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Hagel defends record, spars with critics in Senate hearing

<i>This post has been updated. See the note below for details.</i>

WASHINGTON -- Making his first public comments after his nomination to lead the Pentagon, former Sen. Chuck Hagel said Thursday he stood by his record but also urged senators to look beyond controversial votes and statements he has made, which critics have seized on.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing as defense secretary, Hagel sought to rebut critics who contend he may not push hard enough to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, declaring himself “fully committed to the president’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

“My policy is one of prevention and not one of containment, and the president has made clear that is the policy of our government,” Hagel said.

The hearing is Hagel’s first chance to explain his views since his selection last month ignited fierce opposition from several former Republican colleagues and pro-Israel groups. They contend Hagel was not tough enough on Iran during his two terms as a GOP senator from Nebraska, and warn that he might not push for a U.S. attack on Iran if one is needed.

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[Updated, 8:32 a.m. Jan. 31: In a sharp exchange, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) criticized Hagel’s opposition to the George W. Bush administration’s decision to send more troops to Iraq in 2007.

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“The question is, were you right or were you wrong?” McCain said.

“I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer,” Hagel said. “I think it’s far more complicated than that.”

The nominee said his opposition to the so-called surge was rooted in his opposition to the decision to invade Iraq in the first place.

He said he would leave the question of whether he was correct about the surge to the “judgment of history.”

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McCain responded: “I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, and you are on the wrong side of it.”

Hagel acknowledged that he also disagreed with President Obama’s decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009.]

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Hagel has already met privately with dozens of senators and won over key Democratic support, most notably Charles E. Schumer of New York. Hagel used his opening statement before the committee to publicly defend himself, saying he was “proud” of his record.

He noted that in two terms in the Senate, he’d cast thousands of votes and given hundreds of interviews and speeches.

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“As you all know, I am on the record on many issues. But no one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs or my record,” he said. “My overall worldview has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world; that we must lead the international community to confront threats and challenges together -- and take advantage of opportunities together --  and that we must use all tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests.”

Hagel offered a broad overview of his views on the issues that would be most pressing at the Pentagon, all in line with Obama administration policy.

On Afghanistan, he said U.S. forces’ role should be limited to counter-terrorism and the training of Afghan forces.

He also said he would “keep up the pressure” on militant groups in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. But his opening statement did not refer to the controversial campaign of drone strikes that is the core of the administration’s counter-terrorism effort.

Though Hagel appears likely to win confirmation, he faces tough questioning, even from lawmakers who have announced they intend to vote for him. Sen Carl Levin (D-Mich.) referred to what he called Hagel’s “troubling” statements about Israel, his calls for direct talks with the militant group Hamas, and his calls for not isolating Iran.

“While there is value in communicating with our adversaries, the formulation used by Sen. Hagel seemed to imply a willingness to talk to Iran on some issues that I believe most of us would view as non-negotiable,” Levin said.

Even more critical was Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee’s new ranking Republican, who said that “too often, it seems he is willing to subscribe to a worldview that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends.”

Asked about his votes against some bills imposing sanctions against Iran, Hagel acknowledged that he has long opposed unilateral sanctions but had supported other legislation targeting Iran.

“We were in a different place with Iran at the time,” Hagel said. “It was never a question of did I disagree with the objective” of denying Iran a nuclear weapon.

Hagel was introduced by two other former senators, both former chairmen of the Armed Services Committee: Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia and Republican John Warner of Virginia.

The confirmation of Hagel may be the most difficult of the slate of new Obama appointments for his second-term Cabinet, though John Brennan, the president’s choice to lead the CIA, may also face resistance. John Kerry is set to be sworn in as secretary of State after a 94-3 confirmation vote Tuesday.

Just one Republican, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, has publicly stated his support for Hagel. Democrats have, though, begun to coalesce around his nomination, with Levin saying earlier this week that his colleagues were “leaning strongly” in his favor.

Outside groups have been mobilizing against Hagel, however. The group Americans for a Strong Defense, led by former Mitt Romney campaign aides, launched television advertisements in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana and North Carolina, all states represented by Democratic senators facing reelection in 2014.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday declined to rule out the possibility that Republicans would require a 60-vote threshold for confirming Hagel.

“Sen. Hagel hasn’t had his hearing yet, and I think it’s too early to predict the conditions under which his nomination will be considered,” McConnell said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has said he would block Hagel’s nomination from coming to a vote unless the current Pentagon chief, Leon E. Panetta, agrees to testify about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya. A White House official downplayed the possibility that Hagel’s nomination could be blocked, saying negotiations were underway to let Panetta testify.

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michael.memoli@latimes.com

david.cloud@latimes.com


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