President Obama will announce today a major overhaul of his defense and intelligence teams, one that analysts say has the potential -- but no guarantee -- to speed a drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
He will nominate CIA Director Leon E. Panetta to lead the Defense Department, succeeding Secretary Robert M. Gates, who plans to retire June 30. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of forces in Afghanistan, will retire from the military to become the new CIA chief.
Lt. Gen. John Allen, now the deputy at U.S. Central Command, would fill Petraeus' shoes in Afghanistan, commanding 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 that 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 will 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 had 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 is scheduled to begin this year and which, as the U.S. military commander, he has 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, expected to extend into 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 the 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 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 counterterrorism 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.
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 has overseen the most intensive counterterrorism 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 will find valuable as he looks to slash the Pentagon's budget as part of Obama'sdeficit-fighting plans.
A senior administration official said 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.