Speculation of Petraeus job change has seal of approval from lawmakers

Lawmakers overwhelmingly applauded the notion of Gen. David Petraeus heading the CIA, but some stopped shy of endorsing the current agency boss as the best candidate for Defense secretary.

Washington’s national-security sector is abuzz with speculation that Petraeus, the top American and coalition commander in Afghanistan, could be tapped for the job at Langley. Under this scenario, the man he would replace as CIA boss, Leon Panetta, would replace outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

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In a series of interviews with The Hill on Thursday, senior lawmakers said they would support a move by the Obama administration to insert Petraeus at CIA headquarters.

“I think, obviously, Gen. Petraeus is highly qualified,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said. “I think Gen. Petraeus is qualified for any job that has anything to do with national security.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) noted Petraeus has long been “a consumer of all the products that are produced by the intelligence community.” The Texan said he would “enthusiastically” support a potential nomination for the general to lead the intel agency.

NPR first reported the alleged consideration of Petraeus and Panetta for the intelligence and Defense positions. Several other media outlets have since reported the same, although there has been no official announcement.

The Senate would have to confirm both Petraeus and Panetta to the their new positions.

Democratic lawmakers also heaped praise on speculation that the general credited with turning around the Iraq campaign and making progress in Afghanistan might soon lead the nation’s top intelligence-gathering agency.

“Anything Petraeus does, he’ll do a good job at,” said House Appropriations Committee ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.). “He understands this combat against al Qaeda, and has a special appreciation for it.”

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) also said he would support Petraeus going to the CIA, calling him “incredibly talented” and “an extreme patriot.”

Whether Petraeus’s speculated move becomes reality, McCain said, likely depends on “whether he would want that job.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) echoed many members interviewed Thursday, saying he has “tremendous admiration for Gen. Petraeus,” adding he “can’t think of a job I wouldn’t want to see him in.”

And, like other lawmakers, Lieberman cited the general’s experience running U.S. Central Command, the Iraq conflict and now the coalition operation in Afghanistan, saying: “He’s a proven administrator.”

Several lawmakers, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said they think Petraeus would be a good candidate for a few jobs, including chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Adm. Mike Mullen’s tenure as Joint Chiefs chairman expires this fall.

Only Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, opted against endorsing the idea.

“How he would fit there,” Smith said, “I’d have to think about.”

Some defense observers have long questioned speculation that the Obama administration would insert Petraeus into a senior Washington position.

“This Petraeus-to-CIA rumor seems like a very shaky thesis,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “It begins with the speculation that Panetta is departing the CIA, and then grafts a second speculation on top of that.

“If the president is so unhappy with the options he got from the military for Afghanistan, why would he send Petraeus to the CIA to shape the daily intelligence flow?” Thompson added. “I think Petraeus will be offered the U.S. European Command, followed by a comfy retirement.”

Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for American Progress, said the general would “certainly be qualified — but you need someone that has good chemistry with the president, and I’m not sure Petraeus has that.”

Lawmakers were more mixed on sliding Panetta from Langley to the Pentagon.

Some echoed Graham, who told The Hill: “I’m a big Leon Panetta fan. I like him a lot. I find him qualified.”

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), a House Armed Services Committee member, said of the next Defense secretary: “The president needs to find somebody who can work with Congress in a very tough budget period.

“I think Director Panetta can do that,” Larsen told The Hill. But he quickly added: “I think there are others who can do that as well.”

And Joe Kasper, a spokesman for House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), predicted lawmakers likely would be skeptical of moving Panetta to the Pentagon.

Hunter “is concerned with CIA lapses in Egypt and Libya, for instance,” Kasper said. “How that would translate into the Defense secretary position is something that needs to be examined.”

Cornyn and a handful of others were similarly skeptical.

“I don’t know of any experience he’s had that has qualified him for that,” Cornyn said of Panetta.

Senate Budget Committee ranking member and Armed Services Committee member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said of the Clinton-era White House chief of staff: “I don’t know if he’s the right choice at this time.”

Korb said his contacts have for some time floated the Panetta-to-DoD notion.

Because the CIA director has been Office of Management and Budget director and House Budget Committee chairman, “he would bring a tremendous knowledge of the budget to the Pentagon during these more austere times,” he added.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), House Armed Services Committee chairman, said he had no immediate reservations about either possible appointment.

But he noted Gates likely will stay through the summer, meaning “we’ll probably hear lots of rumors.”

“I’ve heard lots of different people,” McKeon said with a grin. “Time will tell.”