Week In News: Hagel In The Hot Seat

Host Laura Sullivan talks with The Atlantic's James Fallows about the news this week Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing, the Chinese cyber-attack of The New York Times, and that newspaper's obituary of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch.

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LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment?

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out, but I...

MCCAIN: The committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge.

SULLIVAN: That's Senator John McCain in a heated exchange with former Senator Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearing this week. Senators bombarded Hagel with questions. Some were supportive, some were hostile, but most of them had nothing to do with the job of secretary of Defense. Jim Fallows of The Atlantic joins us, as he does most Saturdays, so we can bombard him with our questions. Hello, Jim.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Laura.

SULLIVAN: It's safe to say that Hagel did not cover himself with glory at this hearing this week. What are the chances of him actually getting the job at this point?

FALLOWS: They're certainly worse than they seemed several days ago, precisely because he just didn't appear ready to handle what he knew would be the main hostile questions from his Republican inquisitors. But still, he has a better chance of becoming the next Defense secretary than anybody else does. It's extremely rare for the Senate actually to reject a presidential Cabinet nomination. The last famous case was back in the time of the first George Bush with his Defense secretary nominee John Tower, another former senator.

So it's possible the Republicans might choose to filibuster this nomination. It's conceivable that Senator Hagel might decide to withdraw, but the odds are he'll be in office as the next Defense secretary.

SULLIVAN: What did these questions and this hostility that we saw coming from these senators have to do with the actual job of secretary of Defense?

FALLOWS: Well, very, very little. Most of the questions were about the most controversial aspects of Senator Hagel's past positions on American policy towards Israel, about strategy in Iraq, about possible future strategy towards Iran. Those are all important issues in which the Pentagon is involved, but they're decisions that a president makes. Most of the things that a future Defense secretary is going to do will involve budget corrections or budget shrinkage after the inevitable reduction of Pentagon spending.

Veterans affairs issues for the very large number of wounded veterans we have now, of integrating women and gay and lesbian soldiers more and more fully into the defense establishment. Those are going to be very important tasks for the next Defense secretary, and they barely came up.

SULLIVAN: Well, let's move on to another topic in the news this week. The New York Times was attacked by Chinese hackers, leading to reports of similar Chinese cyberattacks at Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal. Why are the hackers targeting U.S. newspapers?

FALLOWS: There's an immediate reason, which is that both - in the past couple of years, both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and some others have done very important exposes of the financial empires that many senior members of the Chinese communist government have amassed in the last generation or so. So that's why they were trying to see if there were sources within China whom the government could then track down.

I think the larger way to see this episode is one more front in the endless and crucial war the Chinese government is waging to control what its people know. I think on the long run, it's a losing struggle for the government, but that's why they were undertaking these attacks.

SULLIVAN: Well, speaking of The New York Times, on Friday, the paper published an enormous obituary of Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City - 5,500 words, but no mention of the former mayor's controversial AIDS policy. And it seems like they're taking a little bit of heat for this.

FALLOWS: It's possible that people who'd been in New York for a long time, especially during Ed Koch's time as mayor, remember the best side of what he did, which was to be a kind of symbol of peppiness for New York at a time in the late '70s and the early '80s when the whole city really seemed to be in much more trouble than is easy to imagine now. So maybe that's what lay behind this relatively charitable remembrance.

SULLIVAN: And the Times went back and amended its online version of his obituary.

FALLOWS: Well, this is the infinite perfectibility of journalism in our online era.

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: Jim Fallows is a national correspondent with The Atlantic, and you can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: Thank you, Laura.

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