Iraq.

Hagel’s view of that war was shaped by Vietnam, where he fought beside his brother. They saved each other: Hagel rescued his brother, who had been injured by a mine, and was rescued by his brother after being hit by shrapnel. Hagel received two Purple Hearts during the war.

Opponents have criticized him for calling on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians and for his opposition to some sanctions on Iran. In particular, they have cited a 2006 interview in which he said: “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”

In an interview published Monday in Nebraska’s Lincoln Journal Star, Hagel said critics had “completely distorted” his record and a fair review would show “unequivocal, total support for Israel.”

So far, the major pro-Israel groups have taken a neutral stance toward his nomination. Although some Republicans have announced their opposition, no Democrats have done so.

One potentially influential senator, fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain (R-Ariz.), said he had “serious concerns,” but he stopped short of outright opposition.

The most influential and largest pro-Israel lobbying force in the capital, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, plans to remain neutral, an official said.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, appeared to take a step away from a fight. Earlier, he had said some of Hagel’s comments “border on anti-Semitism.” On Monday, he said Hagel “would not have been my first choice, but I respect the president’s prerogative.”

The softening in his position follows a push by the White House to influence opinion leaders. White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew, in particular, has been trying to round up support for Hagel — or at least to convince those with doubts not to actively oppose the choice.

On the left, critics are concerned about a comment Hagel made 15 years ago that a Clinton nominee for ambassador was “openly, aggressively gay.” Hagel recently apologized.

In Brennan’s case, opposition in the past has come only from the left. A veteran of the CIA, Brennan withdrew from consideration for the agency’s top position four years ago as liberals questioned his ties to the Bush administration’s use of brutal interrogation techniques.

He denied strongly that he had ever supported those policies, but the questions derailed his nomination. This time, Obama made clear his backing of Brennan.

The president profusely praised him for his “legendary” work habits, his advice and his commitment to what the president termed “the values that define us as Americans.” He also said Brennan “has worked to embed our efforts in a strong legal framework. He understands we are a nation of laws,” referring to Brennan’s efforts to codify the use of covert weapons, such as drones.

Brennan was deputy executive director of the CIA when the Bush administration and the CIA designed an interrogation program for Al Qaeda prisoners that included waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning.

Many current and former CIA officers say Brennan was not deeply involved in the program.

In a 2006 interview with PBS’ “Frontline,” though, Brennan was asked about Vice President Dick Cheney’s comment, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that the U.S. had to operate on “the dark side.” Brennan replied, “The U.S. in some areas has to take off the gloves.”

Standing next to Obama in the East Room on Monday, Brennan mostly maintained his famously serious demeanor. Obama recalled how Brennan was asked once whether he ever took any “down time.”

“John said, ‘I don’t do down time,’” Obama recalled. “He’s not even smiling now.”

Paul Richter and David Cloud in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.