WASHINGTON — He'll nominate CIA Director Leon Panetta to lead the Defense Department, replacing Secretary Robert Gates, who's retiring. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of forces in Afghanistan, will retire from the military and would become the new CIA chief.
Lt. Gen. John Allen, now the deputy at U.S. Central Command, would fill Petraeus' shoes in Afghanistan to command U.S.-led forces. Ryan Crocker, a career ambassador who served in Iraq and Pakistan under President George W. Bush before retiring in 2009, would return to become the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, replacing Karl Eikenberry.
The Senate must confirm the nominations. Initial reaction from Capitol Hill was positive.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he "could not be more pleased with these selections" and that they would "provide the leadership to help make our nation safer."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised Panetta and Petraeus. She signaled, however, that she'll question Petraeus about his readiness to lead the CIA.
She said in a statement that she had "enormous respect" for Petraeus but until now he'd been "a consumer of intelligence . . . that is a different role than leading the top civilian intelligence agency."
By tapping Petraeus for the CIA, Obama would reward the four-star veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan with a promotion to a prestigious post.
Petraeus, however, will have a limited ability to forge and implement U.S. security policy, including setting the pace and size of the U.S. troop drawdown from Afghanistan, which begins this year and which, as the U.S. military commander, he's indicated should be limited.
Obama advisers sought to downplay the idea that the changes would affect policy or the pace of the drawdown in Afghanistan between this summer and 2014, saying the president would make those decisions.
But as he intensifies his re-election campaign, Obama and his political advisers may want to accelerate the scale and speed of the pullout, and as the nation's top spy, Petraeus no longer would be in a position to resist.
At CIA, Petraeus would be "in a very important position, but not one where he is directly advising on the number of troops that should remain in the country. He won't have as much leeway to be able to do that," said Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy institute.
For that reason, the move could strengthen Vice President Joe Biden and other officials who have advocated shifting from Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy, which is based on deploying large numbers of soldiers and massive infusions of reconstruction aid, to a counter-terrorism approach that would cut regular U.S. troops and rely more heavily on using U.S. special forces to target top al Qaida and Taliban operatives.
"General Petraeus will be a good fit at the CIA. He has been a user of intelligence and has been fighting the two wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Curtis, a former CIA intelligence analyst. "Given his solid reputation, I think it will be good for morale at the agency."
Panetta is credited with significantly improving morale at the CIA, which took serious hits over its erroneous findings that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had chemical, biological and nuclear arms programs and its use of secret prisons where detainees were subjected to interrogation methods deemed by many experts to be torture.
Since becoming director in February 2009, he's overseen the most intensive counter-terrorism operations in the CIA's history, including a major expansion in missile-firing drone strikes against al Qaida, Taliban and other Islamic extremists based in Pakistan's tribal area bordering Afghanistan.
Those efforts, however, also have contributed to a serious souring in U.S. relations with Pakistan, which contends that the strikes cause civilian casualties that boost recruitment and support for the militants.
The CIA also suffered its worst day since 1983 on Panetta's watch, when a Jordanian doctor thought to be working as a spy against al Qaida blew himself up at a CIA base on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, killing seven agency officers and contractors.
With some 40 years of government service — as a member of Congress from California, budget chief and White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, and CIA director — Panetta is a skilled bureaucrat and veteran infighter, qualities that he'll find valuable as he looks to slash the Pentagon's budget as part of Obama's deficit-fighting plans.
He wouldn't be the first CIA director to become defense secretary. James Schlesinger served the spy agency in 1972 before President Richard Nixon sent him to the Pentagon.
Obama's moves have been playing out for weeks behind closed doors.
A senior administration official who previewed the president's plans on the condition of anonymity said that the president had spent months thinking about who could best carry out his strategies while working constructively together. "I'd stress the word team," the official said.
Obama met twice with Petraeus in mid-March to discuss the switch, the administration official said. Crocker agreed March 30 to return to government service. Panetta, who was reluctant to leave the CIA, said yes in a final meeting Monday with the president.
If all goes as planned, Gates would step down on June 30, and Panetta would begin on July 1. The CIA's deputy director, Michael Morell, would serve as the interim chief until September, when Petraeus would start.
Allen would leave his current post soon, serve in an interim capacity as special assistant to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen through the summer and aim to take command in Afghanistan in September.
Crocker would be nominated as soon as possible.
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