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Obama taps 'American patriot' Hagel for Pentagon job

Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama arrives with Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel during an event in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 7.

Updated 4:22 p.m. ET -- President Barack Obama named his choices for two of the nation's prominent national security posts Monday, teeing up a likely confirmation struggle over his pick for the Secretary of Defense, a position that's historically drawn overwhelming bipartisan support.

Obama tapped former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican war veteran whose stances on Israel and Iran have angered some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, to head the Pentagon. He also announced Monday his choice of counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to be the new head of the Central Intelligence Agency. 

"Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve," Obama said at the announcement at the White House. "He is an American patriot." 

Noting that Hagel served in the Vietnam War, Obama said that the Purple Heart recipient "knows that war is not an abstraction."

Even before Obama made it official, the nomination of former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense generated an outcry from both sides of the aisle. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

"In Chuck Hagel, our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength," Obama said. "They see one of their own."  

Thanking the president for the nomination, Hagel pledged to offer his "honest and most informed counsel" to the administration.

The White House hopes to paint the sometimes gruff Hagel as a truth-telling war hero with extensive experience on the world stage, while opponents question his support of Israel and his commitment to preventing a nuclear Iran.

The former Nebraska lawmaker has also come under fire for his 1998 opposition to an ambassadorial nominee for being "openly, aggressively gay." He recently apologized for the remark.

(In his opening remarks Monday, Obama alluded to the recent repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy towards gay service members, referencing the Pentagon's commitment to allowing them to "serve the country they love, no matter who they love.")

Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay member of the Senate, told NBC's Andrea Mitchell Monday that she wants to speak to Hagel to determine whether his apology for the remark is "sincere and sufficient."

In an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star, Hagel charged that foes have "completely distorted" his record on the issues and that he now has "an opportunity to set the record straight" on Israel and other issues.

Part of that process has already begun, as the White House has been “reaching out to a number of groups and individuals with regards to this nomination,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. 

Carney suggested such preemptive measures are necessary given how quick critics are to pounce: “it is certainly an unfortunate reality that has become the norm here in Washington, that even when names are bandied about in the press as possible nominees, that a process begins where critics jump all over them. And you know, that's just part of -- one of the reasons why Washington has become a more fractious place.”

Hagel's controversial nomination comes after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name from consideration to be the next Secretary of State amid criticism for her role in the administration's investigation of a September attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. 

If confirmed, Hagel would be the first former enlisted soldier to become the secretary of defense. His views of international conflict are heavily influenced by his own service in the Vietnam War; he won two Purple Hearts for his service and still has pieces of shrapnel embedded in his chest.

A vocal critic of the troop surge in Iraq, Hagel has questioned his own party's foreign policy strategy and further irked Republicans by endorsing Democrat Bob Kerrey in Nebraksa's tight Senate race last year. (Kerrey lost.)

Brennan, one of the president's most trusted advisers, has spent most of his career at the C.I.A. He was considered for the same post in 2009 but withdrew from consideration after critics said he had failed to speak out against interrogation techniques such as waterboarding that human rights groups believe to be torture.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a onetime POW who has been a vocal opponent of torture, said he has concerns about Brennan's nomination.

"I appreciate John Brennan’s long record of service to our nation, but I have many questions and concerns about his nomination to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, especially what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs," McCain said in a statement.

On Monday, Obama praised Brennan for his "commitment to the values that bind us as Americans." 

"He has worked to embed our efforts in a strong legal framework," Obama said of Brennan. "He understands we are a nation of laws."

Winning laughs at the generally somber announcement, outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta said that, after a long career in public service, he would welcome the opportunity to spend time at his California walnut farm. 

"Dealing with a different set of nuts," he joked.  

NBC's Ali Weinberg contributed to this report. 

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, explains his comments that nomination Sen. Chuck Hagel to the Secretary of Defense position is the "worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East."