White House Background Briefing on National Security Personnel Changes

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–April 27, 2011 – 3:30 P.M. EDT.  BRIEFING VIA CONFERENCE CALL

MR. VIETOR:  Hey, everybody, thanks for getting on today.  We wanted to do a call with you this afternoon to give you a background briefing from a senior administration official on some personnel announcements the President will make tomorrow.  We’re doing this on background because we wanted to get you all the important context and thought that went into this decision, but then let the President be the first person to make the announcement on the record.

So, with that, I’m going to turn it over to our senior administration official today, and he will give some remarks and take some questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you, Tommy.  Hi, everybody.  Thanks for joining today.

Tomorrow the President will announce four important appointments of the national security team.

First he’ll announce that Leon Panetta, currently the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, will be nominated as Secretary of Defense to succeed Secretary Gates.  Second, he will announce his intention to nominate General Dave Petraeus as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Third, he’ll announce his intention to nominate Ryan Crocker as the United States next ambassador to Afghanistan.  And fourth, he’ll announce his intention to nominate General John Allen, currently the Deputy Commander for CENTCOM, as General Petraeus’ successor as commander for ISAF and commander for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

I can give you some background on these appointments and then I’d be glad to take your questions.

First, these announcements tomorrow are the combination of a multi-month process of careful consideration by the President for the nominees for these important positions.  As you all know, Secretary Gates indicated last year that he would be stepping down as Secretary of Defense by the middle of this year, and those conversations that he had with the President last summer led to a careful consideration of his successor and led to these other appointments, as well.

Karl Eikenberry, ambassador to Kabul, his appointment or tour was coming to an end after two years this spring, and we needed to make a change there.  And we were also working on General Petraeus’ successor.

So it’s the culmination of a multi-month, careful process by the President of consideration.

Point two:  The President has put in place here those nominees that provide the strongest possible team to execute our strategies and policies.

I stress the word “team.”  We have been very fortunate in this administration from the outset to have an integrated and effective team, with an emphasis on how each member of the team, how the institutions work together as a team.  The President places a high priority on this, and he carefully thought through how the various individuals here will interact, work together, to execute his strategies and policies on behalf of the country.

Next, we have laid this out in a way that we believe will provide for a seamless transition in each of these positions — that is, no gap, no disruption in continuity of execution of policies.

Fourth, and I think this is an obvious point — that the President has selected a deeply experienced group of people, really the best people for these jobs, very strong figures in their own right, each and every one of these individuals.  And again, I think that’s consistent with the approach that the President has taken from the outset with respect to his national security team — strong figures who work together, who respect each other, who have deep experience in national security.

And if you work through this — and we can go through each of the positions — you have in Ryan Crocker, one of the nation’s most experienced and well-respected diplomats; in General Dave Petraeus, obviously, one of the nation’s preeminent military leaders; Leon Panetta, a deeply experienced public servant; and John Allen, really one of the great leaders of his generation in the military.

On the specifics, point one:  With respect to Secretary Gates, obviously, one of the longest serving Defense Secretaries in history and will likely be seen as one of the best, the President has valued — continues to value Secretary Gates’ advice and leadership.

As Defense Secretary, he’s managed a process to see 100,000 troops be able to return from Iraq in their combat mission there, one of the largest movements of troops and equipment since World War II; has worked seamlessly with the President and General Petraeus and others to manage our surge in Afghanistan; and obviously has worked very hard with the President and the President appreciates his leadership on bringing efficiencies to the Pentagon in terms of its budget and program.

Leon Panetta brings all the necessary qualities to be a superb Secretary of Defense — public service for four decades — CIA, White House Chief of Staff, member of Congress, and he had served in the Army, and his son served in Afghanistan.  So Leon understands in a personal way the sacrifice and courage of our armed forces.

At CIA, I’d make the following observations about Leon’s tenure to date there — strong leadership; reinvigoration of institutional morale; tremendously effective, very solid manager; obviously deep experience in budget and management in the government; has become over the last two-plus years a close advisor to the President; seen by the President as a very effective member of the team, and seen by his colleagues to have been a very effective and terrific colleague.

General Petraeus is — you all obviously know his extraordinary record of service in the military, taking on some of the most difficult missions, with a record of tremendous results.  General Petraeus will retire from the military to take on this new position.

The President and he have been in a conversation about this transition and about this position for a while now and he met with the President specifically on this assignment in the Oval Office on March 14th and March 18th.

General Allen is someone with whom we at the national security team and at the White House are very familiar.  He’s been the deputy of CENTCOM.  He was deputy CENTCOM under General Petraeus.  He’s now General Jim Mattis’ deputy — again, one of the real terrific leaders.  He was the first choice for this position and would be the nominee in all events as the first choice of Secretary Gates, Chairman Mullen, General Mattis, and General Petraeus.

I said that we were very familiar with General John Allen here at the White House, and that’s true of his work as the deputy of CENTCOM.  We have spent here tens of hours with General Allen working on some of the toughest problems in his area of responsibility, including issues around Afghanistan, Iraq, and especially Iran.

He will take up his position — assuming Senate agreement with the President’s nomination — as of the beginning of September.  In the interim, he will move to become a special assistant to the chairman in Chairman Mullen’s office.  He will spend the next few months preparing for his assignment in Afghanistan.  And it would be our expectation, assuming confirmation, that General Allen would take command in Afghanistan at the beginning of September.

Those are the basic outlines of the announcement that the President would make — plans to make tomorrow.  And I would be very happy to take questions.

Q    Thank you for taking the time to explain this to us today.  First, a couple of housekeeping things.  You said General Allen would expect to start in September.  What about Panetta, Petraeus, and Crocker?  When are they expected to start?  Will Petraeus have to take off his uniform and retire his commission, or will he serve as CIA director in uniform?

And my substantive question is about the difference in analysis between — of the Afghanistan war between the intelligence community and the military.  Senator Feinstein referenced it in a statement, and she said today that in Iraq and Afghanistan, General Petraeus has been a consumer of intelligence, but that is a very different role than leading the top intelligence agency.  And as you know, the CIA has had a dimmer assessment than Petraeus in the past.  So can you talk about that and what effect that will have on the intelligence coming to policymakers regarding the war in Afghanistan?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay.  Thank you, Josh.  I’m glad to address those questions.  With respect to the specifics here on timing — and again, this is all against the backdrop of nominations and Senate confirmations.  So in each of these cases, Josh, I’m going to make the assumption, but on the condition, obviously, that the Senate agrees in each of these cases with the President’s nomination.  You understand that.

It would be our plan — Secretary Gates’ plan to leave the position of Secretary of Defense on June 30.  And again, if the Senate sees to confirm Director Panetta, he would assume the position of Secretary of Defense on     July 1, 2011.  That’s firstly.

Second, with respect to General Petraeus, the plan would be in order to ensure as seamless a transition and as good a transition as possible of command in Afghanistan, that General Petraeus would have his nomination submitted sometime during the summer, and again, assuming the Senate agrees, we would like to have — or we would plan to have General Petraeus in position as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency by the beginning of September.

And with respect to General Allen, I went through that.  He will leave CENTCOM, become a special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  During that period of three or four months he will work through the transition in Afghanistan, probably spending quite a bit of time in Afghanistan, and again, assuming action by the Senate, General Allen would take over command at the beginning of September as General Petraeus becomes the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

With respect to your question about whether or not General Petraeus would serve in uniform as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the answer is that he would not, and that he would retire from the military to take on the position of director of Central Intelligence Agency.

Now, on the second half of your question, with respect to the differences between being a consumer of intelligence and being responsible for producing the intelligence, General Petraeus has deep experience in the areas of intelligence, as you know.  And as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, I think he would clearly understand what the role is there as the director of the agency, producing all — principal producer of all-source intelligence.

With respect to any questions about the differences and views of different elements of the intelligence community, I can’t comment on that.

Q    And what about the timing for Crocker to go to Kabul?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’d have to — I think he’ll be nominated as soon as we can — and we seek early confirmation.

Q    Thank you.


Q    Thank you very much for doing this.  Just wanted to ask if you could talk a little bit about what all this means for the drawdown and if the drawdown will proceed as planned?  And also, if with General Petraeus as an advocate for the COIN strategy and a believer in that, can we assume, or would it be fair for us to assume that with his departure, there might be more impetus or momentum for a more robust drawdown of troops in Afghanistan come July?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Peter, thanks for that question.  That question is really about overall strategy of the United States in Afghanistan, and that strategy has been set forth by the President and has been signed on to by our ISAF colleagues and partners at the Lisbon summit held this past November.  And this is the strategy that will be implemented, the strategy that General Petraeus is implementing.  It’s the strategy that General Allen will implement in close consultations, again, assuming Senate confirmation with Ambassador Crocker.  And that is the beginning of a transition from international security lead to Afghan lead and provinces over the course of this year.  That began in the early part of this year and we’ve already had a number of entities transitioned.

Second, there would be the beginning of United States forces drawdown this summer, and that that would lead ultimately to a full Afghan lead on the security side by the year 2014.  And that strategy is in place and, again, was being implemented by General Petraeus and implemented by General Allen.

I think it is important to point out, though, in response to your question and underscore Ambassador Crocker’s experience on civilian and military political affairs, where he is really, as you know, really one of our most experienced diplomats in that area.  Ryan has 37 years in the foreign service — I’m looking at the list here — five ambassadorships:  Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon.  In Iraq, as you know, he worked very closely with General Petraeus; was instrumental in reconciliation efforts, which is an important priority for the United States in the next period of time here in Afghanistan.

Another important fact which I should have mentioned at the outset — I’ll give you two other facts here, Peter, on this — is that in January 2002, Ambassador Crocker was sent to Afghanistan to reopen the American embassy in Kabul.  And indeed, we received agrement from the government of Afghanistan this morning in a conversation between President Karzai, who obviously knew him then, and the United States representative talking to him today.

The last thing I will say is, again, this is the result of a multi-month process, consultation with Secretary Clinton.  And the President met with Ambassador Crocker and offered him this position on March 30.

Q    Thanks so much for taking the call.  Can you follow up on the question earlier about Afghanistan?  What do you see as the main challenge that Panetta faces?  Given the fact that you’ve got a drawdown under consideration, budget cuts prospectively, two wars — two and a half wars, I mean, how does — what is his mission from the President in terms of the Afghan review and what he faces going forward?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  A couple of things, Andrea.  Number one, as I said earlier, the President has laid out our strategy for Afghanistan.  And Leon Panetta’s role as Secretary of Defense will be to implement that strategy working with General Allen and Ambassador Crocker.

There are obviously a full range of challenges, but again, the strategy with regard to Afghanistan is set out here.  That doesn’t mean it’s not challenging.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be a number of obstacles to navigate.  But it’s the strategy, again, that we’ve set out, which is to begin the transition in the first part of this year, making a series of decisions about the troop drawdown beginning in July.

As I pointed out, Andrea, earlier in the conversation, we expect that General Petraeus will serve until General Allen can take up the post — there again, assuming Senate confirmation — at the beginning of September.  So there are several months now where General Petraeus will be working as the — continuing as the commander for ISAF and the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

In addition to that, though, as you point out, the President would look to Director Panetta to continue the work that Secretary Gates has done on efficiencies and savings at the Pentagon.  And obviously this has been a signal effort by Bob Gates at the Pentagon.  And that is going to be — continue to intensify, as you know if you’ve seen the President’s announcement of additional cuts of some $400 billion over the next 12 years.  And Director Panetta’s experience as a manager and a manager of very large budgets, someone who is familiar with large organizations and has the ability to lead those organizations and implement strategy in those organizations, is a real strength that he brings here.

But there are other challenges as well.  We still need to work through and complete the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq this year.  There’s no shortage of challenges as Secretary of Defense going forward here.

Q    Well, let me follow on that, because does he agree with the suggestions from — Bob Gates indicated on the last trip, that they are — that he was open to renegotiating or extending the SOFA.  I mean, is that going to go beyond this year?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I’m not going  — that’s a policy issue that is under discussion between the United States and Iraq.  What I can tell you is this, that the United States will meet its commitments under the security agreements that were entered into between the United States and Iraq.

And, Andrea, what we would hope to do and what we will do is move to what you would see is a more normal relationship between the United States and Iraq and a sovereign country.  And any arrangements that would take place between the United States and Iraq going forward — that is, after December 31, 2011 — would be the subject of negotiations between the United States and Iraq, as it would be between the United States and any other country.

Q    Thank you very much.


Q    Hi there.  It’s been no secret that the relationship between Ambassador Eikenberry and President Karzai has been a difficult one.  Do you think that while you’re hoping that given his wide range of experience, Ambassador Crocker will be able to improve that relationship between the Afghan President and the top U.S. representative, or are the differences that we’ve seen more a function of a different view of the conflict between the governments, rather than just personality?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, thank you.  Let me say a couple of things about that.  The first is that Ambassador Eikenberry has served nearly five years in Afghanistan on three tours, two as a military officer and one as U.S. ambassador.  And during his time as ambassador and in large part working with General Petraeus at the direction of the President in a conflict where the United States had a real shortage of resources and, frankly, a lack of strategy, he has worked as an integral member of this team to put in place the inputs and to develop a strategy for moving ahead.  And it’s resulted, in our judgment — in quite a bit of progress.

And we would expect, as I said earlier, Ambassador Crocker — who is one of the most experienced diplomats we have and, in particular, one of the most experienced diplomats we have in terms of civilian-military political operations — to take up that task; to continue the work with the military moving towards transition; to support the work led by the Afghan government — and working very closely, by the way, with our Special Representative, Marc Grossman, on the efforts toward reconciliation and moving the peace process forward; and obviously working very closely with the military as the military draws down its resources.

So I guess I would answer it this way, that the President has nominated a person with a deep experience in the region, tremendous experience and success with political-military efforts.  So I guess I’d answer your question by pointing out the quality and qualities of Ryan Crocker as an ambassadorial nominee.

MR. VIETOR:  I think we have time for one more question.

Q    A quick question.  Interim CIA, can you give us anything on that?  And is it true that Mr. Panetta was somewhat reluctant to leave the CIA and take on the job?  And what finally twisted his arm?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’ll comment on both those directly, David.  With respect to an interim CIA director — and again, we would expect that that period would be the period between July 1 and the beginning of September — we would have Mike Morell, the current deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as the acting director.  That’s the first point.

With respect to the second point, I think that’s fair, frankly.  Leon loved being the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and it shows.  And it shows in the energy and enthusiasm he brings to leading the organization.  It shows in the work he’s done taking the organization and really rebuilding morale and a sense of mission at the agency.  And it was a difficult decision for him to leave the agency, to be perfectly straight with you about it.

But as I said earlier, you look at Leon’s résumé
over four decades and there’s a pattern there.  And the pattern is that he’s dedicated to public service, and when Presidents have asked him to take up roles, he’s done that.  And in this case, the President asked him.  Leon thought about it, consulted with his spouse and his family, and on Monday evening, when he and the President had their final conversation about this, David, he said yes.

Q    Thank you, sir.

MR. VIETOR:  Great.  Thank you all for getting on.  We appreciate it.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  All right.  Thank you all.  I appreciate it.

4:07 P.M. EDT