WASHINGTON — A Republican senator is calling 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 and three other Americans.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that his support for delaying the nomination was not a reflection on John Brennan, whom Obama tapped on Monday, but rather the only recourse to get information on the raid on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
“The stonewalling on Benghazi by the Obama administration must come to an end,” Graham said in a statement.
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.
U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice relied on talking points from the intelligence community to say in television interviews on Sept. 16 that the attack may have been a protest that got out of hand. Rice’s incorrect explanation likely cost her a chance to be nominated as the next secretary of state.
Graham said he wants answers on who changed Rice’s talking points and deleted references to al-Qaida. He 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,” said the South Carolina lawmaker, who is up for re-election next year. “It is imperative we understand who changed the talking points just weeks before a presidential election and why.”
Brennan was expected to have an easier time on the path to Senate confirmation than Chuck Hagel, Obama’s choice to run the Pentagon. A handful of Republicans have announced their opposition to the former GOP colleague, and several skeptical Democrats reserved judgment until Hagel explains his views on Israel and Iran.
The concerns about Hagel complicate his path to Senate confirmation but are not necessarily calamitous as the White House pushes for the first Vietnam War veteran to oversee a military emerging from two wars and staring at deep budget cuts.
Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, is expected to be hit with questions about torture and administration leaks of secret information. Graham’s demands on the Libya raid could stall the nomination.
In announcing the nominations in the East Room on Monday, 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.
Moments after Obama announced his selection of Hagel and called him “the leader that our troops deserve,” some Senate Republicans voiced opposition to the former Nebraska lawmaker who spent 12 years in the Senate.
“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,” Sen. David Vitter, R-La., 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.”
Other Senate Republicans, including the No. 2 GOP lawmaker, John Cornyn of Texas, new member Ted Cruz of Texas and Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, signaled they would vote against the nomination.
Hagel has upset some Israel backers with his 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.
He 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.”
Those remarks and actions have created fierce opposition from some pro-Israel groups, criticism from some Republicans and unease among some congressional Democrats.
The Log Cabin Republicans took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post highlighting their opposition to Hagel, and Gregory T. Angelo, interim executive director of the gay rights group, said the gay and lesbian grassroots organization is considering other steps in a campaign against Hagel’s nomination.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who does not have a vote on the nomination, called Hagel the “wrong man” for the job and complained that “his inflammatory statements about Israel are well outside the mainstream.”
In an interview with the Lincoln (Neb.) 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 moderate Republican attracted words of praise from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., 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.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Hagel “is a combat veteran who still carries shrapnel in his body from his wounds. He will not need on-the-job training.”
Several Democrats, most notably Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, and a number of Republicans, including Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona, said they would await the Senate process and the opportunity to question Hagel. That raises the stakes for his private meetings with senators and his confirmation hearing in the next few weeks before the Armed Services Committee.
While some opposition was expected for Obama’s nominee, 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, D-Ga., 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 on “CBS This Morning” Tuesday that Hagel is battle-tested and ready for the challenges of a confirmation process, accusing the Nebraskan’s critics of “swatting at nothing, shadow-boxing.”