White House Plans For New National Security Team

President Obama is expected to announce changes to his national security team. Leon Panetta, the current CIA boss, is expected to take over for Robert Gates at the Pentagon. And Gen. David Petraeus is said to be the pick to replace Panetta at the spy agency. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman talks to Michele Norris.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

There's a game of musical chairs just getting started here in Washington. The seats are at the Pentagon and the CIA. It's the result of a White House plan to build a new national security team.

The current Defense secretary, Robert Gates, is leaving his post this summer, and the White House wants that seat to be filled by the current CIA director, Leon Panetta. The CIA job is expected to go to the General David Petraeus. He is currently the top commander in Afghanistan, which leaves that job open, and so you get the idea.

To learn more about the new lineup, we're joined now by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, good to have you here in the studio.

TOM BOWMAN: Good to be here.

NORRIS: Let's take these one at a time if we can, first Leon Panetta for the Pentagon. What does he bring to that job?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, he has really strong political skills. He was a member of Congress for many years from California. He's also a very affable guy, well-liked by both Democrats and Republicans.

And that's really important in a job like this. If you look at other Defense secretaries, particularly Donald Rumsfeld, very difficult to deal with, had rocky relationships with Congress.

And also, maybe more importantly, Panetta brings a lot of budget experience. He ran the Office of Management and Budget in the White House under President Clinton. He ran the Budget Committee in the House of Representatives. And now that President Obama wants to cut $400 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next decade or so, Panetta might just be the guy to do that.

NORRIS: So that's the Pentagon. Why General Petraeus to replace Leon Panetta at the CIA?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, they had to find something for Petraeus to do. He was ending his time in Afghanistan in the fall, and you'd think the logical job for him would be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but they never looked at him for that job.

And some people say that, well, he's not very well-liked across the board in the military. Some see him as too ambitious. His nickname has always been King David. And some saw him as also too political, that he was viewed as maybe one of Bush's generals. And that rubbed people the wrong way.

And here's the other thing. Some people I talk with talk about what they call the Powell syndrome, after Colin Powell. And you don't want someone in the top military job that's maybe on par with the president in popularity because, you know, there could be policy disagreements where, you know, people might side with David Petraeus over the president.

And, you know, in the Hill, he's highly respected by Republican lawmakers. So that makes it even more of a problem for someone like Petraeus in that job.

NORRIS: Challenging dynamic for the commander-in-chief.

BOWMAN: Absolutely.

NORRIS: So if General Petraeus wasn't going to get the top military job at the Pentagon that then left the CIA. But does he have the right background for the top intelligence job?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, military officers have run the CIA in its 60- plus-year history. One of General Eisenhower's aides after World War II ran the CIA. He was one of the early directors. And more recently, you had Air Force General Mike Hayden running the agency. So it's really not unusual to have a military officer.

The other thing is that, you know, Petraeus brings to this job - he worked closely with CIA operatives on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the secret people who run around on the ground. Also he's very familiar with the drone strikes going on in Pakistan. So, you know, he's no stranger to the agency.

NORRIS: So if we continue this game of musical chairs, if General Petraeus leaves his post as the top commander in Afghanistan, who fills in behind him?

BOWMAN: Well, the replacement for General Petraeus in Afghanistan is Marine Lieutenant General John Allen. He's now the number two officer at Central Command. That's a geographic area that includes Afghanistan.

And there's one interesting thing here, that the other key job, the ambassador in Kabul, will be going to Ryan Crocker. Now, Crocker and General Allen worked very closely together in Iraq. And Allen was also a key architect of what was known as the Sunni awakening in Iraq back in 2006, 2007. That was the effort to get the Sunni tribes to work closely with the Americans in fighting al-Qaida and also work closely, of course, with the Iraqi government.

And many people credit that Sunni awakening with really turning the war around and bringing the violence down. So maybe now he and Ambassador Crocker can try that political effort again in Afghanistan.

NORRIS: Some of these moves were signaled weeks and even months ago. When will all this happen?

BOWMAN: Well, the sense is that, of course assuming the Senate approves the nominees, and the big one, of course, is Secretary Gates, he'll leave June 30, and Panetta will take over the next day.

And as far as in Afghanistan, the change in command there, they're looking at some time in early September.

NORRIS: Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Tom Bowman.

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