The White House on April 27 said it has tapped CIA Director Leon Panetta to succeed outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates. (File photo / Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
The White House announced Wednesday that CIA chief Leon Panetta, a longtime government official in both the executive and legislative branches who was a key player in the Capitol Hill budget battles of the 1990s, will be nominated to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The move is part of a broader shakeup among President Obama's national security team. The White House also announced that Army Gen. David Petraeus will take over the top job at the CIA when he leaves his post as commander of the Afghan war later this year.
Obama appointed Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen to lead the mission in Afghanistan when Petraeus leaves.
The changes will take place this summer.
Panetta, 72, will move to the Pentagon at just about the time that a "fundamental review" of military capabilities will be wrapping up. The sweeping review, announced by Obama on April 13, will assess military capabilities and America's "role in a changing world," Obama said.
Obama has vowed to find some $400 billion to cut from the defense budget during the next decade, part of a broader effort to rein in federal spending and reduce the national deficit.
Panetta served from 1977 to 1993 in the House of Representatives as a California Democrat, eventually becoming chairman of the House Budget Committee. He is expected to support many of Gates' budget cutting efforts, which have included eliminating weapons programs, as well as plans to reduce troop levels and reining in spending on military health care.
"I don't want to sound too gloom-and-doom, but he has whacked programs before," said one former Defense Department official in Washington. "Certainly from Panetta's background, you have to say he's getting ready for the big budget battles. And one of the big things will be, how much is defense going to play into that?"
Panetta is considered a savvy Washington power broker. Following his years on Capitol Hill, he served as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton, and later became White House chief of staff during the budget battles that led to a government shutdown in 1996.
Petraeus' departure from Afghanistan will come as the military and White House officials decide precisely how to follow through on Obama's promise to begin withdrawing troops in July. It's unclear whether that will be a token drawdown of a few thousand troops or a much larger portion of the roughly 100,000 troops currently deployed there.
"It's a natural breaking point because you are going from a surge of forces to now a gradual drawdown," said Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who served as Petraeus' executive officer in Iraq and is currently professor of military history at Ohio State University.
"It's appropriate to put in a new commander at that point, one who will take the operation into the future with an eye toward 2014, when the Afghan security forces are supposed to be in control," Mansoor said in an interview.
Allen, currently the deputy commander at U.S. Central Command, has not previously held a major command post in Afghanistan.
A willingness to cut
In the House, Panetta's record shows a willingness — within limits — to cut defense spending. Some of his significant defense-related votes:
• Defense budget. In October 1990, he voted in favor of a 5 percent across-the-board cut in defense spending, but voted against a larger, 10 percent across-the-board cut.
• Missile defense, nuclear weapons. He regularly voted to cut funding for the Strategic Defense Initiative and missile defense programs. In June 1992, he voted to transfer all tactical nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal to the Energy Department for destruction.
• Force structure. Reducing the number of U.S. troops deployed overseas and getting host nations to cover more of the basing costs was a common theme for Panetta, who supported a 40 percent reduction in overseas troops and a cut of as much as $8 billion in U.S. expenses for overseas basing.
• 1991 Gulf War. He opposed the use of military force after Iraq invaded Kuwait, but voted for legislation to pay for military operations once combat operations began.
• Base closings. In 1988, he voted for the creation of a base closing and realignment commission, but in 1991 voted against the commission's recommendations after California was hit hard in the review.
• Major weapons. He opposed restarting B-2 bomber production after that line was canceled but voted to maintain the Midgetman missile program, seen by some as a less costly alternative to the MX missile.
• Abortions. He regularly voted to allow abortions to be performed in overseas military hospitals as long as the procedure was done at the expense of the patient, not taxpayers.