Senators Grill Defense Sec. Nom Hagel on Pentagon Post

11:49 AM, Jan 31, 2013   |    comments
Chuck Hagel at today's hearing (Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images)
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By David Jackson, USA TODAY

The Senate Armed Services Committee is conducting a confirmation hearing for Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel.

Some highlights:

10:35 a.m. -- Question time begins with Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Agreement, who asked about the impact of automatic budget cuts -- "the sequester" -- on the nation's military.

Hagel said the sequester -- which would take effect if Congress is unable to agree on a debt reduction agrement -- could be a "disaster" for military planning.

On subsequent question, involving issues raised by critics, Hagel repeats: He will do what it takes to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and he backs the global sanctions currently begin applied to Iran.

10:13 a.m. -- Hagel begins his opening statement, saying he is humbled by the opportunity to be the nation's defense secretary.

Hagel say he will always give President Obama his most honest and informed advice, and national security will be at the forefront of his policy.

Citing his critics, Hagel says he isn't defined by any single statement or Senate vote, and he has consistently supported American engagement in the world. Hagel, a critic of the Iraq war during the George W. Bush administration, says the nation must be "wise" in the way the U.S. projects its power.

The Pentagon nominee discussed the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, ongoing counter-terrorism efforts, the challenges of cyber warfare -- and he pledged to block Iran from obtaining the means to make a nuclear weapon, a major point of contention with the Republicans.

On another GOP dispute, Hagel promised to support the national security of Israel.

Citing yet another sensitive topic, Hagel also said he would make "smart and strategic budget decisions," ones that protect troops, veterans, and national security. "We must always take care of our people," Hagel says.

Our USA TODAY colleague Tom Vanden Brook writes that the Hagel hearing has drawn a standing room only crowd.

When Hagel entered the room, Tom notes, a protester shouted at him about granting benefits to the spouses of gay and lesbian troops. "Hagel didn't acknowledge her," Vanden Brook notes. "In his written testimony, he vowed to do what he could to extend those benefits to all service members families."

9:50 a.m. --Hagel is formally introduced to the committee by two high-powered supporters, former chairs of the Senate Armed Services Committee from both parties: Ex-Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Ex-Sen. John Warner, R-Va.

Nunn and Warner both sing Hagel's praises.

Warner also jokes to Hagel: "You're on your own -- good luck."

9:43 a.m. -- Now comes one of Hagel's opponents: Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okl., top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. Inhofe. who served with Hagel in the Senate, complains that Hagel did not supply enough background information to the committee.

Hagel is "a good man," Inhofe says, but he questions Hagel's views of America's role in the world -- notes he is already on record as opposing his nomination, saying he has a record of "appeasing" America's adversaries (Iran) and "shunning" its friends (Israel).

9:32 a.m. -- Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, gavels the hearing open.

Levin lauds Hagel's qualifications during an opening statement, citing his years as Vietnam veteran and U.S. senator from Nebraska.

While he cites some of the protests against Hagel's nomination -- on the issues of Iran, Israel -- Levin is a sure vote for confirmation, and a key ally for Hagel.

The committee chairman also discusses one of the next defense secretary's major tasks: Completing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Other issues, Levin says: Syria, North Korea, the Arab Spring, the growth of al Qaeda terrorists in African -- and the prospect of major Pentagon cuts in the months ahead.

9:30 a.m. -- Hagel appears in the hearing room; we're just about ready.

As he makes his way around the room, Hagel hugs former Senate colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran Max Cleland, a major supporter.

A former senator from Nebraska, Hagel is expected to take tough questions from Republicans about his attitude toward Israel and Iran's nuclear program.

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