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Michele Flournoy, No. 3 official at Pentagon, to step down

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Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy testified to Congress on missile defense in 2009. (AP)

Michele Flournoy, a key architect of Obama's national security policy and one of the most senior female Pentagon officials in history, plans to step down from the number 3 job at the Defense Department in February, she told the Associated Press Monday.

Flournoy, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, said she "feels compelled to 'rebalance' her personal life after three years in one of the most demanding national security jobs in Washington," the AP's Robert Burns reported.

"By nature it is an all-consuming job and it does take a toll on the family," Flournoy, 50, told Burns.

Flournoy has played a major role shaping the Obama administration's defense policy and posture around the world and in the inter-agency debate on policy towards Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Asia. She is married to another busy public servant, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs W. Scott Gould. They are the parents of three school-age children, ages 14, 12 and 9.

Flournoy is not revealing her future plans, but she told Burns she may do some public speaking, consulting and working for Obama's re-election campaign.

In 2007, she co-founded the Center for New American Security, an influential think tank that became a feeder of senior national security personnel for the Obama administration. Her CNAS co-founder Kurt Campbell advises Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in his capacity as assistant secretary of state for Asian and Pacific Affairs. Campbell would seemingly be in the mix for consideration to serve as a possible successor for Flournoy as the top policy adviser to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (who served in the Clinton administration as White House chief of staff and OMB chief.)

The Obama administration recently announced its intention to shift the focus of America's national security policy toward Asia--and away from the United States' post 9/11 entanglements in the wider Middle East. President Obama met with Iraq's visiting prime minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House Monday to mark the end of the U.S. military mission in Iraq.

Flournoy is extremely well regarded in national security circles for her intellect, policy heavy-lifting, and modesty--and enjoys a reputation as well as a good colleague, mentor and boss.

"I hate to see Michele go--as a defense intellectual, a standout bureaucratic player, as a respected colleague and trailblazer for women she has few if any peers," former Clinton administration official Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the progressive National Security Network, told Yahoo News Monday. "Goodness knows she has earned any re-balancing she wants.  I think it highlights for both men and women how extreme the demands of government service have become."

Flournoy's departure plans come as the Pentagon has weathered the transition of its top two leaders and as the agency is facing major defense spending cuts. Panetta, 73, Obama's first CIA director , succeeded Bob Gates as Defense Secretary this past July. This fall, Ash Carter, previously the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisitions and Technology, succeeded Bill Lynn as Deputy Defense Secretary.

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