Obama's 'in your face' cabinet picks: why he chose Chuck Hagel, John Brennan

President Obama officially nominated Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary and John Brennan for CIA chief Monday. Each brings a unique view of the organization he would lead.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks Monday in the East Room of the White House in Washington, where President Obama announced that he is nominating John Brennan (r.) as the new CIA director and former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel (l.) as the new Defense secretary.

At a White House ceremony Monday, President Obama nominated two controversial picks to round out his national security team: Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency.

The president acknowledged the contention in announcing his choices. 

Bucking conventional wisdom is, he said, “exactly the spirit I want on my national security team.” 

Mr. Obama signaled that he placed a premium on nominees who understand the organizations they will lead from the bottom up.

Mr. Brennan, who worked at the CIA for 25 years, offers the agency “one of your own,” he said.

And Mr. Hagel was an enlisted infantry soldier who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam. That gives him a “frame of reference,” Obama said, that is “geared towards the guy at the bottom who’s doing the fighting and the dying.”  

The nods come as little surprise after weeks of speculation, which has included robust critiques of the potential nominees – and no small measure of censure aimed at the White House for floating potential nominees without actually naming them.

This move, critics point out, has made it easy for opponents to pan the prospective cabinet picks and far trickier for supporters to defend them.

With the White House announcement, administration officials hope it will become more politically risky for critics to speak out. But the outcry is expected to continue.

Hagel, for his part, will face the toughest opposition from within his own party. 

That became clear over the weekend, as Republicans signaled that objections to his policy would likely trump the deference lawmakers traditionally accord one of their own.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina on Sunday called the Hagel nod an “in your face nomination” of a contender who “has long severed his ties with the Republican Party.”

“I don’t know what his management experience is regarding the Pentagon – little, if any – so I think it’s an incredibly controversial choice,” added Senator Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will preside over the nomination hearing.

While Senate colleagues like Graham acknowledge Hagel’s distinguished service in Vietnam, they cited criticism echoed in a number of quarters. 

These include concerns from gay rights advocates who point to Hagel’s 1998 description of a nominee to be President Clinton’s ambassador to Luxembourg as “aggressively gay,” a comment for which he has since apologized. 

Obama gave a subtle nod to the criticism, noting that the work of the new Defense secretary will include “continuing to ensure” that servicemen and women “can serve the country they love, no matter whom they love.” 

Pro-Israel groups have accused Hagel of being too soft on Iran and have bristled at his use of the term “Jewish lobby,” which Hagel accused of “intimidating a lot of people.”  

“Quite frankly, Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking, I believe, on most issues regarding foreign policy,” Graham told CNN, adding that if he is confirmed, Hagel “would be the most antagonistic secretary of Defense towards the state of Israel in our nation’s history.” 

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky told ABC on Sunday that any nominee must have “a full understanding of our close relationship with our Israeli allies, the Iranian threat, and the importance of having a robust military.” 

The question, Senator McConnell added of Hagel, “is do his views make sense for that particular job?”

Brennan, for his part, was forced to withdraw from the running for CIA chief early in Obama’s first term. Critics said he supported so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which many consider to be torture, during the George W. Bush administration.

He has also been pivotal in Obama’s stepped-up drone attacks on top Al Qaeda operatives, a controversial campaign that has been likened to extra-judicial killing. 

During remarks at the nomination ceremony, Brennan said he would ensure that his work at the CIA “always reflects the liberties, the freedoms, and the values that we hold so dear.” 

Hagel, who was a leader at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), as well, would be both the first enlistee and the first Vietnam veteran to serve as Defense secretary.

His goals, he said at the White House Monday, would be to “strengthen alliances” and to “advance global freedom, decency, and humanity.”

He also said he would work to help “military families, who have sacrificed so much over the decade of war.” 

These are points the president emphasized Monday. At the VA, Hagel “fought to give our veterans the benefits they deserved.” 

Today, “Chuck bears the scars, and the shrapnel, from battles he fought in our name,” Obama said. “Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve.” 

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