Gates To Continue As Obama's Defense Secretary

President-elect Barack Obama will keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates in that job for up to a year, NPR sources and news organizations say. Gates, who has been President Bush's defense secretary for two years, is respected by both parties.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. There is news tonight that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to stay on at the Pentagon in a new Obama administration. He would be part of a national security team that would also include Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. An official announcement is likely to come next week. NPR's Tom Bowman is at the Pentagon and joins us now. And, Tom, there have been a lot of rumors and reports leading up to this that Secretary Gates would stay on. What's the latest you have tonight?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Obama's advisors have been telling us for a couple of weeks now that one option is to keep Gates at the Pentagon. And what news organizations are reporting tonight and what we're hearing from our sources is that's gaining a lot of speed now, that Gates would remain six months or maybe a year or more at the Pentagon.

BLOCK: And what's the thinking behind why President-elect Obama would want Secretary Gates to stay on?

BOWMAN: Well, number one, you have two wars going on now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Keeping Gates at the helm would serve a certain continuity there. And also Gates is well-respected by both Democrats and Republicans. He's considered a pretty good manager. His predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, was sharply criticized for not listening to military advice. Gates, you know, listens to the uniformed military. He's considered very collegial. He also holds people accountable. He fired the Army leadership, for example, for mistakes at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He also fired the Air Force leadership for mistakes with its nuclear weapons arsenal. And so, again, he's seen as a very good manager along those lines. And the other thing is it would give Gates' deputy time to get his team in place, get up to speed on Iraq and Afghanistan and also the way ahead in the Pentagon, particularly with budget issues.

BLOCK: Barack Obama has also made it a point of talking about how he wants to have a bipartisan administration, and this would certainly fit that bill.

BOWMAN: Absolutely, yeah. He wants to end the divisiveness in Washington. He has said he wants to reach across the aisle to Republicans. Other names mentioned have been former Senator Chuck Hagel. So this would go in line with what Obama has already said, and, you know, many of Obama's advisers, for example, have praised Gates in the job he's done.

BLOCK: Robert Gates has been Defense Secretary for just about two years now. And, Tom, he has said for a long time that he planned to leave when a new administration came in. Didn't he talk about having a clock or a watch that was counting down?

BOWMAN: That's right. He has a clock that counts down the days he has left. And he has said...

BLOCK: Well, he better reset that clock.

BOWMAN: I think he should, yeah. And he has said that he couldn't foresee any reason why he would be asked to stay. He's expected to go back to the Pacific Northwest where he has a home. So he really did not plan on staying. And so this really is something of a surprise, I guess, from what everything Gates said up to now. But again, from all we're hearing, Obama wants to keep him in place at the Pentagon.

BLOCK: Would there be disagreement about war policy? Does Secretary Gates, for example, agree with Barack Obama about how to withdraw from Iraq?

BOWMAN: Well, that's a very good question. Clearly, Obama wants to move combat troops out of Iraq at a fairly rapid rate. He said 16 months he wants all U.S. combat troops out. Gates has said repeatedly that he thinks the commanders on the ground, you should listen to what they have to say, you shouldn't have a strict timetable. But Obama has moved away from that a little bit. He said he, too, would listen to what the commanders have to say about troop levels. So they could come to an agreement on that, but that's one thing you hear people talk about is other - any problems with Iraq policy. And another issue could be NATO policy as well, should you allow Ukraine and also the former Soviet state of Georgia into NATO. That's another potential for problems with Gates and Obama. And finally missile defense, we don't have a sense of exactly where Obama wants to head on that issue as well.

BLOCK: OK. NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're very welcome.

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Correction Dec. 1, 2008

We incorrectly referred to "former Sen. Chuck Hagel." Hagel is still in the Senate.

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