Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte sent a letter to secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel Friday afternoon asking whether he said the U.S. Department of State was an extension of the Israeli government in a 2007 speech at Rutgers.
"Given the importance of U.S. policy towards the Middle East and the Secretary of Defense’s direct role in implementing this policy, it is critical that we have a better understanding of your remarks before we vote on your nomination," Senators Graham and Ayotte write in the letter.
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"Did you, in fact make this statement at the Rutgers event or have you ever made similar comments? If you made these comments or similar comments, please explain what you meant. Finally, does such a statement in any way reflect your views on the U.S.-Israeli relationship?"
The letter was prompted by a Thursday story in the Washington Free Beacon that reported on a contemporaneous account of Hagel’s speech by George Ajjan, a Hagel supporter. Ajjan’s account was first unearthed by Steve Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism.
Hagel, according to Ajjan, described the State Department as an adjunct of the Israeli foreign minister’s office during a Q&A session after the speech. Ajjan told the Free Beacon he had been "taking notes as [Hagel] was speaking" and "If I wrote it, then that’s what happened at the time."
An official working on Hagel's confirmation said the secretary of defense nominee "will be responding to this latest letter, as he's done with every other he's received."
The American Jewish Committee echoed the senators’ concerns on Friday, calling for further deliberation of Hagel’s nomination before a vote takes place.
"In light of [Hagel’s] complex record in the Senate and controversial statements he has made since his public service on strategic and political affairs—notably grappling with the range of pressing Middle East issues—AJC believes that further Senate deliberation is called for before any final vote is taken," said AJC Executive Director David Harris.
On Thursday, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League told the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin, "It is somewhat puzzling that this would surface the day that the Senate was scheduled to vote on the nomination. Nevertheless, if the story is true, it is very disturbing – probably more disturbing than his interview in Aaron David Miller’s book. If it is not true, then Senator Hagel should say so, and take the speculation about his remark off of the table."
Hooshang Amirahmadi, director of the Rutgers Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Iranian American Council, organized the Rutgers event and disagrees with Ajjan's account.
Amirahmadi, who is currently in the UK as part of his campaign for president of Iran, told the Free Beacon on Friday that he did not recall Hagel calling the State Department an adjunct of the Israeli government.
"That’s complete nonsense," said Amirahmadi, adding that some of his "very good Jewish colleagues who are very pro-Israel" did not appear offended at any point during the speech.
"He didn’t specifically talk about the State Department," the 2013 Iranian presidential hopeful continued. "Not a single word came out of his mouth that anybody in the audience interpreted as anti-Israel or anything close to it."
When pressed on whether Hagel had mentioned the State Department during the Q&A, Amirahmadi said "it is possible," noting the speech took place seven years ago.
The Free Beacon is working to obtain a transcript and video of the Q&A session and continuing to speak to others who attended the event.
The prepared remarks of the 2007 speech, which do not include remarks made during the Q&A, were posted online by BuzzFeed yesterday. Hagel calls for the U.S. to engage the Iranian regime in the remarks and proposes "offering to re-open a [U.S.] consulate in Tehran."
The Senate voted down a motion to proceed with Hagel’s confirmation vote on Thursday, citing concerns about the nominee’s past statements and associations.