Obama administration officials are considering Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta, Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus as possible replacements for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, according to an administration official.
Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, is also among the candidates being looked at to succeed Gates, who previously has said that he plans to retire sometime this year, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about the selection process.
President Barack Obama will be replacing his Pentagon chief as the U.S. undergoes a transition in Afghanistan and winds down operations in Iraq. Obama has set mid-2011 as the target for the beginning of a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, pending an assessment of security conditions.
Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said he considers Panetta to be the leading candidate for the post, given his background leading the spy agency and his experience as a member of Congress from California from 1977 to 1993 and as director of the Office of Management and Budget in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He also served as Clinton’s chief of staff.
“He understands budgets, and budgets are going to be crucial as we move forward in terms of how you reconcile national security requirements with our ability or willingness to pay for them,” Cohen said.
Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey agreed that Panetta was the leading candidate. Panetta understands Congress and has experience on international affairs, McCaffrey said, calling him one of the most “astute individuals I’ve ever worked with.”
“It’s very likely he’s at the top of the list,” said McCaffrey, who was head of U.S. Southern Command from 1994 to 1996 and still consults with the military.
Panetta, 72, and Reed, 61, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, likely would be speedily confirmed by the Senate if nominated, Cohen said.
“There’s no question about Jack being quite popular with his colleagues,” he said.
While Reed would have the confidence of both the military and the White House, McCaffrey said, a drawback to nominating him is the loss of a senior Democratic lawmaker versed in defense and foreign policy.
Cohen said Flournoy, 50, would be a significant choice because she would break “the concrete ceiling” by becoming the first woman to hold the post.
Flournoy “has tremendous talent,” McCaffrey said. Still, she doesn’t have broad international or national exposure and “it would be surprising to me if the Obama team picked someone without significant political weight,” he said.
Mabus, 62, a Democrat, served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Clinton administration and before that was governor of Mississippi. Obama named him as Navy secretary in March 2009 and later asked him to also oversee a restoration plan for the Gulf Coast after the oil spill at BP Plc’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst in U.S. history.
Panetta is “focused squarely on the agency’s mission,” CIA spokesman Preston Golson said in an e-mail. “He isn’t seeking any other job and hasn’t been asked by the president to take on a different role.”
Reed, who is in his third term and doesn’t face re-election until 2014, isn’t ready to leave the Senate, his press secretary, Chip Unruh, said. “Senator Reed loves his job and has made it very clear he wants to continue representing the people of Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate,” Unruh said in a statement.
When asked during a news conference yesterday whether he is a candidate for the defense secretary’s post, Mabus said he is happy with his current position.
Flournoy was traveling yesterday and couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
President George W. Bush named Gates as defense chief in 2006, succeeding Donald Rumsfeld, as the U.S. and its allies were struggling to quell sectarian violence in Iraq. Gates was a career CIA officer and served as the agency’s director from 1991 to 1993. Before being named by Bush to the Pentagon job, he was president of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
In addition to naming a new defense secretary this year, Obama also will be selecting a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Mike Mullen, the current chairman, is scheduled to retire on Oct. 1 after serving the maximum two consecutive terms as chairman.