WASHINGTON (AP) — The former U.S. senator believed to be President Barack Obama’s leading choice for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, is apologizing for remarks he made in 1998 about an openly gay nominee for an ambassadorship.

In a brief written statement issued Friday, the Republican said his comments about James C. Hormel were “insensitive” and did not reflect his views.

In an interview with the Omaha World-Herald in 1998, Hagel said he believed that for a U.S. ambassador, in his words, “it is an inhibiting factor to be gay.” He went on to call Hormel “openly, aggressively gay.”

Hagel apologized Friday to Hormel and to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Americans who may question his commitment to their civil rights.

Hagel says he supports “open service” and is committed to LGBT military families.

On Thursday, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that the comments and Hagel’s “consistent anti-LGBT” record” in the Senate raise serious questions about where he stands on the issues today.

“The next secretary of defense must be supportive of open service as well as equal benefits for lesbian and gay military families and Sen. Hagel must address these issues immediately,” Griffin said. “Whomever is selected to be the next secretary of defense needs to understand there are clear expectations for progress at the (Defense Department) and that the president’s views on key issues must be reflected by the secretary.”

“For him to be an appropriate candidate for any administration post, he must repudiate his comments about Ambassador Hormel,” Griffin said.

Hagel is considered a top candidate to replace Leon Panetta at the Pentagon although a number of senators have expressed serious reservations about a nomination. Their concerns largely center on Hagel’s past comments about Israel and Iran. Outside groups have suggested that based on Hagel’s remarks, he isn’t sufficiently supportive of Israel.

Hagel served two terms as one of Nebraska’s senators, retiring in 2009.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.