The battle over former Senator Chuck Hagel's potential Secretary of Defense nomination continues to escalate with 11 retired flag and general officers publicly endorsing him as a national gay rights group criticizes him on his Senate record.
Hagel, not yet nominated by President Obama to succeed Leon Panetta as the Pentagon chief, has been under fire since his name surfaced as a possible choice in November. Leading Jewish organizations and pro-Israel pundits have opposed him on the grounds he is "anti-Israel."
Supporters among his former colleagues in the Senate have been few, leaving the public debate largely to his critics until Wednesday when some backers issued a "Facts on Chuck Hagel" memo to counter the claims against him. That was followed by an open letter from nine former U.S. ambassadors -- five of them to Israel -- supporting Hagel.
The latest group publicly endorsing Hagel includes Brent Scowcroft, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, and advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, and retired Adm. William "Fox" Fallon, former commander of U.S. Central Command.
"Senator Hagel has stood up for what he believes are the best interests of the United States for many years, regardless of party or politics," the group wrote in their joint endorsement.
The group does not address or even reference the allegations being made against Hagel from the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America or the Emergency Committee for Israel. These groups contend Hagel voted against or refused to vote on issues the groups considered important to Israel's security.
"Senator Hagel is eminently qualified for the job," the generals and admirals wrote. "He is a decorated Vietnam veteran, a successful businessman, a leader in Ronald Reagan's Veteran's Administration and, since his election to the Senate in 1996, one the country's leading voices on foreign policy. He would bring a long-term strategic vision to the job and to the President's Cabinet."
The retired officers say Hagel is well respected at the Defense Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs and among veterans' service organizations.
"Most importantly, we believe that the person who can best lead the Pentagon is one who understands the importance of the challenges that our warfighter faces," they say in the 307-word letter.
Also lending his voice in support of Hagel is Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland.
"There are two things I think are wonderful about Hagel," Cleland said in a telephone interview Friday. "One is his experience as a combat infantryman in Vietnam; the other is experience on The Hill as a U.S. Senator."
"But he also has the wisdom of Washington, and his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. You can't piss on his boots and call it rain," said Cleland, who lost both legs and one arm in Vietnam. He headed the VA during the Carter administration, served one term as U.S. Senator from Georgia and is currently secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission overseeing overseas cemeteries and monuments to American troops.
Hagel may have dodged stronger opposition to his nomination from gay rights groups. Leaders of the Human Rights Campaign slammed the former senator for his opposition to repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the military and for opposing John Hormel, an openly gay man, to be ambassador to Luxemburg back in the 1990s.
HRC President Chad Griffin said Hagel "must repudiate" his past comments on Hormel and show he supports open service and equal benefits for gay servicemembers to be an appropriate candidate for defense secretary.
Hagel responded quickly to the complaints from the gay rights organization.
"My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive," Hagel said in a statement. "They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service' and committed to LGBT military families."
Allyson Robinson, an Army veteran and executive director of OutServe, an association of active duty LGBT servicemembers, issued a statement saying the group was pleased with Hagel's apology.
"We look forward to learning more about his commitment to full LGBT military equality as this nomination and confirmation process unfolds," Robinson said.