Petraeus-for-CIA buzz intensifies

Laura Rozen

The Obama administration may tap CIA Director Leon Panetta to succeed Bob Gates as Secretary of Defense, The Envoy reported last week, citing U.S. officials who are handicapping likely new Pentagon chiefs ahead of the public announcement of Gates' departure.

Like Gates, Panetta has served as CIA director, we noted in summing up the case that officials in the administration orbit have been making for Panetta. Officials also cited Panetta's strong bipartisan ties, thanks to his years as a lawmaker, his agility in keeping CIA operations from turning into major White House headaches, and his wide array of international contacts and experience as Clinton White House chief of staff and Office of Management and Budget chief--all useful qualifications for a successful Defense secretary.

Since that report, more current and former U.S. national security officials have come forward to say they hear Panetta may be nominated to succeed Gates--though the topic did not come up when both men attended a CIA officers' memorial event last Thursday, a former U.S. official who attended the event said. Gates, currently in Saudi Arabia for a meeting with King Abdullah, has been expected to leave the job some time this summer, although he has not publicly disclosed his planned departure date.

One question raised by the prospect of Panetta possibly moving to the SecDef job is who would succeed him as CIA Director.

NPR reported Monday that one man floated as a contender for the post is Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

"Several sources, including government officials, say Petraeus is being seriously considered for CIA director, and would take the job if offered," NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reported.

While the Petraeus-for-CIA rumor had been circulating among national security hands (some who said they found it hard to believe), NPR's additional assertion of  Petraeus' apparent willingness to accept the job if offered seems to suggest sources close to the general trying to prepare the military community for the possible shift.

According to NPR's Bowman, Petraeus has cooled on the job of becoming Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, even though some of the commander's former military colleagues told the Envoy he'd previously expressed interest in assuming the European command.

Several Petraeus associates with backgrounds in defense and military counterinsurgency have professed puzzlement, however, over the Agency rumor.

Petraeus has spent his whole career "caring about the military as an institution," American Enterprise Institute military analyst Tom Donnelly told the Envoy last week, adding that the general doesn't have that connection to the civilian intelligence agency.

Former Clinton administration official Ken Pollack said the move makes perfect sense given Petraeus' consistent devotion to serving his country.

"Petraeus, who has been in the military all his life, has also been in the service of the United States of America all of his life," Pollack, head of the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at the Brookings Institution, told The Envoy Tuesday. "The CIA is a critical component of policy-making. David Petraeus still believes he has something to offer his country."

A "supremely intelligent and incredibly accomplished individual," Petraeus "still wants to be of service to his country," Pollack, a former CIA Middle analyst, continued. "The bottom line is, this is a man with a remarkable career in public service and he wants to do it for some time to come. ... I think that the CIA is going to be thrilled to have him. ...It's actually what CIA needs right now."

Former CIA Middle East analyst Paul Pillar said the rumored appointments took him by surprise and struck him as somewhat odd or implausible --but expressed admiration for both officials.

Both Panetta, who is 72, and Petraeus, who is recovering from prostate cancer, "have earned the right to have lives of comfort uninterrupted by phone calls in the middle of the night," Pillar, now a professor at Georgetown University, told The Envoy. "To the extent that they are willing to continue to be saddled with major responsibilities with all the strain [that comes with those jobs,] I salute them both."

Petraeus' spokesman declined to comment on the appointment rumors, saying such speculation on his future is premature. Officials from the CIA and White House also declined to comment on unannounced personnel matters.

But a U.S. military officer who knows Petraeus well e-mailed from Kabul to say no one should worry about the general's health, or doubt his focus on and commitment to the mission in Afghanistan.

"Anyone who thinks Gen. Petraeus is exhausted hasn't run with him at six thousand feet altitude here or gone on a battlefield circulation with him lately!" the alliance officer said by e-mail. "And I can tell you that Gen. Petraeus is not eager to leave Afghanistan; as a matter of fact, it's well known that he pledged to see this through another fighting season if that was necessary."

(President Barack Obama, accompanied by Gen. David Petraeus, announces that Petraeus would replace Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the White House on June 23, 2010.: J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)