WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's pick for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, is meeting with senior Pentagon staff to try to set the record straight about his stand on Iran, saying he backs strong international sanctions against Tehran and believes all options, including military action, should be on the table, defense officials said Wednesday.
In private meetings with top military and defense leaders and staff this week, Hagel sought to counter critics who say he is soft on Iran and would be the most antagonistic secretary toward Israel. Senior defense officials who have met with Hagel said he told them that his views on Iran have been misrepresented and that he has long backed international sanctions.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, has been given space on the Pentagon's third floor and a small staff so he can begin preparing for what will likely be a contentious Capitol Hill hearing on his nomination.
Already this week, Hagel has had dinner and lunch with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and met with Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. He also has begun making calls to senators to answer questions and lay out his positions on key national security issues.
Critics have zeroed in on statements Hagel has made questioning the wisdom of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. As a senator, he voted against unilateral economic sanctions on Tehran, although he supports the joint international penalties Obama also prefers. Hagel also irritated some Israel backers with his reference to the "Jewish lobby" in the United States.
A handful of Republican senators, including Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., have already announced opposition to their former GOP colleague, and some Democrats have expressed unease with the choice. But it is likely that, in the end, senators will confirm the Vietnam veteran - who was twice awarded the Purple Heart - as Obama's third defense chief.
Defense officials said Hagel told senior policy staff in a meeting Wednesday that he strongly supports multilateral sanctions against Iran and that Tehran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the private meeting.
Officials also said that Hagel's own war zone experience came through as he spoke with staff about issues involving military troops, including traumatic brain injury, which is a common wound suffered by forces in Iraq and Afghanistan - most caused by being near bomb blasts.
In the coming weeks, Hagel is expected to get briefings on a broad range of defense issues, including extensive information on the budget. The Pentagon is facing a reduction of nearly $500 billion over a decade in projected spending, part of the budget deal that Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to in August 2011. An additional $110 billion in cuts to military and domestic programs will automatically kick in at the beginning of March if no congressional budget deal has been reached.
Many defense officials were meeting Hagel for the first time this week but said they were impressed with his passion for national security policy and his desire to take the job.
Both Panetta and his predecessor, Robert Gates, were pressed into service and made it well-known during their tenures that they were eager to eventually get back to their home states.
Gates, a former CIA director who had retired after 27 years of public service, famously carried a countdown clock with him that showed how many days remained in the Bush administration. And he agreed to stay on after Obama was elected only after getting a personal plea from the president.
Panetta also had retired from public service but returned to Washington at Obama's request in order to take the helm of the CIA in 2009. With Gates eager to leave the Pentagon and go home to Washington state, Panetta agreed 18 months ago to step in as defense chief. But he commutes home to California nearly every weekend and has spoken longingly of returning to his walnut farm in Carmel.