Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, left, speaks at an Omaha news conference… (Nati Harnik / Associated…)
WASHINGTON -- The White House is again coming to the defense of a possible Cabinet nominee, even before President Obama makes up his mind on the post.
White House spokesman Jay Carney backed up former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel on Thursday, saying the possible pick for secretary of Defense has been a "remarkable servant to this country."
"What I can tell you is that Sen. Hagel fought and bled for his country. He served his country well. He was an excellent senator," Carney told reporters.
Hagel served in the Vietnam War and was awarded two Purple Hearts. He retired in 2008 after two terms in the Senate and currently serves on the president's Intelligence Advisory Board.
Aides say the president hasn't decided to nominate Hagel for the post, although he is on a very short of list of second-term replacements for Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
The former senator, a Republican who endorsed Obama's first bid for president, came under fire almost as soon as his name was floated.
Critics have cast him as anti-Israel, seizing on comments he made as a senator referring to the power of "the Jewish lobby." The conservative Emergency Committee for Israel announced Thursday that it would air an attack ad blasting Hagel's stance on Iran.
Carney would not comment specifically on Hagel's statements. Instead, he suggested that the attacks were part of the same preemptive strategy that undid the potential nomination of United Nations envoy Susan Rice to be secretary of State.
Rice backed out of consideration earlier this month amid criticism concerning her statements about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama initially vigorously defended his longtime foreign policy advisor and challenged her critics in Congress. But as weeks passed and her outreach on Capitol Hill did little to quiet the complaints, Rice announced she would no longer seek the post.
Obama has not yet named a nominee to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"We've been through this before with Ambassador Rice, where there's an effort to go after somebody," Carney said. "We have made no personnel announcements, and I'm not going to engage in that."
House Democrats push on gun control
Sen. Feinstein will not become Judiciary Committee chair
Weapon used in Mexico gunfight linked to Operation Fast and Furious