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Hagel Controversy Picks Up Steam

The controversy over Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense continued to roil this past week with the revelation that he did not provide the Senate Armed Services Committee information concerning several of his speeches to controversial pro-Arab and Iran advocacy groups. Though he was under no obligation to do so – he was required, as part of the confirmation process, to report all “formal speeches” given after 2008 and the speeches at issue were all from 2007 and 2008 – the speeches could provide an important glimpse into to his true thinking on the Middle East and Iranian nuclear aspirations.

Since his nomination by President Obama, Mr. Hagel has had to defend past statements in which he voiced opposition to economic sanctions against Iran, claimed that Israel controlled the State Department and opined that “the Jewish lobby” intimidated many on Capitol Hill. He was also challenged for having refused to sign onto broadly supported Congressional letters calling for the designation of Hizbullah as a terrorist group and expressing support for Israel.

The unreported speeches include a 2008 keynote address Mr. Hagel delivered before the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, an organization that, according to Steven Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism, has called on the U.S. to cut aid to Israel and for Israeli leaders to be brought to trial for alleged war crimes.

An IPT report also says Mr. Hagel spoke at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in 2008, and in 2007 he delivered a speech at Rutgers University’s Center for Middle East Studies which was co-hosted by the American Iranian Council. It was at the latter venue that Mr. Hagel called for reestablishing a U.S. Consulate in Iran and made his remarks about Israeli control of the State Department (the State Department was an “adjunct of the Israeli foreign minister’s office”), according to an attendee cited by the IPT.

One gets the uncomfortable feeling that the man who would be secretary of defense has a compulsive need to speak to Israel’s adversaries. We’ve heard some make the argument that perhaps he feels such engagement is the best way to wean such groups from their hard-line views, but his overall record of placing himself outside the Congressional mainstream in terms of support for Israel makes such a rosy assumption rather far-fetched indeed.

In any event, the likelihood that there are videos or other accounts of undoubtedly revealing comments Mr. Hagel made to pro-Arab groups should be reason for New York Senator Chuck Schumer to reconsider his earlier precipitous reversal of position and announcement of support for Mr. Hagel. We think he has a special responsibility to do so.

In our January 25issue we expressed dismay over Sen. Schumer’s sudden announcement that after having publicly expressed concerns about the disturbing positions Mr. Hagel had taken regarding Israel and Iran, he – Sen. Schumer – was going to support Mr. Hagel in advance of Senate hearings on the nomination. He said at the time that he based his new position on a ninety-minute meeting he had with Mr. Hagel and White House officials:

Senator Hagel could not have been more forthcoming and sincere. Based on several key assurances provided by Sen. Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him….

We noted at the time that Sen. Schumer is not known for any particular expertise on foreign affairs. So we wondered what compelling information he could have gleaned from a relatively brief sit-down with the defense secretary nominee in an environment decidedly friendly to Mr. Hagel.

As we saw it, the problem was exacerbated by the fact that several of Mr. Schumer’s Senate colleagues who had shared his concerns doubtless took their cue from his invitation to join him in supporting Mr. Hagel. Mr. Schumer is the number three Democrat in the Senate and its most senior Jewish member with a reputation of support for Israel.

The questions that continue to be raised about Chuck Hagel are, as we said in January, “perhaps the most serious ever regarding a nominee for so senior a position.” It is now time for Sen. Schumer to reconsider his hasty support – or at the very least to publicly state that more needs to be known about what exactly Mr. Hagel had to say to Israel’s enemies.

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