Report: Hagel likely top White House pick for Department of Defense chief

Former Nebraska Republican senator and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel has taken the top spot on the Obama administration's shortlist of candidates to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon, according to news reports.

Hagel, who currently serves as the president of the Atlantic Council, has undergone the White House's vetting process for the top job at the Department of Defense (DOD) and is awaiting President Obama's final approval for the Pentagon nomination, Bloomberg reported Thursday.

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Hagel was brought to the White House on Dec. 4 to discuss the possibility of taking Panetta's post after the Pentagon chief announced earlier this year that he would likely be leaving the department.

Hagel, former DOD policy chief Michele Flournoy and current Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter were the top three finalists to be Panetta's successor at DOD.

Hagel was also rumored to be at the top on Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz) list of defense chiefs during his failed presidential bid in 2008.

Along with his position at the Atlantic Council, Hagel also co-chairs the White House's Intelligence Advisory Board.

White House press secretary Jay Carney fielded questions on Thursday over the presumptive nominee's stance on several key national security issues.

During a press conference, Carney was asked about the president's opinion on Hagel's vote against extending sanctions on Iran. That vote has drawn bipartisan fire from allies of Israel.

Carney emphasized that "the president thinks very highly of Sen. Hagel," but declined to comment on the Iran question or the former senator's possible nomination, noting he did not have any personnel announcements on the matter.

Hagel is also known as the chief Republican critic of the George W. Bush administration on the Iraq War. He opposed the surge in 2007, and traveled with then-presidential candidate Obama on a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq in 2008.

Hagel’s opposition to the Iraq surge “will cast his judgment into some doubt among some Republicans in particular," Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon told The Hill last Friday.

That opposition could "further [reduce] the odds that his appointment would do anything to change the tone in Washington or help Obama build a bridge to the GOP, if that was part of the thinking in considering Hagel,” O’Hanlon said.


—Justin Sink and Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.