WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is considering asking Senator John 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 Petraeus.
Although Kerry is thought to covet the job of secretary of state, senior administration officials familiar with transition planning said that nomination will almost certainly go to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
John 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 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 phases 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.
The process has become further complicated by congressional ire over not being told that Petraeus was under FBI investigation, on top of what are likely to be contentious closed-door hearings this week over administration actions surrounding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
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 the U.S. ambassador 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 was either intentionally misleading or incompetent, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday. Rice, he said, ‘‘would have an incredibly difficult time’’ winning Senate confirmation as secretary of state.
But several White House officials said Obama is prepared to dig in his heels over her nomination to replace outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Rice’s post-Benghazi remarks on several television news shows were merely a recitation of administration talking points drawn directly from intelligence available at the time, said the senior administration officials, who agreed to discuss the closely held transition planning only on the condition of anonymity.
Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House would not comment on personnel matters.
The upcoming hearings and an independent State Department review of the Benghazi attack — being led by retired diplomat Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — may reveal some intelligence lapses and security missteps, one official said. But they will also demonstrate that there was no attempt at subterfuge, the official added.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, as has been Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon.
The timing of a nomination for Panetta’s successor is unclear. On Monday, he said he had no imminent plans to step down but indicated that he was unlikely to stay in the job for the duration of Obama’s second term.
‘‘Who the hell knows,’’ Panetta said, when asked by reporters traveling with him to Australia whether he would remain in office for four more years. ‘‘It’s no secret that at some point I’d like to get back to California.’’
Kerry did not respond to requests for comment on his possible nomination at the Pentagon. A spokesperson, Jodi Seth, said: ‘‘Senator Kerry’s only focus right now is his job as senior senator from Massachusetts and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.’’
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.
White House national security adviser Thomas Donilon, principal deputy Denis McDonough and Benjamin Rhodes, deputy for strategic communications, are more likely than not to remain in place, at least initially, officials said.
Antony Blinken, Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, is said to be under consideration for Rice’s job at the United Nations, as is Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights.
It was unclear who would take Brennan’s job if he leaves government or moves to the CIA. He was the top contender to lead the agency when Obama was first elected in 2008, but he withdrew under criticism, which he deemed unfair, of his role in intelligence excesses under the administration of George W. Bush. Although that challenge is now seen as behind him, officials said he has not indicated whether he would like to be considered again to head the agency where he spent 25 years.
Beyond complicating the overhaul of the national security team, Petraeus’s departure will send ripples through management layers at the CIA.
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 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.
The head of the clandestine service, John Bennett, was talked out of retirement to take that job and has signaled his intent to step down in the coming months, current and former officials said.
The top position in the Counterterrorism Center, which carries out the CIA’s drone campaign, is also expected to come open. The current director, known by his cover name ‘‘Roger,’’ has been in the job for more than six years. Former CIA officials said Roger has wanted to be named director of the clandestine service but has a reputation for harshness toward subordinates and had been expected to be passed over by Petraeus.
Morell was considered a standout analyst at the CIA before entering the agency’s upper ranks and is highly respected among his colleagues and at the White House. Obama, a White House official said, ‘‘has enormous trust in [Morell’s] ability to lead the CIA for as long as is necessary.’’ He is also considered a possible candidate to replace Brennan at the White House.