WASHINGTON – Army Gen. David Petraeus — who's credited with turning around the war in Iraq and is close to turning a corner in Afghanistan — is about to take command of America's spy agency and edge his way onto the political scene.
Petraeus' ascendency to CIA director and member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet comes after months of insisting he had no political ambitions, including flat denials of a possible presidential run.
Despite those assertions, he is expected to retire later this year after 37 years in the Army, shed his now comfortable role of military adviser and, for the first time, begin to shape U.S. policy.
One of the military's brightest and most ambitious stars, Petraeus, 58, is traveling a familiar path to the CIA. Since 1947, five people have taken the job while they were either uniformed officers or shortly after retiring from the military.
Obama is expected to announce the Petraeus move on Thursday, among a handful of key personnel changes. According to officials, the president will shift the current CIA director, Leon Panetta, to the Pentagon's top post on July 1, replacing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has been planning to retire. Petraeus, now the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, will leave that job in September to head the CIA. All these changes are subject to Senate confirmation.
The Petraeus move would put one of the government's heaviest users of intelligence at the helm of the agency.
"I think it's a good choice in the sense that he's used to being the customer for the intelligence the CIA is generating," said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. "He has a good perspective that he will bring."
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., noted that being an intelligence consumer "is a different role than leading the top civilian intelligence agency. I look forward to hearing his vision for the CIA and his plans to make sure the CIA is collecting the type of intelligence that policymakers need."
As commander of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and during his short stint as head of the military's U.S. Central Command, Petraeus has worked closely with the CIA, often benefiting from its successes and struggling with its foibles.
Petraeus' ultimate success or failure in the Afghanistan war hinges in part on the CIA's ability to finesse its relationship with Pakistan's leaders, who are often irate over the agency's drone attacks against extremists hiding along the border.
Vincent Cannistraro, a retired CIA official and former director of intelligence programs at the National Security Council, said a major plus for Petraeus is his familiarity with the heads of intelligence agencies in Pakistan and throughout the greater Middle East.
"He's very good for the agency," Cannistraro said.
But former CIA officer Bruce Riedel cautioned that Petraeus' knowledge of the Afghanistan situation may trigger some challenges.
"Petraeus is likely to come in and shake things up," said Riedel, who worked with Petraeus as an adviser to the White House on Afghan and Pakistan policy. He added that Petraeus was disappointed with the CIA's lack of knowledge on the Afghan Taliban when he first took command in Afghanistan last June.
"That had never been a priority for the CIA. They wanted to chase al-Qaida," Riedel said.
According to a senior administration official, Petraeus met with Obama twice in March to talk about the possible job change — once on the day before he testified to Congress about the Afghanistan war, and four days later, after his Capitol Hill appearances were over. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the job changes have not been announced yet.
Known as an aggressive, competitive officer with a thirst for publicity, Petraeus became the administration's leading ambassador for the Iraq war's progress. He had a close relationship with Bush and became known for his detailed PowerPoint presentations, burying lawmakers in charts that tracked everything from troop deaths and roadside bombs to power generation and school construction.
A 1974 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Petraeus has risen steadily through the ranks and has a doctorate in international relations from Princeton University.
He commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the Iraq invasion in 2003 and later returned to build a viable program for training Iraqi security forces. He also was one of the leading architects of the Army's new doctrine on how to fight a counterinsurgency.
In June, Petraeus was pulled away from U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, as an abrupt replacement for Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was fired as commander of the increasingly unpopular Afghan war.
In the months that followed, Petraeus helped lead the push to add more U.S. troops to the war and dramatically boost the effort to train Afghan soldiers and police. Under Obama's plan, Petraeus would remain in Afghanistan through much of the summer, orchestrating the start of the U.S. military withdrawal.
Stephen Biddle, a Council on Foreign Relations military expert who served periodically as an adviser to Petraeus since 2007, said the choice of Petraeus as CIA chief is awkward in at least one sense.
"One of his primary responsibilities, presumably, as CIA director is going to be to evaluate the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases he's got a significant investment in good outcomes in both theaters. He's now going to be asked, in effect, to grade his own work."
The CIA post was initially something of a surprise to Petraeus watchers who thought the obvious next move for the four-star general was the top U.S. military job — chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Biddle said he suspects Obama chose not to pick Petraeus as the next chairman because the two men don't have a close relationship. That left the CIA as one of the few good options.
"You probably don't want to create an impression that you fired him," Biddle said. "And how many other jobs are there that are appropriate for somebody of Petraeus' stature?"
Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Pauline Jelinek and Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report.