It wasn't that Chuck Hagel was unprepared for his Senate confirmation hearing; it's that Republican senators didn't ask the right questions, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Sunday.
Mr. Panetta defended the former senator's stumbling performance last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying he was "absolutely" confident of Mr. Hagel's ability to replace him as head of the Defense Department.
It's pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel," said Mr. Panetta on NBC's "Meet the Press." "What disappointed me is that they talked a lot about past quotes, but what about what a secretary of defense is confronting today?"
He said Republican senators should have spent more time quizzing Mr. Hagel about issues such as the war in Afghanistan, the budget sequestration, cyberspace attacks and the war on terrorism.
"These hearings are tough, especially when everybody's targeting you," said Mr. Panetta on CNN's "State of the Union." "I guess I was really disappointed that a lot of that hearing focused on the past, as opposed to the challenges that a secretary of defense has to face. There were a number of areas that simply were not that well covered that deal with what a secretary of defense has to do, and that concerned me."
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed those comments, adding that he thought Mr. Hagel would be "a great secretary of defense."
"In my contacts with Sen. Hagel and his preparations, I found him to be very thoughtful and very well-prepared and very interested, and so if he's confirmed, I'm sure we'll establish a very close working relationship," said the general on "State of the Union."
Mr. Panetta said the criticism of Mr. Hagel has come from the Republican side, although that wasn't always the case Sunday. Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary under President Obama, criticized the nominee's showing on "Meet the Press."
"The disconcerting thing, obviously, for anybody that watched it was he seemed unimpressive and unprepared on the questions that, quite frankly, he knew was coming," Mr. Gibbs said.
A Republican, Mr. Hagel was peppered with hostile questions during the hearing about his previous criticism of Israel, references to the "Jewish lobby," and opposition to the surge in Iraq. He tried to elude confrontations with senators, sometimes by avoiding direct answers and other times by backtracking on some of his previous statements.
The most awkward moment may have come when he praised the Obama administration's support for containment with regard to Iran, then corrected himself by saying the administration had no policy on containment.
Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, then informed the defense secretary nominee that the administration opposes containment.
The confirmation vote could break along party lines. So far only one Republican, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, has announced he will vote in favor of confirming Mr. Hagel, while every Democrat is expected to support the nomination.
Despite Mr. Hagel's weak showing, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid predicted Sunday that the nomination would be confirmed, adding that, "I thought he did pretty good."
"If you interviewed me for eight hours like they interviewed him in the Senate this week, we'd — you and I — would both flub up a little bit," said Mr. Reid on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." "Chuck Hagel is a fine man. He was a good senator. I served with him. He's a Republican — that should be a plus. I think he will be an outstanding, terrific secretary of defense."
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