Preparing for a second term, President Obama makes changes to his national security team by nominating a new Defense secretary and a new CIA director.
President Obama urged a divided Senate Monday to quickly confirm two new members of his national security team, though Republicans might not cooperate when it comes to Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel.
"Chuck Hagel is the leader our troops deserve," Obama said in a White House East Room ceremony, praising him for his service in Vietnam, his business career, and his two terms as senator -- a Republican senator -- from Nebraska.
Current Senate Republicans, however, have questioned their former colleague's commitment to Israel's security and his attitude towards Iran and its nuclear program.
Obama also announced the nomination of White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to be the new director of the CIA.
Noting that "the work of protecting our nation is never done," Obama said his second-term security team faces challenges that range from wrapping up the war in Afghanistan to cybersecurity.
In pointedly urging the Senate for quick confirmations, Obama said: "When it comes to national security, we don't like to leave a lot of gaps."
Hagel is slated to replace retiring Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, who also led the CIA earlier in Obama's term. Brennan, meanwhile, would replace David Petraeus, who resigned from the CIA in November after admitting an extramarital affair.
In an interview with his local newspaper, the Lincoln Star Journal in Nebraska, Hagel said critics have "completely distorted" his record, and that he has exhibited "unequivocal, total support for Israel.
Hagel did not address the Republican criticism during brief remarks at the White House, telling Obama he would always provide "honest and informed" counsel as Defense secretary.
Some Senate Republicans said that, during his political career, Hagel has been too critical of Israel and too soft on Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Texas Sen. John Cornyn said, "the worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East is Chuck Hagel."
Obama and other Democrats praised Hagel's record, including two Purple Hearts for service in Vietnam and a successful business career before his 1996 Senate election.
"Chuck Hagel's candor, judgment, and expertise will serve him well as our next secretary of defense," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee that will hold confirmation hearings.
Hagel also racked up a series of endorsements beyond Capitol Hill, including George W. Bush-era Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Gates, who also led the Pentagon during part of Obama's first term, noted that he and Hagel disagreed on the 2007 surge of troops into Iraq, but called him "a man of complete integrity and deep patriotism" who is the president's choice. "The country and our men and women in uniform would be well-served by his swift confirmation," Gates said.
The Veteran of Foreign Wars also weighed in on Hagel's behalf. Robert E. Wallace, the VFW's executive director, called him "uniquely qualified to lead the Department of Defense."
One of Obama's major critics, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., issued a pair of statements -- one questioning Hagel's nomination, the other Brennan's.
McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Obama, said Hagel "served our nation with honor in Vietnam,' but "I have serious concerns about positions Senator Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years, which we will fully consider in the course of his confirmation process."
As for Brennan, McCain said he appreciated his "long record of service," but plans to question "what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last (Bush) administration."
Obama considered Brennan for the CIA after the 2008 election, but he withdrew amid questions of interrogation techniques against terrorist suspects. Brennan said he opposed the harsher techniques, including water boarding.
In nominating Brennan this time around, Obama praised his adviser's "keen understanding of a dynamic world," and noted that he created the National Counterterrorism Center. He also praised Brennan's work ethic, saying "I'm not sure he's slept in four years."
As a top adviser to Obama, Brennan has also been involved in the administration's increased used of unmanned drones for surveillance and for attacks on suspected terrorists.
Thanking Obama for his nomination, Brennan said he would push to get the CIA "the tools it needs to keep our nation safe." He also pledged to be bipartisan, saying he was neither a Republican nor a Democrat.
Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington Legislative Office for the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "The Senate should not move forward with his nomination until all senators can assess the role of the CIA -- and any role by Brennan himself -- in torture, abuse, secret prisons, and extraordinary rendition during his past tenure at the CIA."
The Hagel and Brennan nominations are Obama'a latest moves as he re-tools his administration ahead of a second term that starts Jan. 20.
Late last month, Obama nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to be secretary of State.
The president is also looking to replace Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, both of whom are planning to leave this month.
The Hagel nomination, for now at least, is drawing more attention, particularly from supporters of Israel.
Abraham H. Foxman, national director the Anti-Defamation League, said he respects "the president's prerogative" to nominate whomever he wants, but he hopes the confirmation hearings will give Hagel a chance to "address concerns about his positions."
Said Foxman: "I particularly hope Senator Hagel will clarify and explain his comments about the 'Jewish Lobby' that were hurtful to many in the Jewish community."
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of an organization called J Street, said Hagel understands "the appropriate uses and limitations" of U.S. power, and been a staunch supporter of Israel's security.
Praising Obama for following through on the nomination in face of Republican criticism, Ben-Ami said "this sets an important precedent. Hopefully, qualified candidates will no longer be prevented from serving the nation by 'Swift Boat'-style attacks that distort their records and caricature their beliefs."
By David Jackson, USA TODAY