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Obama To Pick New Pentagon, CIA Leaders


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama wants a Republican to be his next secretary of Defense, and some Republicans really don't like the choice.

Senator Chuck Hagel is a decorated Vietnam combat veteran. He's a former Nebraska senator but some of his former colleagues in Congress are reluctant to endorse him. The president could also get pushback for another nomination he's expected to announce today, counterterrorism advisor John Brennan to head the CIA.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about the president's picks. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, now we've been hearing about the choice of Hagel, so let's you and I begin with the latest news-breaking this morning, which is John Brennan heading up the CIA - or being nominated to do that. Talk to us about his record.

BOWMAN: Well, John Brennan, of course, is the chief counterterrorism advisor to President Obama. He's been involved in everything from the bin Laden raid to taking the fights to al-Qaida in Somalia, and he was a career officer at the CIA for decades. And what's interesting, Renee, is Brennan withdrew his name from consideration as CIA director in 2008 when President Obama first came in over concerns about his support for what was called enhanced interrogation techniques - now some would call that torture - during President George W. Bush's tenure.

So you could see some opposition from Democrats, as well as some Republicans to Brennan's nomination.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's turn to the other nomination President Obama is expected to announce today. Former Senator Chuck Hagel for the Defense Department. Why Chuck Hagel?

BOWMAN: Well, a number of reasons. First of all, he's a Republican, so there's a bipartisan element here. And more importantly, he's in line with the president's thinking. Like the president, he's wary of America being entangled in long wars. He would prefer to leave Afghanistan a little faster maybe than some of the generals. And Hagel was also against the surge of troops in Iraq back in 2007, much like then-Senator Barack Obama. And also, Hagel's call for more defense cuts. So that echoes with what the president has been saying, as well.

MONTAGNE: And what is it about Chuck Hagel that his former colleagues in the Senate don't like? I mean, how tough will this fight be?

BOWMAN: You know, it could be pretty tough. There's, you know, growing opposition in the Republican ranks. He's seen - Hagel's seen as not tough enough on Iran. He's seen as not as strong a supporter of Israel as they would like. And the White House has been hearing these charges for weeks, and they're pushing back strongly. They're pointing to his writings and speeches and votes when he was on the Hill, saying he's strongly supportive of Israel. They point to a book he wrote, where he talks about the, quote, "special and historic bond," end of quote, with Israel. The speech last year where Hagel said the U.S. must keep ratcheting up sanctions on Iran to keep the pressure on. And they're also, you know, trotting out people that support Hagel like Daniel Kurtzer, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush. He called Hagel a friend of Israel. But also one who's willing to have frank discussions about certain Israeli policies.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, kind of would a Republican dare shoot down a Republican? I mean, is it possible that the president put him out there partly because they wouldn't dare do that?

BOWMAN: You know, I think that's part of it maybe, that, you know, it would be hard for Republicans to disown one of their own. But here's the other thing. A lot of Republicans don't see Hagel as a Republican. They see him too much as a maverick. He's bucked the party on a number of votes and issues over the years. So, again, some would not have a problem voting against Chuck Hagel 'cause he's not seen as one of them.

MONTAGNE: All right. NPR's Tom Bowman. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.