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WASHINGTON — In advance of his confirmation hearing Thursday, defense nominee Chuck Hagel promised the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would prepare the U.S. military for the possibility of using force against Iran.
In a written statement, Hagel sought to assure senators who have expressed concerns that he was too soft on Iran. Hagel previously opposed some unilateral sanctions and has urged engagement with Iran.
“I agree with the President that the United States should take no options off the table in our efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. If confirmed, I will focus intently on ensuring that U.S. military is in fact prepared for any contingency,” Hagel wrote in response to a policy questionnaire from the committee that will weigh sending his nomination forward.
Observers got a preview of how Hagel will respond in-person when The Atlantic published a 112-page document of the questions and answers online.
Hagel was asked about past statements on potential rewards for Iran, such as the lifting of sanctions, if it abstains from a nuclear weapons program, abandons support for terrorist groups and recognizes Israel.
His response laid out a carrot-and-stick approach.
“I do believe that if Iran lives up to international obligations, it should have a path to a more prosperous and productive relationship with the international community and eventual rejoining of the community of nations,” Hagel wrote. “The other choice is clear as well — if Iran continues to flout its international obligations, it should continue to face severe and growing consequences. While there is time and space for diplomacy, backed by pressure, the window is closing.”
In response to general questions about the largest challenges facing the next defense secretary, Hagel again invoked Iran.
“The next Secretary of Defense must be vigilant in pursuing the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and must maintain our unshakable commitment to Israel's security . . . I am committed to considering all options to counter Iran and its aggression, and to maintain U.S. support for missile defense systems in Israel,” he wrote.
Here's how he responded on other issues sure to come up:
Background: Hagel was asked what in his background qualifies him to take over the Pentagon. Among the items Hagel listed: founding a successful cellular company, running the World USO and two terms in the U.S. Senate. He devoted much of his attention, however, to his own military service.
Hagel's answer: I volunteered for the draft and then volunteered to go to Vietnam after I received orders to go to Germany. I served a twelve month tour which included the Tet Offensive in 1968. I rose to the rank of infantry Sergeant. For ten of those months, I served alongside my younger brother Tom. I understand what it is like to be a soldier in war. I also understand what happens when there is poor morale and discipline among the troops and a lack of clear objectives, intelligence, and command and control from Washington. I believe that experience will help me as Secretary of Defense to ensure we maintain the best fighting force in the world, protect our men and women in uniform, and ensure that we are cautious and certain when contemplating the use of force.
Military cooperation with Israel
Background: Critics have questioned Hagel's support for Israel. The committee asked if he would continue ongoing cooperation with Israel on missile and rocket defense programs.
Hagel's answer: Yes. I am proud of the work that the United States has done in support of the ballistic missile defense of Israel and, if confirmed, I will continue to support these efforts. Missile defense is a core area of U.S.-Israel joint cooperation . . . if confirmed, I will work to continue and expand this cooperation.
Role of defense contractors
Background: As the committee questionnaire put it: “Over the last decade, the Department (of Defense) has become progressively more reliant upon contractors to perform functions that were once performed exclusively by government employees.” The committee asked whether Hagel thinks the department has become too reliant on those contractors for basic department functions.
Hagel's answer: Although I understand that DoD has been taking steps in recent years to reduce its reliance on contractors, I believe DoD must continue to manage its workforce in a way that avoids inappropriate or excessive reliance on contractor support for basic Department functions, while also meeting its obligations to perform work efficiently and effectively and to be a good steward of taxpayer resources.
Overseas security contractors
Background: The questionnaire cited reports of abuses and questionable activities by security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. It asked whether the department should rely on contractors for security functions “that may reasonably be expected to require the use of deadly force in highly hazardous public areas.”
Hagel's answer: I believe it may be appropriate to use private security contractors for specific security functions in contingency operations when they are limited by specific rules for the use of force. Such functions include providing security for our military bases in areas of operations and protecting supply convoys. Without a significant increase in end strength and resources, the Department would not have the capacity to take on all the missions private security contractors are able to fill. However, the Department must provide proper guidance and supervision when using private security contractors and must ensure they do not engage in combat operations.
Gays in the military
Background: Gay rights groups previously raised concerns about Hagel based on comments he made 15 years ago about an openly gay ambassadorial nominee and his past opposition to repealing the “Don't Ask Don't Tell” policy. Hagel has since apologized for the comments and says that he's committed to allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.
Hagel's answer: I fully support the repeal of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” and value the service of all those who fight for our country. If confirmed, I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.
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Follow along Thursday morning beginning at 8 with live updates from Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing. After the day's events, chat with Washington Bureau Chief Joseph Morton and Political Editor Aaron Sanderford.