Live Blog: Senate Committee Will Grill Chuck Hagel Over Israel, Iran, Defense Cuts

Former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., leaves the office of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., after the two Vietnam War veterans met Jan. 22. McCain and other senators will grill Hagel today about his defense secretary nomination. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Today is the day so many have been waiting for. No, it’s not Super Bowl Sunday. Yet. Rather, former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee about his nomination to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary.

Since Hagel’s name was floated for the post in early December, Hagel has been sharply criticized by his former fellow-GOP senators and pro-Israel groups for his past comments on the U.S.-Israel alliance, whether the Pentagon budget can and should be trimmed, how to confront Iran over its nuclear arms program, gay rights and the proper size of the U.S. nuclear arms fleet. Expect questions on all those topics. Another likely line of questioning could come from Republicans about allegations that Hagel is hard on staffers.

In answers to written policy questions provided to the panel this week, Hagel largely tried to align himself with the views of President Barack Obama. For instance, he took the same tone as Panetta, saying pending defense sequestration cuts would undermine U.S. military power. Defense News senior reporters John T. Bennett and Marcus Weisgerber will be here throughout the hearing — yes, including on a possible second day — live blogging the action. Please check back early and often for updates.

5:49 p.m. — Sen. Levin gavels this epic hearing to a close. Thanks for stopping by. ANALYSIS: Not a dominating performance by Hagel. He labored a bit, and seemed to contradict himself at times. Doubt he lost any Democratic support, however. — John T. Bennett

5:42 p.m. — Sen. Cruz calls Hagel “the most antagonistic” member in Senate (ever?) against Israel, and most unwilling (ever?) to confront Iran. Levin asks Cruz to submit any remaining questions for the record, but never looked directly at Cruz, instead icily gazing straight ahead. There’s tension there.  — John T. Bennett

5:35 p.m. — He won’t have a vote on Hagel’s confirmation, but House Armed Services Committee Chairman, in a harshly worded statement,said he opposes Hagel’s nomination. “Unfortunately, in confusing and contradictory testimony, he created more concerns than he allayed. His refusal to shut the door on further defense cuts put him at stark odds with the current Defense Secretary and military leaders,” McKeon said. “His ambiguous and evolving positions on Iran raised more questions than answers. And his shifting, evasive answers on the future of America’s nuclear deterrent were deeply troubling.” — John T. Bennett

5:33 p.m. — Hagel says he told Obama “I’m not” when the commander in chief asked why Hagel might be uniquely qualified for the SecDef job. — John T. Bennett

5:26 p.m. — Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., wants more information about Hagel’s comments in the past that the Pentagon is “bloated.” Hagel says “things change” and one manages based on security needs. He also said he’ll ask what should be funded. The money quote, from the nominee: Budget should not drive national security strategy.  — John T. Bennett

5:18 p.m. — Sen. Fischer asks from where will Hagel “get the money” to modernize the Navy and other parts of the armed services. Hagel replies it’s not only the dollars that matter, but the flexibility, apparently referring to sequestration. Hagel says the military will not be able to continue to do everything, everywhere. Fischer asks if U.S. Strategic Command, overseer of the nukes, will be a priority. Hagel says it is, and he’ll work with the chiefs and the budget managers on how to pay for things. But he does not answer her question about strategic thinking. — John T. Bennnett

4:52 p.m. — Manchin tells the nominee that “the spokesmen for Israel tell me they support you.” — John T. Bennett

4:48 p.m. — Sen. Manchin begins his second go at Hagel by apologizing for the tone of some questions during the hearing. OBSERVATION: Is Manchin, who told Hagel he feels “lonely” with so few moderates left on Capitol Hill, enjoying his time in the World’s (Self-Described) Most Deliberative Body? — John T. Bennett

**4:40 p.m. — BREAKING — Sen. Inhofe slips in a call for regime change in Egypt into a question about Abrams tank sales to the Morsi regime, referring to “installing” a more pro-U.S. leader there. — John T. Bennett

4:36 p.m. — Who’s up for a second round of questions? SASC, that’s who. Hagel checked with DoD legal counsel during the break, and they assured him he has ‘fulfilled every legal commitment” on ethics and finances, including submitting to the committee all past speeches and interviews. — John T. Bennett

4:25 p.m. — Hagel aligns himself closer with Panetta than this morning, saying Pentagon could have a “very, very constrained budget” if sequestration happens. — John T. Bennett

4:23 p.m. — On the United States Navy: “Our fleet is small but mighty.” You know, that might just sum up fairly well Hagel’s emerging view of the U.S. military and how it should be shaped. Oh yeah, to be clear, that’s ANALYSIS. And he adds he wants to continue modernizing the Navy, if confirmed. — John T. Bennett

4:22 p.m. — On weapon programs, Hagel says he hasn’t taken specific positions on numbers because “I don’t know enough.” But, if confirmed, he says he’ll learn. — John T. Bennett

4:16 p.m. — Iran is a “dangerous, dangerous” nation that threatens Israel, the U.S. and the world, Hagel declares. GOP senators do not believe him, based on everything we’ve heard today. — John T. Bennett

4:05 p.m. — Hagel says he would look at Washington’s strategic interests and then “how you do it” when making budget decisions. Savvily, he notes “the chiefs have an interest to look out for their services.” Hagel knows, as budgets shrink, internal budget fights are inevitable. — John T. Bennett

4:04 p.m. — Congress needs to pass a 2013 defense appropriations bill, Hagel has just told Kaine. Kaine’s home state would be hit hard by sequestration, since a large number of government civilian workers live there. Those employees are facing furloghs if sequestration happens so DoD could meet spending caps. — Marcus Weisgerber

4:02 p.m. — Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., says folks in his commonwealth, which has a big military and industry presence, are most worried about Congress’ inability to pass defense appropriations bills. Hagel agreed CRs are bad for running the military. — John T. Bennett

3:59 p.m. — Hagel acknowledges he would like to “edit” “many, many things” he has said over the years. — John T. Bennett

3:57 p.m. — The panel is back from floor votes. I count eight senators back on the dais. Levin and staff just conferred with Sen. Reed, who told me during the break that it’s still too early to know whether Hagel has done enough to be approved on anything but a party line vote. — John T. Bennett

2:22 p.m. — Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asks whether Hagel will pledge to pursue renewable fuel. “I would make that a high priority,” he replies. Big savings possible, he says. — John T. Bennett

**2:12 p.m. — Levin says he asked Cruz to ask questions from a transcript, but “he chose to [use a video] anyway.” Levin says he will have a transcript of the Al Jazeera interview and other things Cruz played entered into the official record. Notably, Levin said he interpreted the alleged war crimes answer as an answer to another question from the same AJE caller about the need for American leadership in the Middle East. — John T. Bennett

**2:08 p.m. — Cruz plays a video from an interview Hagel conducted in 2009 with Al Jazeera, in which Hagel seemed to agree with a caller’s charge that Israel has committed war crimes. The clip “is highly troubling,” an animated Cruz says loudly. Cruz mentions comments Hagel made on floor of Senate that Israel at one point was carrying out a “sickening slaughter” in fighting against Hezbollah. “If Israel was defending itself, there was slaughter on both sides…” But Cruz cuts him off.  Cruz, a young flamethrower, says Hagel “went on a foreign network” and spread anti-American “propaganda.” — John T. Bennett

2:05 p.m. — Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, alleges Hagel opted against providing SASC a full view of his finances. The panel should determine it now has an incomplete record of the nominee’s investments and whatnot. — John T. Bennett

1:55 p.m. — Your correspondent needs a break. This is courtesy our great colleague, Rick Maze, via the Twitter machine: “Keeping industrial base ‘one of our great challenges’ sez #Hagel, thinking about impact of sequestration. ‘We have got to protect that'” — Rick Maze

1:47 p.m. — Hagel says he does not agree, as some GOP hawks and defense officials say, that the current U.S. military fleet is anything but cutting-edge and the best in the world. … Moments later adds U.S. military’s technological edge “must be maintained.” — John T. Bennett

**1:40 p.m. — Again, Hagel resists being nailed down on a specific number of weapon platforms. Under questioning from Blumenthal, he only says he’ll talk to the Chiefs and examine the budget before deciding whether or not to stick to 12 new nuclear-class subs. … He later says he’ll only commit to buying the platforms that are needed for national security. A very Bob Gates-like statement. — John T. Bennett

**1:36 p.m. — BREAKING: Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Ct., urges Hagel to sign the letter during the upcoming break for the floor vote series. A seminal moment in the hearing, and could be a big factor in whether Hagel is confirmed. — John T. Bennett

**1:32 p.m. — Graham wants a yes or no answer from Hagel on whether he would vote again, as he did while a senator, against designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Hagel stumbled a bit, tried to reiterate that his vote was more about executive power, but finally says “I would reconsider.” Further, he wants Hagel to sign a letter of solidarity with Israel. Hagel says he will consider it during a coming hour-long break. “It sends chills up my spine,” Graham says, that Hagel didn’t sign it back then. — John T. Bennett

1:28 p.m. — Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., hitting hard on Hagel’s comment that Israel lobby “makes us do dumb things.” Graham wants an example of something “dumb” nor a senator who is intimidated by that alleged lobby. Hagel admits he cannot give either example. One of most damaging moments so far for the nominee. — John T. Bennett

1:17 p.m. — Hagel fully supports and will continue to do so, the Iron Dome and David’s Sling missile systems for Israel. Won’t promise Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that he would fully fund both. Says he has to talk to the Joint Chiefs and see if sequestration happens first. In a remark that might rock the defense sector, Gillibrand declares “even with sequestration, our budget is large.” — John T. Bennett

1:09 p.m. — Nominee tells Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., that the name of the Global Zero report mentioned “modernizing” U.S. nuclear fleet, “not eliminating it.” Fischer says “when you co-author a report you should be able to answer questions about it.” The nominee counters with: “I do not agree with any proposal that would unilaterally” reduce U.S. nuclear arms.” GOP senators are portraying the Global Zero report as making formal proposals; Hagel contends it merely laid out a range of options, and is “illustrative.” — John T. Bennett 

1:00 p.m. – Hagel says the National Guard and Reserve will continue to play an important role in future. “I strongly support the National Guard and the Reserves,” he said. – Marcus Weisgerber

12:57 p.m. — West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, D, asks Hagel if he would always follow the commander in chief’s instructions. Hagel responds that he would always act in the interests of U.S. national security. — John T. Bennett

12:40 p.m. — ANALYSIS at the break: Hagel is not pitching a gem here, but he has not said anything so far to disqualify himself. Biggest question at this point is can Hagel do anything to garner votes from Republicans like McCain and Chambliss, and keep more than five Democrats in the full Senate from voting nay. — John T. Bennett

12:24 p.m. – Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C. has brought up sequestration, automatic budget cuts set to begin on March 1. Hagel said sequestration would pose a “severe problem,” but the military would be “ready to deal with it.” He reiterated prior statements from defense officials that training would be harmed if these budget cuts are implemented. “The security of this country is not going to be in jeopardy, but it’s going to be difficult,” Hagel said. “It’s going to effect longer-term kinds of planning.” — Marcus Weisgerber

12:12 p.m. — Hagel repeats that he “regrets” using term “Jewish lobby,” and apologies. Says he should have used the word “influence” rather than the one he did, “intimidation.” On unilateral sanctions on Iran, Hagel notes EU threatened to take Washington to the WTO over unilateral sanctions because they would have harmed a French oil firm. “Many times there are consequences to these actions,” Hagel says. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who prompted those comments, does not comment on that, but rather tries to get Hagel to acknowledge that two of his past comment contradicted one another. So far, very little back-and-forth about the substance of Hagel’s answers. — John T. Bennett

12:00 a.m. – Hagel has pledged to make cyber security a “high priority” if he is confirmed as SecDef. “Cyber … represents as big a threat to the security of this country as any one specific threat,” he said. “It’s an insidious, quiet kind of a threat that we’ve never quite seen before. It can paralyze a nation in a second.” Hagel also said Congress must pass comprehensive cyber legislation. — Marcus Weisgerber

**11:54 a.m. — In the most substantive debate about U.S. policy toward Iran, Hagel and retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who questioned Hagels vote against making Iran’s most elite military entity a terrorist organization. “We have never designated part of a legitimate, independent government … made them part of a terrorist organization,” Hagel said, explaining that vote while he was a senator. He says that’s tantamount to giving any president the ability to use military force against Iran without coming back to get congressional use-of-force approval. …  Chambliss also asked about where are the “red lines” on Iran: “I think the president has gone as far publicly as he should go on that. He’s said he has Israel’s back and his policy is to not allow Iranians to get a nuclear weapon. Far smarter to continue what the president is doing, and that is getting the world behind us” through multilateral sanctions “that are having a tremendous effect on Iran.,” he said. The nominee added he believes the military option should be and is available if all other options have been tried. “Engagement is not appeasement,” Hagel says. “I think we’re always wiser and smarter to take that approach initially.” Senate Republicans, at least on this panel, want a more muscular approach, but just how forceful is unclear. — John T. Bennett

**11:39 a.m. – Hagel tells McCaskill that making the Pentagon budget auditable is a priority. McCaskill has been a champion of requiring DoD to audit its books. Shortly after becoming defense secretary in 2011, Leon Panetta said he wanted to make the Pentagon auditable in 2014, three years earlier than planned. — Marcus Weisgerber

11:37 a.m. — Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., verbally nudges Inhofe to be as bipartisan as McCain was as the panel’s ranking member. That’s something to watch closely, folks. #PalaceIntrigue — John T. Bennett

11:26 a.m. — Sen. Sessions is concerned about the Global Zero report on U.S. nuclear cuts and Hagel’s support of it. Hagel counters that the report laid out options but not formal proposals. … Sessions says Global Zero report calls for no tactical U.S. nukes. “I don’t think that’s consistent with the policy of the nation as a whole,” Sessions says, who is “concerned with the vision” laid out in Global Zero report. Hagel: This prospective secretary of defense would never do anything” to lessen U.S. Strategic Command’s ability to, via the nuclear deterrent, “keep the peace,” which is its motto. Not good enough for Sessions, who says the Global Zero report would embolden U.S. foes. — John T. Bennett

11:18 a.m. — Hagel on 2006-07 Iraq surge: “I did question a surge. I’m not that certain that it was that required.” Says surge cost 1,200 Americans their lives. … If confirmed, he would be SecDef “who understands the realities of war.” Adds he doesn’t see the lens of every world event “and whether we should use American power through that lens.” Says Washington “should be cautious with our power.” ANALYSIS: He is a former GOP senator, folks, but that is not mainstream GOP thinking — on Capitol Hill, at least — right now. — John T. Bennett

**11:07 a.m. — In the hearing’s most tense moments, McCain is hammering his old friend about his statement in 2006 that Iraq surge was biggest blunder since Vietnam. Hagel refuses to say whether it was or was not the biggest, and McCain continues verbally bashing his (former?) pal. Hagel says of Iraq surge and that entire war: “I think was the most fundamentally bad decision since Vietnam.” He cites cost (“blood and treasure”), and “what it did to take our focus off Afghanistan.” Hagel just doubled down on his Iraq surge criticism. McCain says Hagel’s refusal “to answer a fundamental question about a matter” that cost hundreds of Americans’ their lives will affect how he votes on Hagel’s nomination. (This is very awkward, knowing how close these men are.) — John T. Bennett

11:04 a.m. — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a longtime close Hagel friend who asked Hagel to co-chair his 2000 presidential campaign, questions the nominee’s “professional judgement.” — John T. Bennett

11:00 a.m. — Nominee says he has “always said I’m a supporter of Israel.” He “thinks” it’s in his book that he believes U.S. is a “strong” ally of Israel. Showing his sardonic sense of humor, Hagel points panel members to recent comments from senior Israel officials “that actually were quite positive.” … Hagel says he will continue implementing Obama’s policies in support Israel, points to Iron Dome and David’s Sling weapon platforms. — John T. Bennett

10:58 a.m. — Hagel points to record as saying he thinks Hezbollah and Hamas are terrorist organizations.  — John T. Bennett

10:54 a.m. – Hagel says he supports the nuclear triad, the ability to launch nuclear weapons from the ground, sea and air. DoD remained committed to these three means of delivery when it re-worked its military strategy, which was finalized in January 2012. While building the new strategy, some advocated getting rid of one leg of the triad because the possibility of a nuclear war is low and removing a portion would a save the Pentagon a significant amount of money each year. From Hagel’s advanced policy questions: “I support the President’s commitment to a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist. I believe that providing necessary resources for nuclear modernization of the Triad should be a national priority. I understand the Department is currently modernizing, replacing, or studying recapitalization options for each leg of the Triad.” — Marcus Weisgerber

10:53 a.m. — Inhofe asks Hagel why senior Iranian officials want him to become U.S. defense secretary. “I have a hard enough time with American politics,” Hagel quips, adding he will respond further for the record. The question drew a mix of sighs and chuckles from those in the room. — John T. Bennett

10:51 a.m. — Nominee says he has never advocated “global disarmament” of nuclear arms. Inhofe hitting Hagel on Global Zero participation. Hagel says the group has a goal, but that’s all, as do many world leaders. “We’re not going to unilaterally disarmed,” Hagel said. “It has to be negotiated” with Russia and other potential nuclear-armed foes, he says. That’s not good enough for Inhofe, who just keeps saying “Global Zero.” — John T. Bennett

10:43 a.m. — Hagel tells Levin, “I strongly agree with” Obama’s leaving open the possibility of the use of force against Iran. He says he agrees with Obama’s policy of multilateral sanctions. “This president has probably done more than any other president to deploy those kinds of sanctions. I agree with what the president is doing. … Additional sanctions might be required. My votes on unilateral sanctions, and I have differed on some of those. … It was a different time. We were in a different place with Iran during that time. [The George W.] Bush administration did not want a five-year renewal at that time because they weren’t sure about the effectiveness of sanctions,” he said. Will he get any GOP votes for the vow to continue multilateral sanctions? — John T. Bennett

**10:40 a.m. — Asked by Levin about sequestration, here’s a more or less verbatim account of the nominee’s response: “A convergence of taking flexibility…of management of the future away from those responsible from managing our budget. Furloughs. Cutting back on flying time, steaming. Real consequences that would occur. The chiefs are preparing for the worst. But make no mistake…when managers don’t get flexibility to manage with complete certainty, that’s disaster.” — John T. Bennett

**10:34 a.m. — Given Senate floor vote schedule, Levin makes clear this is going to be a long day. Panel will go until 2:15 p.m., break for a vote or two, then start back at 3:15. He hopes to finish this hearing today. — John T. Bennett

10:31 a.m. — Hagel, raising his voice a bit for emphasis, tells SASC his basis for advice on using military force is any option “worthy” of the troops that would be asked to carry it out. — John T. Bennett

10:29 a.m. — My piece on Hagel using his written statement to answer political criticisms over his past statements and votes, as well as his policy stances on confronting Iran, helping Israel and using U.S. military force is live. (H/T to Marcus for passing along the statement.) — John T. Bennett

10:27 a.m. — Again answering his critics — get used to that — Hagel sounds like a former Republican senator on his (current) views about America’s nuclear-arms fleet. “I am committed to maintaining a modern, strong, safe, ready, and effective nuclear arsenal,” the nominee says. “America’s nuclear deterrent over the last 65 years has played a central role in ensuring global security and the avoidance of a World War III. I am committed to modernizing our nuclear arsenal.” Showing the odd bedfellows of this nomination, Republicans are going to hit him for a study he signed off on that stated a goal of a nuclear-free world, not other parts of his nukes record.  — John T. Bennett

**10:22 a.m. — Hagel says the world is complex and Mali/Algeria show U.S. must remain engaged. Demands will increase. Critics have said Hagel seems unwilling to unleash America’s military around the globe. Hagel shoots back: “We will not hesitate to use the full force of the United States military in defense of our security. But we must also be smart, and more importantly wise, in how we employ all of our nation’s great power.”

10:20 a.m. — Hagel tells SASC in his prepared remarks he “has a record” that he “proud of.” GOP senators and pro-Israel groups oppose him because of that very record. The key here is to look for signs that five Democrats do, too — that number would uphold any potential Republican filibuster on the floor. — John T. Bennett

10:15 a.m. — Twitter tells me it is “over capacity.” Will Republican SASC members criticize #Hagel for breaking Twitter? (Just a little humor, folks, relax.) — John T. Bennett

10:10 a.m. — “John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are a band of brothers from Vietnam,” Warner declares. — John T. Bennett

10:06 a.m. — Warner notes Hagel voted in favor of every defense appropriations and authorization bills during the 12 years they served together in the Senate. Silence in the packed room as Warner is speaking with conviction. — John T. Bennett

10:03 a.m. — Former SASC Chairman John Warner, R-Va., is back on Capitol Hill to introduce Hagel. He calls Hagel’s opening statement the most well thought out and iron-clad that he’s seen. And Warner saw a lot during his time in the Senate.  — John T. Bennett

9:59 a.m. — Former SASC chairmen Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and John Warner, R-Va., are introducing and endorsing Hagel. Both are still widely respected on Capitol Hill, clearly both were chosen for that reason given the lingering doubt about whether Hagel has the votes to get confirmed by the full Senate.  — John T. Bennett

**9:45 a.m. — Inhofe calls Hagel’s views “extreme” and “out of the mainstream.” Also says Hagel is not friendly enough to America’s top allies (read: Israel). … Also hits Hagel for what Inhofe sees as an unwise willingness to talk directly to Iranian leaders. … Inhofe notes Hagel’s desire for a nuclear-free world, and says U.S. should not want to shrink its atomic fleet at a time when nations like Iran and North Korea are getting into the nuke business. Inhofe adds Hagel would continue to erode America’s leadership role in the world. “I believe he is the wrong person to lead the Pentagon,” Inhofe concludes. — John T. Bennett

9:43 a.m. — New SASC Ranking Member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., begins by criticizing Hagel for failing to submit the speeches he has given in a timely manner. Inhofe says panel got what it asked for, but last batch only came in last night. That’s likely a sign Republicans are — pardon the football pun just days before the Super Bowl — going to blitz Hagel on any and every thing they can.  — John T. Bennett

9:41 a.m. — Levin notes Hagel’s past statement on unilateral sanctions on Iran being “the wrong approach” and his seeming willingness to talk directly to Iran. But in a bad sign for Hagel, the panel’s top Democrat says of the lawmakers who must approve Hagel’s nomination: “…most of us would view as non-negotiable,” adding “any willingness to talk to Iran would need to be highly conditional.”

9:40 a.m. — Levin: Hagel’s views on sequestration “will be of great interest to this committee and to the nation.” Understatement.  — John T. Bennett

9:34 a.m. — BREAKING — Levin announces SASC will hold a hearing next week on the deadly Sept. 11 Benghazi, Libya attack with DoD leaders. And another soon on impact of sequestration. — John T. Bennett

9:31 a.m. — Hagel has entered the chamber and is at the witness table. There’s the chairman’s gavel. Off we go. SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., is thanking Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for his now-expired run as its ranking member — and for “always keeping our hearings lively.” McCain is still a panel member, so that won’t change.  — John T. Bennett

9:27 a.m. — About ready to get started. Hearing room is packed, standing-room only. Photographers are waiting in front of the witness table, three deep. Buckle up, folks, this could last a while.  — John T. Bennett


John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett