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FOX "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace" Transcript: President Obama's Picks for National Security Team


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WALLACE: Up next, two key senators on the president's picks for his new national security team and what they say about his policies for the second term.


WALLACE: President Obama has announced that a national security team he wants for his second term and, bruising confirmation battles are shaping up over several picks, especially former Senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense.

Joining me now are two key members of the Senate Armed Services Committee: Republican Kelly Ayotte and Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

And, Senators, welcome back to "Fox News Sunday."


SEN. KELLY AYOTTE, R-N.H.: Thank you, Chris.

WALLACE: Before we get to national security, I want to pick up very briefly on the conversation we just had in the last segment about guns.

Senator Ayotte, you have an A-rating from the NRA. Senator Blumenthal, you have an F-rating from the NRA.

When you look at the ideas that Vice President Biden is talking about and that he's going to submit to the president on Tuesday, I want to ask you both what you can support.

For instance, Senator Ayotte, can you support the idea of universal background checks?

AYOTTE: Chris, let me say I think -- I think it would be important that we have the thoughtful discussion about this. We haven't -- I didn't hear a lot of discussion this morning with your prior guests about also our mental health system. My background before serving in the Senate, I was a homicide prosecutor. So I do come at it from a perspective that taking away the rights of law abiding citizens was not going to stop a deranged individual or a criminal.

That said, should we look at improving our background check system? I'm willing to listen to what proposals come forward on that. But, again, I don't know that that wouldn't have stopped what happened in Newtown, and I think we need to be very thoughtful in how we go forward with what happens and make sure that whatever is done, actually, is a solution to the problem.

WALLACE: Senator Blumenthal, you, of course, represent Newtown, Connecticut, the scene of that horrific shooting. With the strength of the gun lobby, which we demonstrated in the last segment, what are the chances that the Biden plan or some of the big elements in it could get through Congress?

BLUMENTHAL: Not only do I represent the state of Connecticut and Newtown, Chris, but I really lived through that very searing, painful grief in the weeks afterwards, speaking with families and the Newtown community and, anyone who lived through that period of time has been changed. And I think the nation has been transformed in the debate, and the discussions and conversations we are having about gun violence prevention now.

I think the nation is ready for more thorough background checks so that we cover the 40 percent that now are not covered. I think the nation's ready for a ban on assault weapons, and high capacity magazines, and, most important, Chris, I think there is common ground here in the need for better enforcement of the existing laws.

Let me give you one very, very important example. We have no background checks now on purchases of ammunition. It is against the law for a fugitive, a felon, a deranged person, someone seriously mentally ill, someone under a court order for domestic violence abuse, to purchase ammunition, and firearms. But there are no background checks on purchase of ammunition. So someone can walk into a Walmart, buy a shopping cart full of ammunition, walk out, pay, no questions asked.

That's why I have proposed that we have background checks not only on firearms purchases, but also ammunition and prohibit the Teflon tip and incendiary bullets. I think the bullets, along with the firearms, are what we need to focus on. And, my background also, is law enforcement. I was attorney general --


WALLACE: I do want to get to national security. As I said, you are both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will be holding the hearings on Chuck Hagel as new defense secretary.

Let's look at some of the issues that critics have raised about him:

On Iran, Hagel voted against sanctions. He says unilateral measures isolate us. He opposed naming the revolutionary guards as terrorist because he says President Bush might have used that as cover for a military attack.

On Israel, he said the U.S. should talk to Hamas. He opposed declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization. He also said -- this is the quote -- "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here."

Senator Ayotte, how troubled are you by the Hagel nomination?

AYOTTE: Chris, let me say I am very troubled. I think the hearings on this nomination are going to be consequential. I have not made up my mind. But here's where we are -- you put up his prior positions, it makes me wonder, it perplexes me why the president nominated Senator Hagel.

One of the things that troubles me that you didn't put up is the reaction of Iran -- one of the greatest threats that we face is that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, some his prior statements seem to suggest that we could -- he thinks we can contain Iran. Well, that's against 99 senators. We recently voted and Richard Blumenthal is a great supporter of that, that our policy cannot be to contain a nuclear armed Iran.

Iran, this week, kind of reacted favorably somewhat. There were some statements favorable to his nomination. In fact, they said they were hopeful that with his nomination, they hoped that we would change our policies.

What I want to make sure is that Iran is actually not hopeful, but they are fearful as a result of our nominee for secretary of defense perspective, because that will cause them to stop marching toward acquiring a nuclear weapon, not hope that we'll change our policies, they need to change their policies.

WALLACE: So, is it fair to say you are leaning against his nomination at this point?

AYOTTE: Chris, I think it's fair to say that if you look at his prior positions, that he has a lot of questions to answer about this. And, I'm deeply troubled by it. I guess I also wonder what message are we sending to Iran, what message are we sending to Israel? And I'm perplexed that the president has nominated him, given the statements he made during his presidential campaign.

WALLACE: Senator Blumenthal, simple question: are you comfortable with Chuck Hagel's positions on Iran and Israel?

BLUMENTHAL: I'm going to want to ask questions about those positions. I'm not --

WALLACE: Are you comfortable with them?

BLUMENTHAL: I am not comfortable yet. I want to ask him questions about those two issues.

But two points have to be stressed. Number one, Chuck Hagel is someone of stature. He was a war hero. He's a combat veteran. He's a person of enormous personal distinction in his record of public service, in the Senate, but, also, in uniform.

And, second, you know, there are tremendously consequential issues that are equally important to ask about during this hearing. For example, the shift of focus to the Asian-Pacific theater. Will we have the undersea warfare capability, as well as air superiority to defend our strategy in that part of the world? Submarines, the Joint Strike Fighter, tremendously important to our future.

I want to ask Senator Hagel about his positions on those issues. I think we have reached a point in this country, unfortunately, where positions are taken on nominees, very dramatic, and staunch positions, before they have the opportunity to give their own positions.

MATTHEWS: But to make it clear, you are not -- this is a Democratic president naming his (INAUDIBLE) -- you are at this point not prepared to say you support the Hagel nomination.

BLUMENTHAL: I think Senator Hagel will be approved. I think the history of nominees shows and I think his own qualifications also demonstrate that he has the capacity. But I want to know his positions on those issues. And I reserve judgment until I hear his responses.

WALLACE: I want to get to broaden this out. The bigger issue with all of the president's national security picks it seems to me, Senator Ayotte is he seems to have come down firmly on the side of pursuing a light footprint strategy in his second term, ending the wars we are in, limiting new interventions and relying more on drones and commando, you know, Special Operations Forces, as well as multi- lateral actions.

As you look at that, are you -- are you comfortable with that as a foreign policy approach?

AYOTTE: Well, I'm concerned, Chris, about what this says and, let's step back for a minute.

Exhibit A on light footprint, what happened in the consulate in Benghazi? The fact that security was not what it should have been there, the fact that we relied on local militias that there was a rise of activity, by al Qaeda-inspired militias in the area and we didn't have the proper security there. And then during that attack, we didn't have the response within the 7-hour period that we needed to obviously save lives.

But, let's step back further from that, what we have seen is a pattern of the president, on numerous occasions where, none of us want to send men and women to war, if we don't have to. And, obviously we want to bring them home as quickly as possible.

But example A, another example, Iraq. We had the recommendations of his general, General Austin, 15,000 to 18,000 troops as a follow-on and then it was pared down to 3,000. They couldn't negotiate the Status of Forces Agreement. And now, you have al Qaeda coming -- we have al Qaeda activity in Iraq, and as well as Iran playing a greater role. We are seeing the same thing in Afghanistan, right now.

The problem is, is that the light footprint, if you don't leave the proper follow-on in Afghanistan and we have seen a pattern where he wants to withdraw, remember, during the fighting season, the election season when no military commander recommended it, we are seeing the same thing now with the recent discussions with President Karzai. And, the worry is, is that a light footprint approach can leave us in a situation where the Taliban come back in power, where al Qaeda is again given a launching pad to commit attacks against our country.

So I am concerned about this approach.

WALLACE: And, Senator Blumenthal, generally speaking, light footprint, less boots on the ground, less intervention, more drones, small commando operations, multi-lateral operations.

BLUMENTHAL: A lean, agile, very effective Special Operations Force is America's future in many parts of the world in fighting terrorism and, Special Operations and SEALs and drones together, in terms of intelligence gathering, as well as an effective fighting force, can be tremendously effective.

I think what we need to do, Chris, is define the mission. And that will, in turn, determine the size of the footprint. For example in Afghanistan, counterterrorism, fighting Special Operations as well as training will require some footprint on the ground. The question is, how many?

And I think Kelly Ayotte is absolutely right to be focused on these issues. By the way, we have worked together on a very bipartisan way. She and Senator John McCain and Senator Graham and myself, Senator Casey on Iran.

AYOTTE: And I have great respect for Richard on these issues.

BLUMENTHAL: And so, as members of the Armed Services Committee, we're going to continue working together, because there is no Republican or Democrat approach to national security. It ought to be one approach.

WALLACE: We're going to have to leave it there.

Senator Blumenthal, Senator Ayotte, we want to thank you both. Thanks for coming in today. It's always good to talk with both of you.

AYOTTE: Thank you, Chris.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you, Chris.

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