Ashton Carter is the sole focus of White House efforts to fill the post of defense secretary, CBS News confirms.
If nominated and confirmed by the Senate to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Carter would be President Obama's fourth secretary of defense. The vetting process is nearly complete but not finished, CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett reports. The White House is awaiting completion of the vetting review of Carter's file, according to sources close to the process. No other contenders, at this stage, are under serious consideration.
Carter was deputy secretary of defense between 2011 and 2013, serving as the Pentagon's chief operating officer under both Hagel and Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta. Before that, he'd served in a variety of roles within the Pentagon under Mr. Obama and former President Bill Clinton, along with lengthy stints in academia and the private sector.
As the number two at the Pentagon, Carter helped oversee the department's budget during a period of belt-tightening, and he boasts a deep familiarity with the department and its massive bureaucracy that could be a selling point for his nomination. He stepped down in 2013 after Mr. Obama passed over him to nominate Hagel when Panetta retired.
Carter is viewed as a strong, known commodity in defense circles, respected by senior military leaders and well-known within the Pentagon civilian bureaucracy. Carter is also seen within the White House as an upgrade over Hagel in terms of strength of personality, confidence and vision on current national security challenges in the Middle East -- specifically coalition efforts to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Mr. Obama's next defense secretary will take the the helm of the Pentagon as it is facing multiple crises abroad, ranging from the rapid rise of ISIS to ongoing international talks to curb Iran's nuclear program and the spread of Ebola in West Africa. Additionally, Mr. Obama has quietly moved to expand the U.S. military role in Afghanistan in 2015.
Carter's expected nomination could come as early as Thursday or Friday. Those close to the vetting process do not anticipate any last-minute difficulties but must await the final report to proceed with the nomination.
In the interim, defense and communications experts have been assisting Carter as he prepares for a possible nomination - specifically Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff to Leon Panetta in his roles as Defense Secretary and CIA Director, and Philippe Reines, a communications specialist with long-standing ties to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Bash and Reines are founders of Beacon Global Strategies (where CBS News contributor Michael Morell is a senior counselor).
Carter's first challenge will be surviving the Senate confirmation process. After the new Republican-led Senate is sworn in next year, it will have to consider the nominations of both Carter and Loretta Lynch, Mr. Obama's nominee for attorney general. Should the new GOP leadership keep the current Senate rules, Mr. Obama's nominees will need the support of a simple 51-vote majority to be confirmed. Still, the confirmation votes set the stage for early political tension between Mr. Obama and the new GOP Congress.