Obama to tap John Brennan to head CIA

John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, in Washington, Sept. 7, 2011. AP

WASHINGTON President Obama will nominate John Brennan as his next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the White House confirmed Monday.

Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, currently serves as Mr. Obama's top counterterrorism adviser. The president will announce Brennan's nomination at 1 p.m. ET. At the same event, the president will also formally announce that he is nominating Chuck Hagel as his next defense secretary.

Along with secretary of state nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Hagel and Brennan would play key roles implementing and shaping Obama's national security priorities in a second term. All three men must be confirmed by the Senate.

Mr. Obama considered Brennan for the top CIA job in 2008. But Brennan withdrew his name amid questions about his connection to enhanced interrogation techniques while serving in the spy agency during the George W. Bush administration.

Brennan denied involvement in the controversial interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, and has spoken out against them.

In a letter to Mr. Obama at the time, Brennan said he was "a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration, such as the preemptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding." Many people consider waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods to be torture.

White House officials say they don't expect Brennan to face similar trouble this time around given his four years of service in the Obama administration.

"The issue has been removed from the debate because the president and John Brennan, as his top counterterrorism adviser, brought those techniques to an end," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said.

However, Brennan's nomination will likely put a spotlight on the administration's controversial drone program. Brennan was the first Obama administration official to publicly acknowledge the highly secretive targeted killing operations.

Brennan has defended the legality of the overseas drone operations and has said they protect American lives and prevent potential terror attacks.

If confirmed, Brennan will succeed David Petraeus, who resigned in November after admitting to an affair with his biographer.

Deputy CIA director Michael Morell has been serving as the agency's acting director since Petraeus resigned and was considered by Obama for the top job. Rhodes said Morell will attend Monday's White House event and is expected to stay at the CIA.

Hagel would replace retiring Pentagon chief Leon Panetta at a time when the Defense Department is facing potentially deep budget cuts. Hagel would also be tasked with overseeing the military drawdown in Afghanistan, where the U.S.-led war is scheduled to end in two years.

Hagel is likely to support a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan than some military generals.

In nominating Hagel, Obama signaled he is willing to take on a tough confirmation fight. Once Hagel emerged as Obama's likely nominee, GOP lawmakers began sharply questioning his commitment to Israel and his willingness to take a hard line with Iran over its disputed nuclear program.

Hagel, a 66-year-old moderate Nebraska Republican, has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. He also irritated some Israel backers with his reference to the "Jewish lobby" in the United States. And he has backed efforts to bring Iran to the table for future peace talks in Afghanistan.

White House officials say Hagel's positions on Israel and Iran have been misrepresented. They cite his Senate votes for billions in military assistance to Israel and his support for multilateral sanctions on Tehran.

Rhodes said Hagel will be "completely in line with the president" on both issues.

"The president has a record of unprecedented security cooperation with Israel and that's going to continue no matter who the defense secretary is," Rhodes said.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, said Sunday he was reserving judgment on whether to support Hagel but predicted the former senator would face serious questions.

Any nominee must have "a full understanding of our close relationship with out Israeli allies, the Iranian threat and the importance of having a robust military," McConnell said on ABC's "This Week."

The second-ranking Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said in a statement that making Hagel defense secretary would be "the worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East."

Despite the criticism, no Republican lawmakers have threatened to try to block Hagel's nomination.

Hagel has also been criticized by some Democrats for saying in 1998 that a nominee for an ambassador post was "openly, aggressively gay." He has since apologized for those comments.

Hagel is the second straight Obama favorite for a top national security post to face criticism from Capitol Hill even before being nominated. United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state amid charges from GOP senators that she misled the public in her initial accounting of the attacks on Americans at a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.

Monday's nominations leave Obama without a woman in line for a top administration post, a fact that has irked some Democratic women. The president will soon name a new treasury secretary, but current White House chief of staff Jack Lew is the front-runner for the post.

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