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Senior NSC aide vetted for Pentagon assistant secretary post

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Derek Chollet currently serves as NSC senior director for strategy. (Zocalo)

The shuffle of top Pentagon officials that started last summer with the departure of Robert Gates continues in the senior policy ranks.

Yahoo News has learned that Derek Chollet, the National Security Council's senior director for strategic planning, tops the short list and is currently being vetted to be nominated to succeed Alexander "Sandy" Vershbow as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and South Korea, is slated to move to Belgium early next month to become the top civilian official at NATO.

Chollet has been at the NSC for about a year. Before that, he served as deputy director of the State Department's policy planning shop. He did not respond to a query from Yahoo News on the expected nomination, which has not yet been announced by the White House.

One source told Yahoo that Chollet is currently being vetted. Another official confirmed that Chollet is among those being considered. A third official indicated that several other candidates proposed for consideration for the post by the Defense Department had ultimately been nixed by the White House, which is said to want a European expert in the job.

However, view from some Democratic policy observers is that the appointment fits into a larger pattern--one in which several key Defense Department slots are being filled with officials from the National Security Council.

(Among those: Yahoo News previously reported that Matthew Spence, a former NSC aide to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, has been tapped to succeed Colin Kahl as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East. A third NSC official, senior director for Europe Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, is, according to sources, likely to be nominated to become the next Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. As Yahoo News first reported, Jim Miller, who currently serves in that principal deputy role, has been tapped to succeed his boss Michele Flournoy as the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy--the top Pentagon civilian policy advisor job. The White House announced the nomination this week.)

What's with all the NSC aides being slated for senior Pentagon policy posts? The emerging impression in some Democratic foreign policy circles is that National Security Advisor Donilon just doesn't much trust the Pentagon. The White House feels it has been repeatedly blindsided on various issues by the Defense agency, sources said, and Donilon, out of loyalty to the president's wishes, is trying to get more control over the notoriously powerful institution.

That impression echoes one described at length in Bob Woodward's 2010 book, "Obama's War", on the White House's feeling repeatedly boxed in and manipulated by senior Pentagon leaders and the generals who were advocating for a surge of U.S. military forces to Afghanistan.

Then-Defense Secretary Gates had complained to Donilon's then-boss Jim Jones "that Donilon's sound-offs and strong spur-of-the-moment opinions, especially about one general, had offended him so much at an Oval Office meeting that he nearly walked out," Woodward reported in the book.

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