Secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel is drawing criticism in conservative circles for serving on the board of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit group that advocates a reduction in nuclear weapons.
Hagel, a former Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, joined the group as an unpaid board member in 2009 after leaving the Senate.
Some Hagel critics on conservative blogs and websites have focused on the group's policy positions and grants to various organizations, contending that Hagel's involvement with Ploughshares proves that he holds extreme views on foreign policy and national defense.
For example, they note, Hagel supported the Ploughshares-backed Global Zero report in May 2012 that called for sharp reductions in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons beyond the cuts already planned.
The report argued that the U.S. needs no more than 900 total nuclear weapons for security in a post-Cold War world.
That would be a substantial reduction from current levels, and well below the targets set for 2018 under a treaty between the U.S. and Russia.
The issue came up at a Senate hearing Thursday, when Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., questioned secretary of state nominee John Kerry about Hagel's views on the nation's nuclear arsenal.
Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, defended Hagel, a fellow Vietnam veteran.
“I know Chuck Hagel. I think he is a strong, patriotic former senator, and he will be a strong secretary of defense,” Kerry said.
Besides Hagel, others who signed onto the Global Zero report last year included its chairman, Gen. James E. Cartwright, retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former commander of U.S. nuclear forces; Richard Burt, a former chief nuclear arms negotiator; Thomas R. Pickering, a former ambassador to Russia; and Gen. John J. Sheehan, who held senior NATO positions before retiring from active duty.
“The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the Cold War,” Cartwright told the New York Times last year. “What is it we're really trying to deter? Our current arsenal does not address the threats of the 21st century.”
Hagel drew strong support Thursday from two bipartisan groups.
Ten arms control experts endorsed Hagel for his views, including his work on the Global Zero report. And 13 former secretaries of state and defense or national security advisers praised Hagel's “leadership, integrity and keen reading of global dynamics.”
One of the former officials in the latter group is George Shultz, who was secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. Like Hagel, Shultz is involved with Ploughshares, serving on its board of advisers.
Hagel critics also have looked at Ploughshares' funding sources, saying the group receives money from billionaire investor George Soros. Soros is viewed with suspicion by some conservatives because of his support for President Barack Obama and various liberal groups, so the Soros tie adds an extra edge to their concern about Hagel.
“With Hagel, George Soros Finally Gets His Own Defense Secretary,” read the headline on the website of FrontPage Magazine, run by conservative David Horowitz.
Ploughshares, which lists hundreds of individual and foundation donors on its latest annual report, does have financial connections to Soros. In a donor category called “Peace and Security Funders Group,” Soros' Open Society Institute is listed as one of 13 foundation donors.
In addition, Ploughshares has received money from the Tides Foundation, an organization that has received money from Soros.
And Ploughshares joined with the Open Society Institute and other nonprofit groups in funding an organization called the Connect U.S. Fund, which encourages “responsible U.S. global engagement in an increasingly interdependent world.”
While the Soros connection raises concerns for some on the right, even some Hagel critics think it's a bit of a stretch to base opposition on funding ties when there are other arguments against the nomination. After all, it's possible to link Soros to former Vice President Dick Cheney through various corporate ties, according to an article on the Blaze website, which is affiliated with talk show host Glenn Beck.
“Does serving on the board of an organization that takes some of its money from Soros prove that Hagel himself is in Soros' pocket?” the Blaze article asked. “Probably not.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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