Hagel walks back host of controversial positions in quest for Defense post

President Obama meets with Chuck Hagel, then co-chairman of the president's Intelligence Advisory Board, in this 2009 file photo.

President Obama meets with Chuck Hagel, then co-chairman of the president's Intelligence Advisory Board, in this 2009 file photo.  (Reuters)

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel is walking back a string of controversial statements and positions as he courts lawmakers for confirmation to the top Pentagon post. 

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on Tuesday outlined an expansive list of positions that Hagel has modified since he was first nominated. Schumer, who initially voiced reservations about the former Nebraska senator, said Tuesday that he plans to support him -- based on Hagel's explanation of those positions during a 90-minute private meeting a day earlier. 

"It was a very constructive session. Senator Hagel could not have been more forthcoming and sincere," Schumer said. 

Schumer, a prominent Democrat from New York who is Jewish, could give cover to other pro-Israel lawmakers who had voiced similar reservations about Hagel's commitment to the U.S.-Israel alliance. Other lawmakers, though, are unlikely to budge. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for instance, has decried Hagel as an "in-your-face nomination." 

According to Schumer, Hagel "clarified" a host of past positions, ranging from his stance on Iran sanctions to the relationship with Israel. 

  • Hagel in the past has voted against unilateral sanctions on Iran, while backing international ones. He has also questioned the effectiveness of a military strike. But Schumer said Hagel "made a crystal-clear promise that he would do 'whatever it takes' to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force." Further, Schumer said Hagel "completely" supports current U.S. sanctions on Iran, and thinks "further unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary." 
  • Hagel several years ago refused to sign a letter urging the European Union to label Hezbollah a terrorist group. According to Schumer on Tuesday, "Hagel stressed that -- notwithstanding any letters he refused to sign in the past -- he has always considered the group to be a terrorist organization." 
  • In 2009, Hagel joined a letter that suggested engaging with Hamas. Schumer said Hagel "assured me that he today believes there should be no negotiations with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist." He added: "Senator Hagel volunteered that he has always supported Israel's right to retaliate militarily in the face of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah or Hamas." 
  • As he has before, Hagel also expressed regret for past controversial comments. Perhaps the best-known is a line from a 2006 interview in which Hagel said "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people." Schumer said: "Senator Hagel understands the sensitivity around such a loaded term and regrets saying it." Schumer also referenced a 1998 comment in which Hagel criticized an ambassadorial nominee as "openly, aggressively gay." Schumer said Hagel "provided key assurances" when it comes to gay service members.

Schumer made a robust pitch to colleagues for Hagel's confirmation. 

"While the Senate confirmation process must be allowed to run its course, it is my hope that Senator Hagel's thorough explanations will remove any lingering controversy regarding his nomination," he said. 

Other senators have not yet reached that conclusion. 

On "Fox News Sunday," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he is "not comfortable yet" with Hagel's positions on Iran and Israel, while praising Hagel's military service. Hagel is a Vietnam veteran. 

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said she is "very troubled" by the nomination. 

"It perplexes me why the president nominated Senator Hagel," she said.