Human Rights Campaign demands Hagel repudiate remark about gay ambassador

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who is being considered as President Obama’s next Defense secretary, is facing criticism from a leading gay rights group over comments he made about an openly gay diplomatic nominee in 1998.

The attacks on Hagel’s record on gay rights follow criticism from pro-Israel groups over Hagel’s prior comments about the “Jewish lobby,” creating a storm of controversy that could lead the White House to think twice about nominating him. 

Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin released a statement Thursday criticizing Hagel for comments referring to James Hormel as “openly aggressively gay” when he was nominated to become ambassador of Luxembourg by President Clinton.

“For him to be an appropriate candidate for any administration post, he must repudiate his comments about Ambassador Hormel,” Griffin said. “Additionally, the next secretary of Defense must be supportive of open service as well as equal benefits for lesbian and gay military families and Senator Hagel must address these issues immediately.”

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In 1998, Hagel was quoted in the Omaha World-Herald explaining why he was opposed to confirming Hormel.

"They are representing America," Hagel said. "They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do an effective job."

Since Hagel’s name surfaced earlier this month as the favorite to be named as successor to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, he’s faced a number of criticisms that could be roadblocks to his confirmation.

Pro-Israel groups have honed in on a comment from Hagel about the “Jewish lobby” intimidating people in Washington, which he gave in an interview to Aaron David Miller in 2006. They’ve also raised questions about his support of U.S. engagement with Hamas an Iran.

Republican senators have also indicated they could have concerns about his opposition to the Iraq war and the surge there, as he was a leading GOP critic in the final years of the George W. Bush administration.

Now Hagel is coming under fire from liberals over his comments about Hormel and support of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the now-repealed policy that banned openly gay servicemembers.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday that he wouldn’t discuss Hagel’s record before any personnel announcements were made, but said that Hagel “fought and bled for his country.”

“He served his country well. He was an excellent senator,” Carney said.

Hagel’s supporters have come to his defense. A group of former U.S. ambassadors, including six to Israel, released an open letter Thursday defending his Middle East record and qualifications.

On Friday, 11 retired generals and admirals also penned a letter saying Hagel is “eminently qualified for the job.”

“He is a decorated Vietnam veteran, a successful businessman, a leader in Ronald Reagan’s Veteran’s Administration and, since his election to the Senate in 1996, one of the country’s leading voices on foreign policy,” the military leaders wrote.

In addition to Hagel, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy are on the short list of candidates.

The White House indicated Friday it was nominating Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to be secretary of State, but the administration’s picks for Defense and CIA director do not appear imminent.