Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Fact-checking attacks on defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel

Confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel are set to begin Thursday. (AP Photo)
Confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel are set to begin Thursday. (AP Photo)

Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska and a Vietnam veteran, goes before the Senate for confirmation hearings Thursday as President Barack Obama’s nominee for defense secretary.

But even before Obama made his choice official, independent spending groups funded by anonymous donors were blasting Hagel. A barrage of TV ads has portrayed him as soft and squishy on Israel, Iran and America’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

"Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel?" asks a disgusted sounding narrator in an ad from the Emergency Committee for Israel. "President Obama says he supports sanctions on Iran. Hagel voted against them. Hagel voted against labeling Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group. And while President Obama says all options are on the table for preventing a nuclear Iran, Hagel says military action is not a viable, feasible, responsible option. President Obama, for secretary of defense Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option."

The committee’s board members include high-profile conservatives Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer. It released its ad in December, saying it would run in Washington.

It’s not clear how much money has been spent on the ads. The Sunlight Foundation, an independent group that wants more transparency in political spending, has documented $123,000 spent on TV ads targeting Hagel and warns that likely undercounts the total.

PolitiFact has fact-checked several claims from the ads. Overall, we find that Hagel has consistently expressed caution when it comes to the use of force. But he’s not nearly as opposed to military action as the ads make out.

On sanctions, Hagel has voted both for and against economic sanctions aimed at Iran. He’s expressed doubts that sanctions would halt Iran, repeatedly calling for the United States to hold discussions with Iran.

In 2001, for example, Hagel said that "unilateral sanctions hardly ever work." But he has said sanctions are effective in the short term if they are multilateral and administered by the United Nations. We rated the claim that Hagel opposed sanctions as Half True. (This charge was also made by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, a member of the House foreign affairs committee.)

On military action against Iran, we found that Hagel repeatedly has called on the United States to engage Iran in direct discussions. He’s expressed concern that a military attack on Iran could lead to widespread counter-attacks.

But his most cautious statements on the military option for Iran were made when the United States was actively engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I think, before we charge off in going off to another war — we’re in two of them now, in Afghanistan and Iraq — we’d better think through this one carefully and clearly," Hagel said in 2006.  

His tone on Iran has changed since then. In late 2012, Hagel co-wrote an op-ed that favored Obama’s position of "keeping all options on the table, including the use of military force, thereby increasing pressure on Iran while working toward a political solution."

We rated the claim that he opposes an option for military force against Iran as Mostly False.

Another group, Americans for a Strong Defense, said in a TV ad that Hagel wants to end the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

The group has Republican ties; board members include Mitt Romney advisers Brian Hook and Danny Diaz. Mauricio Claver-Carone, author of the Capitol Hill Cubans blog, is also a board member. The ad is intended to run in Arkansas, Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana and North Carolina.

The ad paints a stark picture of a "dangerous world," in which countries including Iran and North Korea are ready to attack the United States. Hagel, the ad suggests, wants to back down and put "an end to our nuclear program."

Actually, Hagel has called for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, but with some major caveats that the ad ignores. He is a supporter of Global Zero, which has called for worldwide elimination by 2030. The report he co-authored calls for reducing the U.S. stockpile to 900 nuclear warheads by 2022, but it says that the best way to achieve that reduction is together with Russia and other countries.

Experts on nuclear policy said Hagel’s views are mainstream and have been held by both Democratic and Republican presidents, including Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. We rated the ad’s claim Mostly False.

Hagel has also been criticized for past comments he’s made about gay rights and Israel.

In 1998, Hagel criticized the nomination of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg, calling Hormel "openly, aggressively gay.’’ In December, Hagel apologized to Hormel for the comment.

In 2006, discussing U.S. policy on Israel, Hagel said that the "Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people," a reference to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He apologized for that comment, too. The White House has organized private meetings between Hagel and some Jewish organizations.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, has said she spoke with Hagel about the comments, and his response put her at ease. Wasserman Schultz doesn’t get a vote on the nomination, but she is a prominent member of the Jewish community and a top advocate for the president.

Cuba policy may also come up during the hearing. In the past, Hagel has criticized U.S. policy toward Cuba as outdated and ineffective.

Wasserman Schultz said she disagreed with that position, but noted that Obama "has supported leaving the embargo in place but also believes we should continue to reach out diplomatically to Cuba. .... I’m confident that Sen. Hagel will be supportive of the president’s policies."

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. See individual fact-checks for more details and complete sources.