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Solid selections for Obama's 2nd term

Published January 09. 2013 4:00AM

President Obama continued to fill out his second-term administration with the announcement this week of two solid, if somewhat controversial, nominations for the critical positions of director of the Central Intelligence Agency and secretary of defense.

In selecting John O. Brennan to direct the CIA the president picked someone who certainly has the background to lead the spy agency. Mr. Brennan, 57, spent most of his career at the agency, much of it as an intelligence analyst. He would be well suited to oversee the agency's primary mission - spycraft.

Beginning in 2004 during the Bush administration, Mr. Brennan was instrumental in organizing counterterrorism operations. He continued his work for the Obama administration. Operating closely with the president, Mr. Brennan managed the growth of the drone attack program that has decimated the leadership of al-Qaida and associated terrorist groups.

These strengths - his expertise in counterterrorism and chief architect of the drone program - are also the sources of the controversy surrounding his appointment. It remains unclear exactly what was Mr. Brennan's role in the Bush administration's use of enhanced interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists. Mr. Brennan is on record as saying he opposed such policies and spoke against them within the administration, but The New York Times this week reported talking with several former senior CIA officers who don't recall Mr. Brennan expressing such concerns.

Lawmakers should press Mr. Brennan on this issue during Senate confirmation hearings. Senators also need to question the nominee on what protocols exist, if any, for pursuing and approving drone strikes. While having proved effective, these attacks can also claim civilian lives. This is force that should only be used judiciously.

Finally, senators need to question Mr. Brennan about his view of the future role of the CIA in a changing world.

But on balance, the appointment appears a good one.

There is much to like in President Obama's choice for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel. The selection is a nonpartisan appointment - Mr. Hagel is a former Republican senator from Nebraska. The nominee is a decorated Vietnam veteran, meaning he knows at a gut level what it means to send soldiers into combat. His public statements suggest Mr. Hagel considers the use of military force to be a last option, taken only when other alternatives do not exist to protect national security.

Mr. Hagel's record shows he recognizes that reining in defense allocations, by eliminating wasteful programs and outdated weapons' systems, needs to be part of any deficit solution. And he has talked of expediting the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a position we suspect much of the American public would endorse.

In Mr. Hagel's case, the concerns voiced by critics appear overwrought. In the late 1990s he questioned a President Clinton ambassadorial appointment, calling the nominee "openly, aggressively gay." In the years since he has apologized for what he concedes was an inappropriate remark and said he is committed to the military's new policy that allows homosexuals to serve their country without having to cover up their sexual orientation. It will be proper to ask the former senator about the evolution of his thoughts on this topic during confirmation proceedings.

Also some years ago Mr. Hagel talked about the power of the "Jewish lobby" in support of Israel in Congress. Support of Israel extends beyond the Jewish people and the characterization was unfortunate. But there is no indication that Mr. Hagel questions the United States' long-held and bipartisan support of Israel as a key ally. And on the key Israeli foreign policy issue of the time, President Obama, who will be in charge, has pledged that the United States will take whatever steps necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

While we await the nomination hearings, at this point we see nothing that would disqualify Mr. Hagel as becoming secretary of defense.

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