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WASHINGTON — After weeks of hearing from critics that Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel is not tough enough on Iran, not tight enough with Israel and too eager to dismantle the nation's nuclear arsenal, Hagel's allies say he will dispel those concerns during his hearing Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Chuck's not soft on anybody," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a committee member.
Interest groups have taken out millions of dollars in ads blasting Hagel. The top Republican on the committee, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, penned an op-ed in The Washington Post on Sunday saying Hagel's stands disqualify him for the office.
Another committee member, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Monday he would block Hagel's nomination until Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies on the military's response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans.
Hagel, in written comments to the committee, called Israel a "key security partner of the United States." Regarding Iran, he wrote that he backs President Obama's position that military options will be considered to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
"With the ever present threat of Iran, the next secretary of Defense must be vigilant in pursuing the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and must maintain our unshakable commitment to Israel's security," Hagel wrote.
Countering terrorism and threats in cyberspace will be among his top priorities, he wrote.
Hagel is already working in an office in the Pentagon in advance of what President Obama and his administration hope will be a successful confirmation process. One key Republican, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, has said he will vote for Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska. Cochran is the ranking Republican on the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, which determines military spending.
Defense officials, friends and colleagues have begun to speculate on how Hagel would run the $625 billion-per-year Defense Department and what makes him tick. Hagel, 66, left the Senate in 2009 and has been teaching since then at Georgetown University and advising Obama on intelligence matters.
Hagel has signaled that he'd make the health of the armed forces a priority in written testimony submitted to the Armed Services committee. After more than a decade of war and repeated deployments, the services have frayed. Suicides among troops are at record levels, sexual assaults have become epidemic and many troops returning from war have catastrophic wounds, while others face an uncertain job market.
Hagel supports the Pentagon policy allowing gays to serve in the military and opening combat jobs to women, according to his written responses.
Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw the compensation funds for 9/11 victims and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, has known Hagel for 25 years and says his experience in combat in Vietnam and work on behalf of veterans of that war exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange give him insight and compassion into the problems facing troops today.
"He's absolutely a man of integrity and courage," Feinberg said.
Should he be confirmed, Hagel would immediately be forced to deal with a shrinking budget. Projected budget increases will decline by $487 billion over the next decade. That could increase an additional $500 billion if Congress and the White House don't reach a budget deal this spring to avoid the process known as sequestration.
Hagel's experience in business, where he headed a cellphone company and sat on corporate boards, would serve him well in paring the Pentagon's budget, Feinberg said.
"He'll develop a modern, 21st-century budget for our military," Feinberg said.
That Hagel is a Senate vote away from serving at the top level of government no longer surprises his pals from Nebraska. Larry Dowd, 67, has known Hagel since they went to Catholic High School in Columbus, Neb.
Dowd, a businessman who still lives there, remembers the young Hagel as a natural leader who went out for every sport — though he wasn't much of a basketball player. Hagel worked summers for the power company and on construction sites. During the school year, he pumped gas.
Then came Vietnam, and Hagel volunteered to serve. He and his brother Tom were infantry squad leaders. Both were wounded, and Chuck was awarded a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
"That changed him like it did everybody," Dowd said. "A kid grows up pretty quick. He was different, more serious. Vietnam will do that. "
Hagel went to Washington, worked for a congressman and eventually ran for the Senate. He won with meticulous organization and hard work, Dowd said, qualities he'll need to run the Pentagon.
"He'll do fine," Dowd said. "It bothers me that anybody would say he's not qualified."