Vast majority of national security insiders want Defense, CIA nominees confirmed

By Sara Sorcher

January 15, 2013

Washington is abuzz with speculation about whether defense hawks’ opposition will derail the confirmation of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary. The Nebraska Republican is under fire for his reluctance to consider military action against Iran and his past disparaging remarks against the “Jewish lobby.” But 82 percent of National Journal’s National Security Insiders support his confirmation.

“Senator Hagel showed political courage in breaking with his political party on the Iraq war after it began to be mismanaged. He helped Americans better grasp the risks of this conflict, and history has shown he was right,” one Insider said. “As chair of the Atlantic Council, the senator has vigorously supported NATO, building confidence among U.S. allies and among Americans who are skeptical of isolationism. [He] will be a centrist and admirably independent-minded voice at the helm of the Defense Department.” 

Another Insider, though, lamented that Hagel’s “great sin” is “having learned something from the Iraq disaster and admitted it.”

“There are lots of foreign policy dissidents in the GOP, but few speak up for fear of the neocons,” the Insider said. “Hagel’s survival would represent glasnost on the right. The Senate should act like grown-ups and tell those smearing Hagel to sit down and shut up.”

Hagel, President Obama’s top choice for the position, is pro-Israel and “sensibly cautious” about Iran, another Insider said. “The extremities of the Israeli lobby have picked the wrong target and risk serious blowback.” 

However, 18 percent of the Insiders polled oppose his confirmation. “While his service as an enlisted man in Vietnam was, by all accounts, exceptional, there are significant deficiencies in his understanding of the big strategic picture that would cause me concern,” one Insider said. “He was wrong about the Iraq surge and his failure to vote for sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard calls into question his higher-level judgments.”

Hagel’s appointment would send the message that Washington is reluctant to use force to back up its diplomacy with Tehran, another Insider said. “Only an Iran that believes the U.S. is willing to use force will be willing to compromise. The paradox is that a Hagel appointment could ultimately increase the chances that the U.S. or Israel will feel compelled to use military force against Iran’s nuclear program.”

Separately, an overwhelming 87 percent of Insiders wanted to see John Brennan, Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, confirmed as CIA director -- a sign that his prospects for confirmation may be higher than they were four years ago, when he withdrew his name from consideration amid controversy over his past service in the George W. Bush administration.

“There  is no one better qualified and with a closer relationship with the president. If the agency wants a leader who has juice with the West Wing, John’s the perfect choice,” one Insider said. Brennan, over his three-decade career, has displayed skills in intelligence analysis and operations -- and earned the president's trust, another Insider said. “Brennan has shown sensitivity to the risks of drone attacks.”

But a 13 percent faction strongly opposes his confirmation. “Torture, rendition, warrantless wiretapping, kill lists,” one Insider said. “All without a shred of oversight. Should I go on?”

“Brennan has been the administration’s architect and most enthusiastic supporter of the Obama doctrine: Encircle the world with drones and target anyone, including Americans, placed on a secret CIA kill list (and justified by secret laws),” another Insider said. “With Brennan at the CIA, the policy will no doubt expand. Instead, the CIA needs someone who can return the agency to its original purpose -- recruit spies, gather intelligence, and analyze it without political influence.”  

Some Insiders who said Hagel and Brennan should be confirmed, however, were not altogether pleased with the possibility of their accessions. “These are disappointing choices. The president … has chosen badly,” an Insider said, “but he deserves to have the people he wants to have in these positions.”

Click here for more on the results of National Journal's Insider poll.

By Sara Sorcher

January 15, 2013