Obama's CIA, defense picks face confirmation fight

WASHINGTON (AP) — A U.S. senator on Tuesday called for a delay in confirming President Barack Obama's pick for CIA director until the administration provides answers on the deadly Sept. 11 assault in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said his request was not a reflection on White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who was nominated on Monday. Graham said the request was the only way to get information on the raid on the consulate in Benghazi.

Republicans have argued that the administration tried to downplay that the attack was an act of terrorism in the weeks before the November election, even though Obama used that term in the days after the raid.

"The stonewalling on Benghazi by the Obama administration must come to an end," Graham said in a statement.

Graham said he wants an explanation of who changed the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice relied upon days after the attack. The talking points, prepared by the intelligence community, blamed the attack on a protest over an anti-Islam video, not on terrorism. The issue led Rice to pull out of the running for the secretary of state job.

Graham pointed out that lawmakers were told that the director of national intelligence deleted the references, then were told it was the FBI. Hours after a meeting with Rice, Congress was informed that the CIA had changed the talking points.

"This ever-changing story should be resolved," Graham said.

Brennan is a 25-year veteran of the intelligence agency who is deeply involved with the drone program that is highly unpopular overseas. He is also expected to face questions about harsh interrogation techniques used during the George W. Bush administration.

Already, some Republicans have announced their opposition to Obama's other nomination — former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to lead the Defense Department — with several skeptical Democrats reserving judgment until Hagel explains his views on Israel and Iran. Hagel would be the first Vietnam War veteran to oversee a military emerging from two wars and facing deep budget cuts.

Politically, however, it would be remarkable for the Democratic-controlled Senate to deny Obama his nominee and undercut the president at the start of his second term and in the midst of fierce budget negotiations with Republicans.

Obama called Hagel "the leader that our troops deserve," but the former senator has upset some Israel supporters with a comment about the "Jewish lobby," his votes against unilateral sanctions against Iran while backing international penalties on the regime in Tehran, and his criticism of talk of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. The U.S. worries that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapon, a charge Iran denies.

"Given Chuck Hagel's statements and actions on a nuclear Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, I think his confirmation would send exactly the wrong message to our allies and enemies alike," Republican Sen. David Vitter said in a statement. "Israel, our strongest ally in the region, is dealing with a lot of threat and uncertainty right now; Hagel would make that even worse."

Asked about Hagel's nomination, Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Tuesday that Tehran was hopeful there would be "practical changes" to U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. and Iran have had no diplomatic relations since 1979, when Iranian militants stormed the U.S embassy and took American diplomats hostages.

Hagel also upset gay rights groups over past comments, including his opposition in 1998 to President Bill Clinton's choice of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. He referred to Hormel as "openly, aggressively gay." Hagel recently apologized, saying his comments were "insensitive."

The Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group, took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post highlighting their opposition to Hagel.

In an interview with the Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star, Hagel said his statements have been distorted and there is "not one shred of evidence that I'm anti-Israeli, not one (Senate) vote that matters that hurt Israel."

In a critical sign of support for Hagel's prospects, the 66-year-old attracted praise from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Intelligence panel.

Levin called Hagel "well-qualified." Feinstein described him as "a knowledgeable and independent voice with a strong grasp of the pressing national security issues facing our country." Reid said "few nominees have such a combination of strategic and personal knowledge of our national defense needs."

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy said Hagel "is a combat veteran who still carries shrapnel in his body from his wounds. He will not need on-the-job training."

While some opposition was expected, no senator has threatened to block the selection. Republican and Democratic congressional aides said the White House wouldn't have put forth the nomination if it didn't think it had the votes for Hagel's confirmation. Democrats hold a 55-45 advantage in the Senate.

Former Sen. Max Cleland, himself a wounded Vietnam veteran, said he thinks Hagel "has to clarify" his positions on issues like Iran and Israel. But Cleland also said in an interview Tuesday on CBS that critics are "swatting at nothing, shadow-boxing."

While the Armed Services Committee decides Hagel's fate, the Senate Intelligence panel will decide on Brennan, 57, a close Obama adviser for the past four years.

Brennan withdrew from consideration for the spy agency's top job in 2008 amid questions about his connection to harsh interrogation techniques used during the George W. Bush administration. He is certain to face questions about the issue again from Democrats, while Republicans press him on leaks of classified information in the Obama administration.

In announcing the nominations in the East Room, Obama urged the Senate to move quickly.

"When it comes to national security, we don't like to leave a lot of gaps between the time that one set of leaders transitions out and another transitions in," the president said.

___

Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Julie Pace, Lolita C. Baldor, Lara Jakes and Connie Cass contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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