Open Zion

02.06.13

The Chuck Hagel Witch-Hunt

When Sen. John McCain said, even after his testy confirmation hearing exchange with Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel, that he wouldn't support a filibuster of the candidate, it seemed like Hagel's confirmation battle had come to an anti-climactic end. The Democratic-controlled Armed Services Committee would, along party lines, pass the nominee to the full Senate, where a super-majority could beat a filibuster and a bare Democratic majority would confirm Hagel to helm the Defense Department. But Armed Services Chair Carl Levin (D-MI), delayed tomorrow's expected committee vote, again stalling the process. "I had hoped to hold a vote on the nomination this week, but the committee’s review of the nomination is not yet complete," he said in a statement. "I intend to schedule a vote on the nomination as soon as possible.”

The problem is that the "committee's review of the nomination" will never be completed to the liking of Hagel's Republican opponents, because they've set an impossible bar for the nominee to clear. A Democratic official working on Hagel's confirmation told me: "What they're asking is unprecedented, and it's clear that it's information that he's unable to provide." The official noted that the U.S. had myriad national security concerns on its plate, not least of which was the 66,000 American troops deployed in Afghanistan right now.

Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congressional procedures with the American Enterprise Institute, called the requests "unprecedented." "I think it's a pretty ridiculous and outrageous thing to ask," he said. "You could say that there's been requests for detailed information [in the past], but this goes even beyond the intrusive questionnaires candidates fill out during the vetting process." Ornstein pointed the finger at Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who's questioning of Hagel during the confirmation hearing raised hackles. "That a Freshman senator would ask for that level of information says more about Ted Cruz than about anything else," Ornstein said. "I've never heard of anything like that before," he added. "But you could say that Ted Cruz in the Senate is unprecedented too."

Cruz appears to be spearheading the opposition: the Washington Post's neoconservative blogger Jennifer RubinIn wrote that the Texas Republican "circulated" the latest combative letter to Hagel. Senate Republicans asked Hagel for information he's not in a position to release, to them or anyone else, including financial information about private companies he was affiliated with but does not control. After initially asking for the information—in addition the extensive disclosures already made as part of the confirmation process—in a letter dated Jan. 29, Hagel responded with what information he could in a Feb. 5 letter. He wrote to the Republicans that some of the requested materials were not in his possession and, furthermore, that he couldn't release much of it even if it was. That's because the Republicans' requests go far beyond the scope of Hagel's personal finances and records, varying between asking him for materials that don't exist or that would violate legal agreements to release. Today, 25 Senate Republicans responded to Hagel reiterating their asks.

Video screenshot

Here are the highlights of Chuck Hagel's contentious Senate hearing.

Among the repeated requests were those about any "foreign funding" received by eight private firms with which Hagel's been associated since leaving the Senate, mostly his service on various boards. "I have been forthright in disclosing all required information about my personal interests and holdings," Hagel wrote in his Feb. 5 response. "Your request for financial information regarding certain private corporate and non-profit entities is, by contrast, not mine to provide." He went on to write, "I do not believe I have any of the information requested. More importantly, the information you see is legally controlled by the individual entities and not mine to disclose. As a board member, I have a fiduciary duty that includes the obligation to maintain the confidentiality of non-public corporate information. The information may also be subject to various other legal requirement or contractual arrangements that prohibit its disclosure."

Ignoring the substance of that response completely, an unnamed Senate Republican aide close to the process told BuzzFeed, "Hagel is refusing to answer any of the questions or make any effort to get them the answers. He is basically telling Senators they have no right to know if he has been unduly influenced by foreign governments or foreign agents over the last five years. What is he hiding?" This line of questioning can never be sated: "If they want to hold hearings on the finances of these companies, they can do that, but it has nothing to do with Chuck Hagel's finances," said the Democratic official working on the confirmation. (The Republican aide told BuzzFeed that McCain was reconsidering his anti-filibuster stance, something a McCain spokesperson denied to the website.) 

Another request of Hagel came in the Jan. 29 letter for a list, transcripts, videos and recordings, and other information about speeches the nominee gave since leaving the Senate. Hagel complied with the request, noting in his response that "all available prepared texts and transcripts have been provided to the Committee." Hagel added that he gave about two dozen speeches arranged by a D.C. speakers' bureau, and provided a list of the talks. The "contract for these engagements stipulates that they are off-the-record, private and not recorded," he wrote in response to the request. "I did not prepare a written text for any of those engagements." In other words, the requested information about those speeches does not exist. "What they're asking for is completely unprecedented and almost impossible to compile," a Senate Democratic aide told me. "The Pentagon believes they've handed over all the information they're legally obligated to hand over." Hagel's already released large amount of information, going well beyond the legally required public disclosures. Listed in his Feb. 5 response, this information was all available to Republicans well before the hearings.

"It's absurd," Steve Clemons, a friend of Hagel's and Washington editor-at-large of the Atlantic told me when I asked about the requests. "He's given them every transcript, every video, every shred of everything that he's done. But they don't believe it," Clemons, who wrote about Cruz's request for transcripts today, said.

The only missing piece, then, was why Levin acceded to these unreasonable Republican requests. "U.S. Senators who head committees have a commitment to making sure not that the demands of the opposition are always met, but that respect is always shown," Clemons said. "I sort of think Levin should have said, 'Hey, he has responded.'"

Joel Rubin, the director of policy and government affairs with the Ploughshares Fund, which wants a quick confirmation and applauded the nomination, echoed the sentiment: "Chairmen of committees want to make sure everyone on the committee gets their concerns answered," he said. "Levin's not the type of chairman who forces the minority's hand. I don't think it's unlimited time, but this is an attempt to give that benefit to the minority. At a certain point, the chairman will decide whether or not that request has been satisfied enough to go forward with the vote."

The Democratic official was less forgiving: "The White House still expects that the Senate will move swiftly to confrim Chuck Hagel," the said. "With 66,000 troops in Afghanistan and other pressing national security issues, we really need to move forward with this confirmation. It's the responsible thing to do when we're at war."