Washington (CNN) – He wants to leave next year. That much he has said. But the former spy chief and current Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been coy about the when.
But Thursday, a few clues to and lines to read between.
Gates spoke to reporters at a Pentagon news conference on Thursday and was asked about a comment he made to Foreign Policy magazine that the best time for him to leave his job would be 2011.
At the press conference, Gates said the reasoning for 2011 was all about the politics. He said President Barack Obama would have a much harder time finding someone with only one year left in his term would be a "difficult challenge."
"It also seemed to me that having a confirmation process in the early spring of 2012 in the middle of a presidential election year is probably not the wisest thing either. So that was my rationale," Gates explained.
Asked if he would want to just stay until the end of Obama's first term, Gates was pretty clear he didn't want to.
"Not in my thinking," he said.
But a 2011 departure raises the issue of timing. The president has already said he wants to begin drawing down some of the 30,000 troops just added to the Afghanistan war in July 2011. So would Gates stay to help make the decision if such a drawdown is possible?
He'd rather not say but he has decided.
"Yes, I've made up my mind."
Of course, Gates has wanted to leave before and been quite vocal about it in the hopes that he wouldn't be asked to stay. The strategy didn't work last time. He said he didn't want to stay past former president George W. Bush's term. But alas, he was asked by Obama to stay on and he did.