WASHINGTON (CNN) - The Senate Intelligence Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to send the nomination of Leon Panetta as CIA Director to the full Senate for confirmation.
If approved, the 70-year-old Panetta would become the oldest person to head the spy agency.
Panetta was an eight term Congressman from central California who chaired the powerful House Budget Committee before moving over to the Clinton White House as the Budget Director and later as the President's Chief of Staff. He left government in 1997 and returned to California where he and his wife created the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, a non-profit foundation.
During his confirmation hearing, Panetta was peppered with questions about the Bush Administration's controversial interrogation, detention and rendition program and President Obama's efforts to change the policy.
Panetta called waterboarding, the interrogation technique which simulates drowning, torture, but he said the intelligence officers who carried it out should not be prosecuted.
He conceded the executive orders signed by President Obama limiting interrogation techniques to the 19 outlined in the Army Field Manual might not be enough. Panetta said he would not hesitate to go to the President and ask for additional authority if there was "a ticking bomb situation."
Panetta vowed not to send suspected terrorists to other countries where they would be tortured. But he insisted renditions are an "appropriate tool" if the U.S. receives assurances from the receiving country the individuals will not be treated inhumanely.
Closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility was going to be very difficult, said Panetta. Although some prisoners will be tried and others transferred to other countries, Panetta acknowledged there may be a group of prisoners who will have to be detained without trial for a long time.
Panetta said he did not see the need for any whole sale changes at the agency. The CIA has the tools to deal with the threats, said the nominee, but it needs to stress the training, language capabilities and diversity that will produce better intelligence.
Panetta's nomination initially created a stir among both Democrats and Republicans who questioned his lack of experience in the intelligence community at a time when the U.S. was fighting two wars and battling terrorists. But his lack of experience barely got mentioned at his confirmation hearing. Senators seemed satisfied that he had the confidence of the President, would have a good working relationship with Congress and that he was retaining the top leadership at the CIA.
Panetta was not the first choice to head the spy agency. John Brennan, a career intelligence officer who last headed the National Counter Terrorism Center, was the leading candidate until liberal bloggers effectively torpedoed the nomination by linking Brennan to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques and the preemptive war in Iraq.
Brennan said he was not involved in the decision making process for those policies, but he withdrew his name from consideration. Sources close to Brennan said he was pushed by the Obama transition team to step aside. Brennan was subsequently appointed by President Obama to be his homeland security advisor at the White House, a position that does not need congressional approval.