WASHINGTON • Chuck Hagel, the former Nebraska GOP senator and Vietnam veteran picked to head the Pentagon, endured tougher questions today than he got from Missouri's senators.
In tense moments, skeptics of Hagel on the Senate Armed Services Committee asked pointed questions about his past statements referring to Israel's clout in Washington and his endorsement of efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
But what Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt wanted to hear in Hagel's confirmation hearing went to the heart of what the Defense Department will be dealing with shortly -- deep budget cuts -- and potential threats to St. Louis-made weaponry.
McCaskill (D) pressed Hagel on the Pentagon's legendary capacity to skirt financial oversight and received a promise of "auditability" of defense programs by 2017.
She also questioned Hagel on the wisdom of the military's recent practice of financing expensive public works projects in Iraq and Afghanistan amid doubts that they would endure.
"The health centers that never opened," McCaskill said, speaking of spending in Iraq. "The water parks that sit crumbling. The power facilities that were blown up before they ever had the opportunity to operate. Billions of dollars off waste because we didn't do the analysis on sustainability after we left. I am convinced that we have made the same mistakes in Afghanistan."
Hagel did not dispute McCaskill's assertions.
"I think in both of those wars, because we got ourselves in so deep with so many people ... we tried a lot of things. We had never been this way before; we had never seen anything quite like these two situations," he said.
As a result, he added, investigations have found "billions and billions and billions of dollars that are unaccounted for; corruption, fraud, waste, abuse. It really is quite astounding."
Blunt (R) asked about looming cuts in defense spending, initially a 16.3 percent reduction across the board if Congress does not find a way by March 1 to avoid the so-called sequestration — broad cuts agreed to in 2011 to reduce federal deficits.
Blunt noted that he is concerned about reductions that could threaten the production lines of weaponry such as Boeing's St. Louis-made F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet.
"How do we keep our capacity at a time when there's this talk about cutting and not just cutting but cutting everything a little bit, which means that some of the things that get cut a little bit can't survive because they're only partly there?" Blunt asked.
Hagel replied in general terms that one of his main tasks is reshaping the military in lean times.
Referring to the Boeing-made aircraft, he said: "That a good example.of what we're going to have to continue to keep strong. But the reality is, as you say, we know what we've got to deal with, what our budgets are as a result of the Budget Act of 2011. What we don't know brings us back to the uncertainty of sequestration."