Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta, Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus are among the candidates to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates, according to an administration official.
Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, also is a candidate being considered by administration officials to succeed Gates, who previously has said 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 nation’s spy agency and experience as a former member of Congress and director of the Office of Management and Budget in President Bill Clinton’s administration.
“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.
Panetta, 72, and Reed, 61, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, likely would get a speedy confirmation by the Senate if nominated, Cohen said.
“There’s no question about Jack being quite popular with his colleagues,” he said.
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.
Mabus, 62, a Democrat, served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under former President Clinton 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 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 whether he’s a candidate for the defense secretary post, Mabus said at a news conference today that he’s happy with the job he’s in.
Flournoy was traveling 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 earlier served as head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
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