Sen. Chuck Hagel backed down this week from previously held positions on nuclear arms cuts during meetings with senators who are considering his nomination to be defense secretary in an apparent effort to sway those concerned about his liberal anti-nuclear views.
Hagel has told senators he is no longer a staunch supporter of the nuclear weapons views of retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, who authored an anti-nuclear weapons report sponsored by the international disarmament group Global Zero.
"Hagel has thrown Cartwright under the bus about the Global Zero [report] in his meetings with senators," said a congressional aide familiar with the closed-door sessions.
An administration official working with Hagel on the confirmation disputed the notion the former senator is changing his views during the meetings.
"He is answering questions and clarifying his long-held beliefs…about our nuclear arsenal," the official said.
The official said Hagel believes that as long as there are nuclear threats the United States needs a safe, strong and ready nuclear arsenal and supports keeping all legs of the nuclear triad – land-based and sea-based missiles and bombers.
The former Republican senator from Nebraska has come under fire from national security specialists in the Senate and outside government who are concerned he would adopt radical anti-nuclear policies as defense secretary.
Hagel took part in a six-member Global Zero Nuclear Policy Commission headed by Cartwright that called for cutting United States nuclear warheads to 900 strategic weapons by 2022, with 450 deployed and the rest in storage.
Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) raised the issue of Hagel’s support for the Global Zero nuclear cuts during the nomination hearing Thursday of Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) to be secretary of state.
"[Hagel] was part of a group called Global Zero, and for those of us who care deeply about our nuclear arsenal and modernization and that type of thing, some of the things that were authored in this report candidly are just concerning," Corker said.
Corker, new ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that if Hagel is confirmed for defense secretary, the traditional balance between the State Department, which favors arms control, and the Pentagon, which supports the weapons, "is not going to be there."
Corker said the Obama administration’s promised nuclear modernization that was a key to gaining Republican support for ratifying the 2010 New START arms treaty with Russia "is not occurring."
Kerry defended Hagel as "mainstream" even as he challenged those who, like Hagel, have advocated for the complete elimination of nuclear arms. "I believe in deterrence, and I find it very hard to think how you can get down to that number [zero] in today's world," Kerry said.
Kerry said the complete elimination of nuclear arms is "aspirational, but it's not something that could happen in today's world and nor could any leader today sit here or in any other chair and promote to you the notion that we ought to be cutting down our deterrent level below an adequate level to maintain deterrence."
Kerry said Hagel is "realistic" about arms cuts and does not believe the former senator would go to the Pentagon and eliminate all nuclear weapons if he is confirmed as defense secretary. "It's worth aspiring to, but we'll be lucky if we get there in however many centuries the way we're going," he said.
The Pentagon, in its lobbying effort to win confirmation, recently published a list of "myths" about Hagel, including the claim that "Hagel would weaken our nuclear deterrent."
The report says Hagel believes the United States and "mankind" should "work towards a world free of nuclear weapons—a goal that is squarely in line with the vision President Obama."
However, it stated that Hagel has always believed that as long as nuclear threats exist "the United States must maintain a strong and ready nuclear arsenal."
The Global Zero nuclear pledge Hagel signed, however, states, "We, the undersigned, believe that to protect our children, our grandchildren and our civilization from the threat of nuclear catastrophe, we must eliminate all nuclear weapons globally."
Calls by anti-nuclear activists such as Hagel for sharp cuts come as both China and Russia are increasing their nuclear forces and other states are modernizing their arsenals as well.
Critics of Hagel say his backing away from earlier anti-nuclear arms position appears to be part of an effort to win Senate confirmation while masking his real views.
Hagel’s views on nuclear arms are being examined by several senators who are concerned he will be responsible for several strategic nuclear modernization programs in the event of his confirmation.
Hagel, as defense chief, would be required to sign off on the Pentagon’s already-completed Nuclear Posture Review implementation study, a major strategic review of U.S. nuclear forces.
U.S. officials have said that study considered several warhead levels, including the radical proposal to cut nuclear warheads to as few as 300 warheads, fewer than are currently estimated in China’s strategic arsenal.
"Sen. Hagel co-authored a report published in 2012 that advocates the complete elimination of the U.S. ICBM force and deep reductions in the strategic bomber and submarine legs of the U.S. triad of nuclear forces, down to a total of 450 deployed U.S. nuclear weapons," said Keith Payne, a former Pentagon official and strategic arms specialist.
"By contrast, the administration's recently completed New START Treaty allows 1,550 accountable strategic nuclear weapons."
Payne, president of the National Institute for Public Policy, said proposals for deep strategic arms cuts have been around for decades and reflect what he called the "minimum deterrence" approach to strategic arms.
"However, for six decades, every past Democratic and Republican administration has rejected minimum deterrence as a fundamentally inadequate basis for considering U.S. nuclear force requirements and incredible for preventing war," he said.
"In addition, the [Global Zero] report recommends the possibility of unilateral and unreciprocated U.S. deep force reductions to minimum deterrence levels," said Payne. "Deep reductions of this sort are an option rejected by every past Democratic and Republican administration, given the robust and on-going nuclear weapons programs of countries manifestly hostile to us or our allies—programs which continue today."
Six senators with home-state nuclear bases recently expressed concerns about Hagel’s call, in the Global Zero report, to eliminate all land-based nuclear missiles and to cut the strategic bomber force sharply.
Hagel is on the board of directors of the anti-nuclear group the Ploughshares Fund in addition to Global Zero, and his ties to Ploughshares also have raised concerns among some senators, aides said.
Ploughshares funded a study last year that called for cutting U.S. spending on nuclear weapons at a time when the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile is in urgent need of modernization.
Ploughshares has spent more than $5 million in the past several years on a campaign to promote what the group calls a "world without nuclear weapons." It has also funded public efforts to dissuade the United States from conducting or supporting military action against Iran’s illicit nuclear program.
One key senator who met Hagel on Tuesday is John McCain (R., Ariz.), a powerful national security specialist who until recently was the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. That committee will hold hearings on the Hagel nomination Wednesday.
A McCain aide could not be reached for comment on whether Hagel’s stance on nuclear weapons came up during the meeting between the two men.
McCain voiced tepid support for Hagel on Tuesday, telling reporters "we had a very frank and candid conversation, and I'll be looking forward to the hearing and asking questions."
"We discussed my concerns," McCain said without elaborating. "We'll be talking more about them in the hearing."
The Ploughshares anti-nuclear group also has sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to left-wing and liberal groups, including $250,000 to the Center for American Progress, a group closely aligned with the Obama White House.
Other recipients of Ploughshares money include the National Security Network, a group that opposes military action against Iran; and National Public Radio, which received more than $350,000. NPR frequently reported stories that advocated cutting U.S. nuclear arms.
Ploughshares provided more than $600,000 to the National Iranian American Council since 2007 that promoted "non-military" approaches to Iran’s nuclear program.
A group of 10 arms control proponents this week issued a statement in support of Hagel, including Ploughshares president Joseph Cirinccione.
The advocates praised Hagel for his work with Ploughshares and Global Zero in an open letter to President Barack Obama. "The U.S. must prepare for the years ahead with its defense policies as well as its other government policies," the letter said. "Sen. Hagel is truly the man for to cope with all these challenges; he is the right man at the right time."
Several Democratic senators, meanwhile, voiced their support for Hagel this week. Additionally, a group of 13 former secretaries of defense and state and national security advisers sent a letter to members of the Senate endorsing Hagel.