President Obama is considering asking Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to serve as his next defense secretary, part of an extensive rearrangement of his national security team that will include a permanent replacement for former CIA director David H. Petraeus.
Although Kerry is thought to covet the job of secretary of state, senior administration officials familiar with the transition planning said that nomination will almost certainly go to Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
John O. Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, is a leading contender for the CIA job if he wants it, officials said. If Brennan goes ahead with his plan to leave government, Michael J. Morell, the agency’s acting director, is the prohibitive favorite to take over permanently. Officials cautioned that the White House discussions are still in the early stages and that no decisions have been made.
Petraeus’s resignation last week after revelations of an extramarital affair have complicated what was already an intricate puzzle to reassemble the administration’s national security and diplomatic pieces for Obama’s second term.
Rice, one of an inner circle of aides who have been with Obama since his first presidential campaign in 2007, is under particular fire over the Benghazi incident, in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
Some Republican lawmakers have suggested that she was part of what they suspect was an initial, election-related attempt to portray the attack as a peaceful demonstration that turned violent, rather than what the administration now acknowledges was an organized terrorist assault.
Rice’s description, days after the attack, of a protest gone wrong indicated that she either intentionally misled the country or was incompetent, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday. Rice, he said, “would have an incredibly difficult time” winning Senate confirmation as secretary of state.
But administration officials, one of whom described Kerry as a “war hero,” said his qualifications for the defense job included not only his naval service in Vietnam but also his knowledge of the budget and experience in the diplomacy that has increasingly become a part of the defense portfolio. They said the Democrats’ retention of the Senate majority, with a net gain of two seats, in last week’s election provided a cushion that allowed them to consider Kerry’s departure from the chamber.
Many had expected Petraeus to stay in place for Obama’s second term, and he had spent recent months planning transitions at other key posts at CIA headquarters. Now, four of the agency’s most critical positions — director, deputy director, head of the National Clandestine Service and chief of the Counterterrorism Center — have become question marks.
Within hours of Petraeus’s resignation Friday, his biography was excised from the CIA Web site and replaced with that of Morell.
Michael G. Vickers, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, also has been mentioned as a candidate for CIA director.
If Morell ends up permanently in the job, he will need to designate a new deputy and would be in charge of other pending personnel decisions that Petraeus had been poised to make.