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New national security team coming into focus

Jan. 4, 2013 - 06:54PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 4, 2013 - 06:54PM  |  
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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama may round out his new national security leadership team next week, with a nomination for defense secretary expected and a pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency possible.

Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is the front-runner for the top Pentagon post. Acting CIA director Michael Morell and Obama counterterrorism adviser John Brennan are leading contenders to head the spy agency.

White House aides said the president has not made a final decision on either post and won't until he returns from Hawaii, where he is vacationing with his family. Obama is due back in Washington Sunday morning.

Obama nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as his next secretary of state in December, his first step in filling out his second term Cabinet and national security team. Kerry, as well as the nominees for the Pentagon and CIA, must be confirmed by the Senate.

Hagel, the former senator from Nebraska, is a contrarian Republican moderate and decorated Vietnam combat veteran who is likely to support a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. If confirmed, Hagel would give Obama a whiff of bipartisanship in his Cabinet if confirmed.

Even before his nomination, Hagel's consideration for the top Pentagon job raised concerns among some of his former Senate colleagues, who questioned his pronouncements on Iraq, Israel and the Middle East. Troubling for some lawmakers are Hagel's comments and actions on Israel, including his reference to the "Jewish lobby" in the United States.

Hagel has also been criticized for comments he made in 1998 about an openly gay nominee for an ambassadorship. In an interview with the Omaha World-Herald in 1998, Hagel said he believed that for a U.S. ambassador, "it is an inhibiting factor to be gay" and referred to James C. Hormel as "openly, aggressively gay". He has since apologized for those comments.

If nominated and confirmed, Hagel would replace current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Morell has served as the CIA's acting director since early November, after David Petraeus resigned after admitting to an affair with his biographer.

Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, worked at the CIA for 25 years, including a stint as station chief in Saudi Arabia. He also served as chief of staff to then CIA Director George Tenet from 1999 to 2001, when he was named the agency's deputy executive director.

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