By Michael D. Shear and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is close to finalizing an agreement to remain at the Pentagon for at least the first year of Barack Obama's presidency, providing the new commander in chief with a Republican in his Cabinet and continuity for a military waging two wars, according to Democrats familiar with the negotiations.
Some sources described a "rolling transition," in which Gates would stay on during a phased changeover of key political appointees at the Pentagon. Others said he could stay in the job indefinitely. Under both scenarios, most of the deputies serving under him would be replaced, the sources said.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell did not confirm yesterday whether Gates had agreed to stay but reiterated that he had never ruled out the option. "He has deliberately never precluded the possibility of continuing to serve if needed," Morrell said. "It would be out of character to do so now."
Obama plans to announce members of his national security team early next week, bringing together a bipartisan group that is almost certain to include Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as secretary of state and retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones as national security adviser.
Obama aides declined to comment on Gates yesterday, but the transition team first circulated Gates's name in the summer, when former Navy secretary Richard J. Danzig, an Obama national security adviser, praised the defense secretary and former CIA director, saying Gates could do "even better" in the new administration. Obama has also said he expects to have at least one Republican in his Cabinet.
Gates is well respected on Capitol Hill and within the military as a non-ideological, decisive leader willing to consider alternative views. He is credited with putting the Defense Department back on an even keel after the turbulent years under Donald H. Rumsfeld and with helping revise the Bush administration's failing policy in Iraq. Gates served for a time on the Iraq Study Group, which issued recommendations in fall 2006 on how to revise the U.S. war strategy, including a call to explore "constructive engagement" with Iran and Syria.
"If this is true, it would be a pretty remarkable national security team," a senior Pentagon official said yesterday. Clinton is seen by the military as a moderate on defense issues who worked hard to educate herself on national security matters as a member of the Armed Services Committee, while Jones has served as Marine commandant and NATO commander.
But the combination would probably disappoint some on the left of the Democratic Party, who would prefer a clear and sharp break with Bush-era policies. During the presidential campaign, Gates publicly disagreed with Obama's avowed commitment to a 16-month timetable for withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq.
Even as Obama has reiterated, since the election, his pledge to retask the military toward planning an early withdrawal from Iraq, he has tried to project an atmosphere of calm during the wartime transition. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen traveled to Chicago for a private meeting with the president-elect that Pentagon officials said lasted 45 minutes.
In a news conference in Chicago yesterday, Obama pledged to push for new spending to stimulate the economy upon taking office in January and said he would offset the spending with cuts to the federal budget. He also named Peter R. Orszag, head of the Congressional Budget Office, as director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Rob Nabors, staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, as deputy director of the OMB.
Other names that had surfaced as possible defense secretaries include Danzig, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and former Pentagon official John J. Hamre, who serves as chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee and was an informal campaign adviser to Obama.
The top candidates to lead other parts of the national security establishment remain in flux. The contenders for director of national intelligence include retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, while Obama adviser Susan E. Rice was said to be a front-runner for ambassador to the United Nations.
Meanwhile, a former CIA official who was in the running for a top intelligence post under Obama withdrew his candidacy yesterday after coming under criticism from groups that accused him of having ties to the agency's controversial interrogation policies.
John O. Brennan, who held senior positions in a nearly 25-year stint at the spy agency, notified Obama of his decision in a brief note, saying he no longer wished to be considered for a job in the intelligence agencies. Brennan was widely reported to be a contender for CIA director or director of national intelligence.
"The challenges ahead of our nation are too daunting, and the role of the CIA too critical, for there to be any distraction," Brennan wrote. He also defended himself against charges that he has supported torture, writing: "The fact that I was not involved in the decisionmaking process for any of these controversial policies and actions has been ignored."
Brennan said he opposed many Bush-era policies, including the Iraq war and the use of coercive interrogation practices. He noted that his criticism of CIA policies had prompted the Bush administration to block his promotion to more senior positions. "I am extremely proud of my 25-year record of intelligence work," he said in the letter.
The statements contrast with comments Brennan made in interviews over the past several years. In an interview on PBS's "NewsHour," he called the CIA practice of "rendition," or the secret transfer of terrorism suspects from one country to another, a "vital tool." In a CBS interview, he said the CIA's interrogation techniques provided "lifesaving" intelligence.
One human rights activist, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of Obama's Cabinet search, said he was not aware of any evidence that Brennan had objected to the controversial practices. "There were a lot of people in the Bush administration who objected to it," he said. "A lot of people risked their careers by saying, 'You are going too far.' "
Brennan, chief executive of the Analysis Corp., a Fairfax County-based private intelligence company, had been an early supporter of Obama, and many intelligence community insiders backed his candidacy.
Other possible candidates to take top intelligence posts include Donald M. Kerr, a former CIA and FBI official who is the Bush administration's principal deputy director of national intelligence, and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairman of an intelligence subcommittee.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung, Joby Warrick and Philip Rucker and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.