Hagel also underwent some tough, pointed questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an ally of McCain's in the Senate. Graham pointed out Hagel's decision not to sign letters on Middle-East policy during his Senate career, at one point asking Hagel, "Do you think that the sum total of your record, all that together, that the image you've created is one of sending the worst possible signal to our enemies and friends at one of the most critical times in world history?"
Hagel said he did not.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., appeared dissatisfied with Hagel's answers on nuclear nonproliferation. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., suggested Hagel had "flip-flop[ped]" on Middle East policy since being nominated.
But perhaps the most aggressive GOP senator in questioning Hagel was newly elected Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who arranged for audio recordings of Hagel to be played in the committee room, as he questioned Hagel about a past interview. He suggeted Hagel's record "demonstrates a greater antagonism for the state of Israel than any member of this body." And he requested that Hagel read and submit written reaction to a speech by Charles Freeman, a former intelligence nominee who withdrew in 2009 after controversy arose over his stances on Israel.
Senate Republicans and pro-Israel groups have voiced grievances with Hagel's record, including opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran, support for talks with Hamas, opposition to deeming Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, and a reference to Israel-backing groups as the "Jewish lobby."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., acknowledged such concerns as he opened the committee's hearing, referencing "troubling statements [Hagel] has made about Israel and its supporters in the United States."
Hagel defended his Middle East record under questioning from multiple senators.
"When I voted against some of those unilateral sanctions on Iran, it was a different time," Hagel said, referring to votes in the early 2000s. "We were in a different place with Iran at that time. As a matter of fact, the Bush administration did not want a five-year renewal of [the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act] at that time because they weren't sure of the effectiveness of the sanctions."
Hagel said his record of public statements shows he has consistently referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups and Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism.
"The way I approached every vote I took in the Senate was what I thought would be the most effective," Hagel said, defending his vote against labeling Iran's guard corps as a terrorist group. "What was the situation at the time, how can we do this smarter and better?"
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee's top Republican, said he will oppose Hagel's nomination.
"Senator Hagel is a good man who has a record of service," Inhofe said of his former GOP colleague, while concluding, "He is the wrong person to lead the Pentagon.
Hagel was introduced at the hearing by former Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and John Warner, R-Va., two respected former members of the Armed Services Committee, both of whom lavished praise on Obama's nominee.