WASHINGTON — Digging in for a fight, President Barack Obama riled Senate Republicans and some Democrats, too, on Monday by nominating former senator and combat veteran Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon and anti-terrorism chief John Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Hagel and Brennan, in separate Senate confirmation hearings, will face sharp questions on a range of contentious issues, including U.S. policy about Israel and Iran, targeted drone attacks and harsh interrogation tactics. Of the two men, Hagel is expected to face a tougher path, though both are likely to be confirmed.

Hagel would be the first enlisted soldier and first Vietnam veteran to head the Pentagon.

"These two leaders have dedicated their lives to protecting our country," Obama said, standing alongside them and the men they would succeed during a ceremony in the White House East Room. "I urge the Senate to confirm them as soon as possible so we can keep our nation secure and the American people safe."

For Obama, a pair of combative confirmation hearings could turn into a distraction as he opens his second term. But the president signaled he was ready to take that risk.

Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, has been criticized as hostile toward Israel and soft on Iran. Opponents also have highlighted his 1998 comments about an ambassador nominee whom he called "openly, aggressively gay" – a comment for which he recently apologized.

Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, was under consideration to run the agency after Obama won the 2008 election but withdrew his name amid criticism from liberal activists who questioned his connection to the harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA during the George W. Bush administration.

One of Hagel's toughest critics, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called his former colleague's foreign policy views "outside the mainstream" and said he would be "the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation's history."

Perhaps even more concerning for Hagel's prospects has been the tepid response from some Democrats. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said Hagel had earned the right to a full and fair confirmation hearing, but he reserved judgment on whether he would back him. And Maryland's Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin said he and other lawmakers "have questions that have to be answered" specifically on Hagel's views on Iran and Israel.

Obama called Hagel "the leader our troops deserve" and someone who could make "tough fiscal choices" in a time of increasing austerity. The Pentagon is facing the potential of deep budget cuts in the coming months.

The 66-year-old former senator has defended his record on Israel and Iran. In an interview Monday with the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star newspaper, Hagel accused his opponents of having "completely distorted" his views.

Hagel has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. During his tenure in the Senate, he voted against unilateral economic sanctions on Tehran, though he supports the joint international penalties Obama also prefers. Hagel also irritated some Israel backers with his reference to the "Jewish lobby" in the United States.

The White House focused instead Monday on the military record of Hagel, who was awarded two Purple Hearts.

"Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction," Obama said. "He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary."

The president, who prefers to keep a tight inner circle, has close ties to both Hagel and Brennan. Obama and Hagel served together in the Senate and made several trips overseas. Brennan has become one of the president's most trusted advisers, working with him during the planning of the raid that led to the death of Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and holding broad authority over the administration's counterterrorism operations.

If confirmed, Hagel and Brennan will join Secretary of State nominee John Kerry as Obama's key national security advisers in his second term. Kerry, a longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts, is expected to be easily confirmed by his Capitol colleagues.

At the top of Obama's national security agenda will be winding down the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Key decisions on troop withdrawals are looming, and Hagel is expected to favor a more rapid drawdown than some generals have suggested. Brennan, having served as Obama's top counterterrorism aide for the past four years, would bring to the CIA a deep understanding of al-Qaida in the region.

For Brennan, Monday's nomination represents a second chance at the spy agency's top job after his withdrawal from consideration in 2008.

In a letter to Obama at that time, Brennan said he was "a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration, such as the pre-emptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding."

White House officials say they don't expect Brennan to face similar trouble this time around given his four years of service in the Obama administration.

"The issue has been removed from the debate because the president and John Brennan, as his top counterterrorism adviser, brought those techniques to an end," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.

But some lawmakers and outside groups aren't as easily convinced. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., issued a statement about Brennan saying he had "many questions and concerns about his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, especially what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs."

Brennan's nomination will also put a spotlight on the administration's controversial drone program. He was the first Obama administration official to publicly acknowledge the highly secretive targeted killing operations, defending the legality of the overseas program and crediting it with protecting American lives and preventing potential terror attacks.

The American Civil Liberties Union voiced its concerns over Brennan's nomination Monday, saying the Senate should not move forward until it is clear the nominee "will end its targeted killing program."

Brennan would replace Michael Morell, the CIA's deputy director who has been acting director since David Petraeus resigned in November after admitting to an affair with his biographer. Hagel would replace retiring Pentagon chief Leon Panetta.

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Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Tom Raum contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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  • Chuck Hagel (February 2013 - Present)

    New Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is greeted as he arrives for his first day at the Department of Defense, on February 27, 2013 in Arlington, Va. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

  • Leon Panetta (July 2011 - February 2013)

    Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta pauses while speaking during a ceremonial swearing-in at the Department of Defense July 22, 2011 in Washington. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Robert Gates (Dec. 2006 - July 2011)

    Robert Gates speaks during his ceremonial swearing in as the 22nd defense secretary on Dec. 18, 2006 at the Pentagon. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Donald Rumsfeld (Jan. 2001 - Dec. 2006)

    U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld holds his press conference at the Pentagon briefing room on Jan. 26, 2001 in Arlington, Va. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • William Cohen (Jan. 1997 - Jan. 2001)

    Secretary of Defense designate William Cohen testifies during confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 22, 1997 in Washington. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • William Perry (Feb. 1994 - Jan. 1997)

    U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry points to a reporter during a press conference on April 21, 1994 in Seoul, Korea. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Les Aspin (Jan. 1993 - Feb. 1994)

    U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin released new regulations governing gays in the military during a press on Dec. 22, 1993 at the Pentagon. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Dick Cheney (March 1989 - Jan. 1993)

    U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney (L) meets Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, on April 3, 1989, at Washington. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Frank Carlucci (Nov. 1987 - Jan. 1989)

    U.S. Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 13, 1988 in Washington. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Caspar Weinberger (Jan. 1981 - Nov. 1987)

    Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense on Feb. 9, 1981. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Harold Brown (Jan. 1977 - Jan. 1981)

    General Alexander M. Haig, right, retired as NATO commander, walks with Defense Secretary Harold Brown during an awards ceremony on July 3, 1979 at Fort Myer, Va. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Donald Rumsfeld (Nov. 1975 - Jan. 1977)

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  • James Schlesinger (July 1973 - Nov. 1975)

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  • Elliot Richardson (Jan. 1973 - May 1973)

    Elliot L. Richardson speaks to newsmen Oct. 23, 1973 at a press conference held at the Department of Justice. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Melvin Laird (Jan. 1969 - Jan. 1973)

    Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird as he departed from Andrews Air Force Base Md., for Paris on Jan. 5, 1971 in Washington. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Clark Clifford (March 1968 - Jan. 1969)

    This is an Oct. 1968 photo of Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford as he announces his support for President Johnson's decision to halt the bombing of North Vietnam. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Robert McNamara (Jan. 1961 - Feb. 1968)

    PARIS, FRANCE: US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara smiles as he arrives 27 November 1965 at Paris' NATO headquarters. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Thomas Gates (Dec. 1959 - Jan. 1961)

    Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates Jr., center, poses with Benjamin M. McKelway, left, editor of the Washington Evening Star and President of the AP, and AP General Manager Frank J. Starzel at the April 25, 1960 meeting of the Associated Press in New York. (Source: <a href="http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/">Department of Defense</a>)

  • Neil McElroy (Oct. 1957 - Dec. 1959)

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  • Charles Wilson (Jan. 1953 - Oct. 1957)

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  • Robert Lovett (Sept. 1951 - Jan. 1953)

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  • George Marshall (Sept. 1950 - Sept. 1951)

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  • Louis Johnson (March 1949 - Sept. 1950)

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  • James Forrestal (Sept. 1947 - March 1949)

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