WASHINGTON, Jan. 7, 2013 -- President Obama today rounded out his second-term national security team, nominating former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to head the Department of Defense and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to lead the CIA.
Obama heralded the credentials of both candidates during an East Room press conference, flanked by both men and their predecessors, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and acting CIA chief Mike Morell.
"Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve," Obama said. "He is an American patriot."
Turning to Brennan, a 25-year veteran of the CIA, Obama said he was one of the "most skilled and respected" members of his national security team, contributing "strong analytic insights" and "invaluable perspective."
"I hope that the Senate will act on these confirmations promptly," Obama said. "When it comes to national security, we don't like to leave a lot of gaps between the time that one set of leaders transitions out and another transitions in, so we need to get moving quickly on this."
But two weeks before his inauguration, Obama's selection of Hagel is expected to trigger a political storm over his confirmation in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of critics has already lined up against the pick.
"This is an in your face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CNN on Sunday. "I don't know what his management experience is regarding the Pentagon -- little, if any, so I think it's an incredibly controversial choice."
The criticism stems from Hagel's controversial past statements on foreign policy, including a 2008 reference to Israel's U.S. supporters as "the Jewish lobby," public encouragement of negotiations between the United States, Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian group the State Department classifies as terrorists, and his stance on how to deal with Iran.
"Hagel has consistently been against economic sanctions to try to change the behavior of the Islamist regime, the radical regime in Tehran, which is the only way to do it, short of war," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said last month.
The Nebraska Republican has also drawn fire for his outspoken opposition to the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq and the subsequent troop "surge" ordered by then-President George W. Bush in 2007, which has been credited with helping bring the war to a close.
On the left, gay rights groups have criticized Hagel for comments he made in 1998 disparaging then-President Bill Clinton's nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel as "openly, aggressively gay." Hagel has since apologized for the remark as "insensitive."
In an interview with his hometown paper, the Lincoln Journal Star, Hagel today launched a rebuttal to critics, whom he said have "completely distorted his record." He said the confirmation process will allow him to show his "unequivocal, total support for Israel" and support for sanctions on Iran.
Obama also laid out a vigorous defense of Hagel's record, in spite of the controversial remarks, praising him as a "champion of troops, veterans and their families," noting his leadership at the USO and Department of Veterans Affairs and on Capitol Hill pushing for a post-9/11 GI bill.
Giving nod to some of Hagel's more controversial views, Obama even praised Hagel's "willingness to speak his mind even if it wasn't popular, defied conventional wisdom."
Top Senate Democrats tell ABC News there is no guarantee Hagel will win confirmation and that, as of right now, there are enough Democratic Senators with serious concerns about Hagel to put him below 50 votes.
But that could change, with many top lawmakers publicly vowing to withhold final judgment until Hagel has an opportunity to answer his critics during confirmation hearings. No senator has yet publicly vowed to filibuster the Hagel nomination.
Hagel is a decorated Vietnam veteran and businessman who served in the senate from 1997 to 2009. After having sat on that chamber's Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, he has in recent years gathered praise from current and former diplomats for his work on Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board as well as on Panetta's policy board.
"Chuck Hagel is a tremendous patriot and statesman, served incredibly in Vietnam, served this country as a United States senator. He hasn't had a chance to speak for himself. And so why all the prejudging?" said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., on "This Week."
"In America, you give everybody a chance to speak for themselves and then we'll decide," she said.
The top Senate Republican echoed that sentiment.
"I'm going to wait and see how the hearings go and see whether Chuck's views square with the job he would be nominated to do," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said.
Praise for Hagel Abounds
Current and former diplomats and leading political figures have heaped praise on Hagel in recent days, defending his record and highlighting his bipartisan values.
"No one has been more steadfast in supporting America's commitment to Israel's security than has Senator Hagel," wrote a group of six former political and diplomatic officials, including former National Security Advisors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, in a public letter to Obama.
"Our polarized political life is much in need of leaders with the kind of bipartisanship and independence of conscience and mind that Chuck Hagel's service to our country has exemplified," they wrote.
Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan Ryan Crocker wrote in a "Wall Street Journal" editorial that Hagel "knows the leaders of the world and their issues" and "has an unbending focus on U.S. national security."
"Chuck Hagel is pro-gay, pro-LGBT, pro-ending 'don't ask, don't tell.' The only problem is that no one asked him his views lately," wrote Steve Clemons, an editor for The Atlantic and Hagel ally who has spoken extensively with the former senator, in a column.
Hagel is in many ways an ideal pick for Obama, giving nod to bipartisanship while appointing someone with a demonstrated commitment to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and to retooling and economizing the Pentagon bureaucracy for the future.
Questions for Brennan on Enhanced Interrogation, Drones
Obama's top counterterrorism adviser since 2009, Brennan faces less uncertainty going into his confirmation hearings than Hagel.
As a career national security administrator, Brennan has a history with the agency he's been nominated to lead going back to the Cold War. After joining the CIA as an intelligence director in 1980, the New Jersey native held positions at home and abroad, at one point working in Saudi Arabia as a station chief.
"People here in the White House work hard, but John is legendary even in the White House for working hard," Obama said today. "He is one of the hardest-working public servants I've ever seen. I'm not sure he's slept in four years."
Since joining the White House, Brennan played a role overseeing the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. He is responsible for the president's daily security briefing and represents the administration in any terror incident.
One of his first tests came in December 2009 when a Nigerian man attempted to ignite an incendiary device aboard a jetliner landing in Detroit. Brennan defended the administration's position to try the suspected terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in criminal court over a military tribunal.
"Cries to try terrorists only in military courts lack foundation," he wrote in an op-ed at the time. "There have been three convictions of terrorists in the military tribunal system since 9/11, and hundreds in the criminal justice system -- including high-profile terrorists such as [so-called "shoe bomber" Richard] Reid and 9/11 plotter Zacarius Moussaoui."
But his nomination may not be smooth sailing. In 2008 Obama attempted to name him CIA director but he withdrew when progressives attacked him for the agency's role in "enhanced interrogation" used on detainees of the War on Terror.
Brennan denied his involvement in the Bush administration policy, which opponents consider torture and outside the ethical bounds of the Defense Department, but still withdrew his name from the bid.
The White House says they do not expect enhanced interrogation to pose an issue in the confirmation hearings because as Obama's national security adviser Brennan put an end to the practice.
"He has worked to embed our efforts in a strong legal framework," Obama said of Brennan today.
ABC News' Ann Compton, Luis Martinez, David Kerley and Matthew Larotonda contributed reporting.