CNN "The Situation Room" Transcript: Hagel Nomination

Interview

By:  John McCain III
Date: Jan. 8, 2013
Location: Unknown

BLITZER: Some of his former Senate colleagues and former Republicans -- or even fellow Republicans, I should say -- are raising serious concerns about Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the nation's next secretary of defense. Among them, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the ranking member of the armed services committee, which will hold the confirmation hearings.

The senator is joining us now from Arizona. Senator McCain, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Let's get to Chuck Hagel, first of all. You released a pretty strong statement. Among other things, you wrote this: "I have serious concerns about positions Senator Hagel has taken on a range of national security issues in recent years, which we will fully consider in the course of his confirmation process."

So you get a chance to question him. What's your biggest concern? MCCAIN: Well, my biggest concern is his overall attitude about the United States, our role in the world, particularly in the Middle East and whether we should reduce the Pentagon further, but mainly, his general overall world view.

Chuck Hagel and I are friends. I appreciate and honor his service in the Vietnam conflict, and we have worked together on a number of issues. I've noticed over the years that our views on the United States of America and what we should be doing in the world has diverged rather dramatically, and I guess the best example of that is the surge in Iraq.

We both knew that we were losing the war in Iraq. Lindsey Graham and I and Joe Lieberman and others said we need a surge, and -- and the president somewhat reluctantly adopted that -- the surge, and it succeeded. Now, what the president did afterwards is another discussion.

But Chuck Hagel, at the time, made a rather unusual statement, at least to me, and said that the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, and then, somehow, in his statement if the foreign relations committee, compared it to the invasion of Cambodia. Now, that -- that, to me is -- and I've never heard him contradict that statement or change his position about the surge.

We lost over 2,000 young Americans in Iraq, and we could have succeeded there. As you noticed, it's unraveling now, because the president decided to get out without a residual force. But the surge did succeed, and Senator Hagel, obviously, said it couldn't, and he called it the biggest blunder since the Vietnam War. That is a really -- a gross misconception of America's roles there and in the world.

BLITZER: And in defense of the president, he got out because the Iraqi government wouldn't allow U.S. troops to remain there after withdrawal, to have immunity from Iraqi prosecution. And he said, "We're not leaving troops there if they're going to be potentially arrested by the Iraqis," Senator.

MCCAIN: Wolf, now, you know, that's one of the great myths perpetrated by the Obama administration. Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman and I were there. They were ready to deal. They would not tell the Iraqis how many troops they wanted there. They could have stayed. They cut it way, way back down to around 3,000 troops, where they couldn't have been protected, and the Iraqis said, no deal.

But it was because the president wanted out. He never gave them a chance to accept a reasonable number. And it is a huge failure, and we are paying a very heavy price for it.

Don't believe that about what the Iraqis said. I was there. I was there and looked Maliki in the eye, and he said," How many troops do you want? I will agree."

And he turned our ambassador and General Austin. They said, "We're still working on it." I came back and asked Mr. Donilon, the national security adviser, "How many?" And she -- he would not give a number. They wanted out; they got out. Now we're paying a very heavy price for it.

BOLDUAN: And back to Chuck Hagel, Senator, take a look back, he and you did seem pretty good friends. I want you to listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: My fellow Americans, I introduce you to a great Republican, a great American leader, my friend, John McCain.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: That was from the 2000 national Republican convention. And then in 2006, you're quoted as telling "New York Times," "I'd be honored to have Chuck with me in any capacity. He'd make a great secretary of state."

So Senator McCain, what happened to the friendship?

MCCAIN: The friendship, I hope, is still there. I mean, just our views began to diverge rather dramatically about the role of the United States in the world, as I just explained. Not only as far as Iraq was concerned; Iran, sanctions on Iran, which he voted against, blocked in one set of sanctions. Basically took a view of the Iranian threat, which I don't think has been justified by events that followed. And several other areas on -- in national security policy.

I respect, admire, and call him a friend, but I have very serious questions about whether -- whether he will serve in the way that I think serve America's best national interests, but I want to have the hearings. I'd like to hear him make his case, and I will reserve judgment.

BLITZER: You also have serious questions about John Brennan to become the next director of the CIA. In the statement you released on his nomination, you say, "I have many questions and concerns about his nomination to be director of the CIA, especially what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs, while serving at the CIA during the last administration."

What do you think? Are you going to be -- what are you going to ask him about that? He seems to have answered a lot of those questions already.

MCCAIN: Well, I've never heard anyone say that at the time, they heard Mr. Brennan object to the waterboarding and the other techniques, which were in violation of the Geneva conventions, which the United States is a signatory to.

Second of all, there are some instance that took place on his watch which have still not fully been investigated. And I also believe that there's also serious questions about the information that Mr. Brennan gave from the White House after the bin Laden raid, such as the identification of SEAL Team 6, a story about how they believed that bin Laden had reached for a gun or -- a number of statements that he made.

So there was supposed to be an investigation of the leaks concerning the bin Laden raid, and is he still subject to that investigation? Is that -- that investigation is still going on, as far as I know.

BOLDUAN: And your friend, Senator Lindsey Graham, came out today, basically in a statement, threatening to put a hold on Brennan's nomination until he gets better answers or more satisfactory answers on the attack in Benghazi. Specifically, Susan Rice's talking points, when she went on the Sunday morning talk shows.

Do you stand with Senator Graham on that? Do you think that his nomination should be held?

MCCAIN: Well, I'm not sure about that, but I do believe that it should be of great interest to the American people, that we still haven't gotten an accurate depiction of how the talking points in a classified fashion then went to an unclassified talking points, which took out the words "terrorist," "al Qaeda," any reference of that and to a terrorist attack and completely changed the impression that people got concerning the narrative of what happened when we lost four brave Americans.

So I think Lindsey's point is very well made. We still haven't found out these many months later, who changed the talking points and why? I think that's a legitimate question.

BLITZER: One final question, Senator, before we let you go. North Korea. You tweeted this yesterday. It jumped out at me. You're talking about Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., former New Mexico governor; Eric Schmidt, the Google chairman. You said, "Richardson and Schmidt arrive in North Korea today. Lenin used to call them, quote, 'useful idiots'."

All right, explain.

MCCAIN: Well, you know, he would have people over to the Soviet Union, and they'd take them on the tour, you know, of the model farm and all of that, and they would -- people would come back and say, "Gee, it's wonderful." What was "The New York times" guy -- you'd probably remember, Wolf -- that said, "I've seen the revolution in the future, and it's there in Russia." And they were all fooled.

Now, you know, the North Koreans just launched a missile that could have the potential, if they develop a nuclear weapon of the right size, that could hit the United States of America. There are 250,000 people in their gulag. Do you think that -- that the North Koreans are going to take Governor Richardson and Mr. Schmidt to see one of those gulags? I don't think so.

And so what this does, it provides a propaganda kind of success for this young four-star general, with his people: "See, the Americans have come to see us."

And finally, how many trips has Mr. Richardson taken to North Korea, and what have been the results of it?

BLITZER: Well, I actually went with him two years ago. I covered that trip, and there seemed to have been an immediate effort -- it was a very tense time, in the aftermath of that trip, a little easing of the military tensions between North and South Korea. The North Koreans have just destroyed a South Korean ship. There is a potential for fighting, and it seemed to ease a little bit as a result of that trip.

He's also trying to bring home an American citizen, who's being held captive in North Korea right now. So hopefully, he'll achieve something on that trip, but you obviously disagree.

MCCAIN: Look, Wolf, I think that it's important to recognize what a big propaganda thing this is for North Korean leaders, especially this young man who hasn't proven himself. They have just -- even our State Department has said that they did not think it was a good thing to do at this time.

And again, this is the most repressive, brutal regime on earth. Two hundred and fifty-thousand people are dying in the gulag. We just got a book from a guy that escaped from there. The most horrific conditions. Shouldn't we be condemning this kind of thing, rather than sending -- people going over there and providing them with some kind of propaganda?

To me, it's not appropriate. I think it's a job for our government and our State Department.

And again, I think that maybe it eased the tensions a little bit. You may have a point there. But did it deter the North Koreans from the path that they're on, which is to develop a missile which will hit the United States of America, and their continued transfer of this technology to countries like Iran and others?

BLITZER: Look, I don't disagree with you. It's a brutal regime, and we were really restricted in what we could see, obviously. They didn't show us any gulags -- gulags, to be sure.

I do think in defense of Richardson, he's going with his eyes wide open. He's not going to come back and be a propagandist, to be sure, for North Korea.

But you know what? We're out of time, Senator. We'll continue this. We'll hear what he says when he comes back, and hopefully, he'll say the right thing. I suspect he will. But we'll see.

Senator, as usual, thanks very much.

MCCAIN: Thank you.