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Obama hails new national security team

From NBC's Athena Jones
In announcing changes to his national security team on Thursday, President Obama said he could not think of a group of individuals better suited to lead his team at this time of war and increasing budget challenges as he urged the Senate to confirm them "as swiftly as possible."

Obama has asked CIA Director Leon Panetta replace outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, will nominate Gen. David Petraeus  to replace Petraeus as CIA director, nominate Gen. John Allen -- currently the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command -- to replace Petraeus in Afghanistan and call on Ryan Crocker to serve as ambassador to Afghanistan.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters on the changes said the men were a "deeply experienced group of people" who would make up the "strongest possible team" to carry out the administration's policies and the president echoed that sentiment during the East Room announcement.

"I've worked closely with most of the individuals on this stage and all of them have my complete confidence," Obama said. "Given the pivotal period that we're entering, I felt it was absolutely critical that we had this team in place so that we can stay focused on our mission, maintain our momentum and keep our nation secure."

Joining the four men on stage for the announcement were National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Biden and Gates.

The president said Panetta -- a former congressman, White House chief of staff, budget director and CIA director -- "knows how to lead." Among the challenges facing Panetta in his new role will be completing the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and managing the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan -- set to begin this summer -- and the eventual transition to Afghan lead on security matters in 2014, while continuing to look for savings to meet the president's goal of cutting an additional $400 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next 12 years.

Obama thanked Gates and said he was confident he would be remembered as one of the finest defense secretaries in history. He said that as a lifelong consumer of intelligence Petraeus knows that it must be timely, accurate and acted on quickly. He called Allen a "battle tested combat leader" who was deeply involved in executing US strategy in Afghanistan. Of Crocker, who in 2002 re-opened the US embassy in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, the president said that few Americans know the region and its challenges better than him.

"These are the leaders that I've chosen to help guide us through the difficult days ahead," Obama said. "I will look to them an my entire national security team for their counsel, continuity and unity of effort that this moment in history demands."

The administration aims to manage a "seamless transition" into these positions. Gates' plan is to leave his position on June 30 and Panetta -- who accepted the president's offer on Monday despite earlier resistance to the idea -- would assume position of secretary of defense on July 1, 2011. Mike Morell, the current deputy director of CIA would serve as acting director between July 1 and the beginning of September, when Petraeus would be expected to take over.

Petraeus will retire from the military in order to serve in the new post. Allen would take up his position at the beginning of September and administration officials could not say when Crocker would head to Kabul, but said they would seek speedy confirmation by the Senate. Petraeus was set to head back to Afghanistan tomorrow morning.