WASHINGTON -- In what has been called the last battle of the Cold War, longtime liberal activist Morton Halperin faced the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday and defended his thoughts and actions on policies from Vietnam to Somalia.
Mr. Halperin, President Clinton's most controversial nominee since Lani Guinier, faces a tough fight for confirmation as assistant secretary of defense for democracy and peacekeeping. His opponents charge that the former Vietnam anti-war activist and CIA critic now is too eager to send troops abroad under the United Nations banner, and is unfit for a sensitive Pentagon post.
"A number of charges have been made about my beliefs and activities which are simply false," Mr. Halperin said. "I resist any suggestion that I have done anything which compromises our nation's security or weakens our defenses."
As confirmation hearings opened, the historic sweep of the questions and answers illustrated the depth of animosity that many conservatives feel for Mr. Halperin.
The former Defense Department official and Washington director the American Civil Liberties Union was pressed about his relationships with renegade CIA operative Philip Agee and with Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the classified Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War.
He was questioned even more closely about his role in setting the Clinton administration policies in Haiti and Somalia.
The ranking Republican, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, called Mr. Halperin's nomination "an insult to the nation's interests and to the welfare of the Armed Forces."
Faced with such vehement opposition, Mr. Halperin used his opening statement to quickly answer some of the charges against him:
* "I have been accused of aiding Philip Agee in the disclosure of the identities of intelligence agents and advocating the disclosure of such identities. That is false."
* "I have been accused of aiding Daniel Ellsberg in the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers. That is false."
* "I have been accused of advising the secretary of defense not to send armor to Somalia. That is false."
But moments later, critics confronted the nominee with his own words.
Mr. Halperin conceded that he wrote some things that he now wishes he hadn't.