By David Jackson, USA TODAY
President Obama revamped his national security team Monday, nominating former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA.
"Chuck Hagel is the leader our troops deserve," Obama said in an East Room ceremony, noting the Vietnam veteran would be the first enlisted military member to lead the Pentagon.
The Hagel nomination has already drawn fire from Senate Republicans who questioned their former colleague's commitment to Israel's security and his attitude towards Iran and its nuclear program.
If confirmed, Hagel would replace retiring Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, who also led the CIA earlier in Obama's term. Brennan, meanwhile, would replace David Petraeus, who resigned last year after admitting an extramarital affair.
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 cyber security.
Though he served two terms as Republican senator from Nebraska, Senate Republicans are leading the charge against him, saying he has been too critical of Israel and too soft on Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., 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 election to the Senate in 1996.
"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.
As for Brennan, Obama praised his adviser's "keen understanding of a dynamic world," and noted that he created the National Counter-terrorism Center. He also praised Brennan's work ethic, saying "I'm not sure he's slept in four years."
Obama considered him for the CIA after the 2008 election. Brennan withdrew after critics noted that he worked for the CIA at a time that it used enhanced interrogation techniques against terrorist suspects; Brennan said he opposed those techniques, including water boarding.
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.
Brennan's CIA nomination is not without controversy.
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 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 who 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."