At one point, the nominee said he was just “handed a note that I misspoke and said I supported the president’s position on containment. If I said that, I meant to say that obviously his position on containment — we don’t have a position on containment.”
“Just to make sure your correction is clear, we do have a position on containment, which is that we do not favor containment,” the Democratic chairman, Levin, corrected him.
“We — we do not favor containment. That’s the president’s position, and that’s my position,” Hagel stammered.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) went after Hagel over the comments he made about the “Jewish lobby” in America. “So when you talked about the Jewish lobby, were you talking about AIPAC? Were you talking about NORPAC? Were you talking about Christians United for Israel?” Wicker asked. “And do you still believe that their success in this town is because of intimidation and that they are, as you stated, ‘urging upon our government that we do dumb things’?”
“I’ve already said I regret referencing the Jewish lobby. I should have said ‘pro-Israel lobby.’ I think it’s the only time on the record that I’ve ever said that,” Hagel responded. “…On the use of intimidation, I should have used ‘influence,’ I think would have been more appropriate. …I — I should not have said ‘dumb” or stupid,’ because I understand, appreciate there are different views on these things.”
As if a coordinated strike, Graham was the next to hammer the point with Hagel — yet disassembling him like the trial lawyer he is, first asking how much we spend on defense.
And the nominee to be the next Defense secretary couldn’t answer for sure, but gave a guesstimate of 5 percent.
“Is that historically high or low?” Graham asked.
“Well, I think, generally, it depends on real dollars and wars…”
“Are we at war?”
Hagel acknowledged that the Afghanistan conflict is still ongoing.
“You said the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” Graham continued. “…Name one person in your opinion who’s intimidated by the Israeli lobby in United States Senate.”
“I do not know,” Hagel said.
“Well, why would you say it?”
“I didn’t have in mind a specific person,” Hagel admitted.
“But you said, back then, it makes us do dumb things,” Graham said. “You can’t name one senator intimidated, now give me one example of the dumb things that we’re pressured to do up here.”
“We were talking in that interview about the Middle East, about positions, about Israel…”
“So give me an example of where we have been intimidated by the Israeli-Jewish lobby to do something dumb regarding the Middle East, Israel, or anywhere else.”
“I cannot give you an example,” Hagel said.
Hagel claimed he refused to sign a letter encouraging the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization “because I have generally had a policy, during my time in the Senate, that I didn’t think it was the right approach for the Congress of the United States to be sending leaders any instructions or any documents versus letting our president do that.”
“Do you believe that the sum total of all of your votes, refusing to sign a letter to the EU asking Hezbollah to be designated a terrorist organization; being one of 22 [on the] vote to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization; being one of two on two occasions to vote against sanctions that this body was trying to impose on Iran; the statements you’ve made about Palestinians and about the Jewish lobby — all that together, that the image you’ve created is one of sending the worst possible signal to our enemies and friends at one of the most critical times in world history?” Graham asked.
Hagel disagreed, but hedged when grilled about whether he’d reconsider those votes if he had the opportunity to do so again.
Then he said he simply didn’t recall a congressional letter siding against PLO leader Yasser Arafat in the Intifada, though he was one of just four senators who refused to sign.
“Well, all I can say, it was a very big deal at a very important time. And the lack of signature by you runs chills up my spine because I can’t imagine not signing a letter like that at a time when it really mattered,” Graham said. “And we will continue this conversation.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) noted that he wasn’t in the upper chamber when the letter was circulated.
“I would have signed it, but I would certainly join in urging that you reconsider and commit to the statement of support in the letter for the state of Israel. And if it’s appropriate now and applicable to today’s events, I hope you will consider expressing your support for it,” the Democrat chided Hagel.
“You know, I noted in your opening statement that no single quote and no single vote define you in the entirety,” Blumenthal continued. “And, perhaps not as a whole, but votes and quotes do matter. And I think that the questions about what you’ve said and what you’ve done in the past are entirely appropriate and I think also reconsidering, or your views evolving, is also appropriate.”
Just by the makeup of the committee, Hagel likely has enough votes to make it to the Senate floor. There, he might face a filibuster — which has been threatened by Graham if Panetta leaves without first answering questions about Benghazi.
Over in the House Armed Services Committee, Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said he was open to Hagel before the hearing, but early this evening asked Obama “to submit a viable nominee as soon as possible.”
“It pains me to reach this conclusion, given Senator Hagel’s service in the armed forces and in the Senate; but at this vital time when our national security hangs in the balance, it is my opinion that Senator Hagel is unfit for the job of Secretary of Defense,” McKeon said. “When it comes to the safety of this nation, the security of our troops, and the well-being of the American people, we can and must do better.”
Over in the White House briefing room today, spokesman Jay Carney, who said Obama wasn’t watching the hearings, was being grilled about Hagel’s comment that the government of Iran was elected and legitimate.
“Look, it’s the government that we deal with, and it is the government that continues to flout its international obligations, and that behavior is illegitimate,” Carney snapped after being pressed for a yes-or-no answer.