President shakes up war council

President Obama on Thursday will unveil a war council that includes new leaders of the Pentagon and CIA.

CIA Director Leon Panetta will be nominated to head the Defense Department, while Gen. David Petraeus will be tapped to replace Panetta as the next boss of the nation’s top intelligence-collecting agency, a senior White House official said Wednesday.

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Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador to Iraq, will be nominated as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. John Allen, now deputy U.S. Central Command chief, will be tapped as successor to Petraeus in Afghanistan.

The president feels this will give him the “strongest possible team” and will provide a “seamless transition” as the White House gets used to life without retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a senior White House official said on a conference call with reporters.

The president will make an announcement Thursday about the positions. The nominations require Senate confirmation.

The senior official said the change in leadership will not affect operational strategy in Afghanistan or the planned start of drawing down U.S. troops this summer.

Convincing Panetta to leave the CIA to replace Gates wasn’t easy, the official confirmed. For weeks, Panetta has been rumored to be switching jobs, but sources said he had been skeptical about leaving his current role.

“This was a difficult decision for Leon,” the official told reporters. “Leon loves being director of [the] Central Intelligence Agency — and it showed … in the energy and enthusiasm he shows.”

After several conversations, Panetta finally agreed to move to the top Pentagon slot during a talk with Obama on Monday evening, the senior official said.

The current CIA boss has become a close adviser to Obama, the official said.

The White House would like Panetta’s first day to be July 1, with Gates formally exiting on June 30.

Panetta would be the first Democrat to lead the Pentagon since William Perry during the Clinton administration.

Many Pentagon observers consider Gates the best Defense chief in six decades, a sentiment echoed by the senior official, who said Obama has valued Gates's advice on war policies and his DOD cost-cutting drive.

The nomination of Panetta was a key vote of congressional support Wednesday from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who in an interview earlier this month said he was unsure whether Panetta has the requisite qualifications to be defense secretary.

Graham’s statement on Wednesday was a turnaround; he called Panetta an outstanding choice to be secretary of Defense who “understands the variety of threats America faces as well as anyone and has a good working relationship with Congress.”

Graham signaled his support for all four individuals in the statement, which the White House emailed to reporters.

Panetta, a former congressman from California, will have to win confirmation from the Senate to replace Gates.

The senior official said the president and his top national-security aides believe Panetta “has all the qualities to be a terrific secretary of Defense.”

The official called him a strong manager who reinvigorated morale at the intel agency, adding his knowledge of federal budgeting will help him tremendously at DOD.

His appointment comes as the Pentagon is in full cost-cutting mode. It already has found over $100 billion in savings — most of which was used to bolster weapons accounts and to help start paring down the federal deficit.

His potential replacement as CIA boss, Petraeus, will cross over from being a user of intelligence to leading the nation’s top collector of strategic information.

Petraeus is perhaps America’s most heralded general since former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Colin Powell, who later served as secretary of State.

Once he leaves his post as U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Petraeus will retire from the Army. If confirmed, the CIA position will be his first post-military job.

During the last few years, Petraeus has “taken on some of the most difficult missions” possible and gotten “tremendous results,” the senior official said.

Obama and Petraeus have been discussing the move “for a while now,” talking most recently about it in mid-March in the Oval Office, the official said.

The White House would like Petraeus to be confirmed and ready to start work at the intelligence agency on Sept. 1.

Asked about whether the president and his national security aides have any doubts that Petraeus can go from a user of intel to the top collector of it, the senior official said no such worries exist.

In a series of interviews earlier this month, several Senate Armed Services Committee members said they would support Petraeus for any top government position. His nomination is expected to sail through the Senate.

The senior official hinted that replacing Petraeus in Afghanistan was an easy decision.

Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis and Petraeus all pointed to Allen as their top pick, the official said.

He called Allen “a real terrific leader,” noting the White House national security team has worked closely with him on a number of issues.

Allen is expected to start work in Afghanistan on Sept. 1; in the meantime, he will be a special assistant to Mullen.

The White House intends to seek a speedy confirmation for Crocker, whom officials want to get to work as soon as possible.

The announcement of the four moves answers many questions about the composition of the second incarnation of the Obama war council. But it leaves open the question of who will replace Mullen as chairman.

Sources say still in the running are: Adm. James Stavridis, U.S. European Command chief; Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff; and Gen. Raymond Odierno, the current U.S. Joint Forces Command boss who impressed officials in Washington while leading U.S. forces in Iraq.