Senate panel approves Panetta to be next CIA chief

Leon Panetta, the nominee for Central Intelligence Agency Director, laughs while testifying in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington February 6, 2009. REUTERS/Molly Riley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Leon Panetta, U.S. President Barack Obama’s choice to head the Central Intelligence Agency, was approved on Wednesday by the Senate intelligence committee.

Panetta, a former Democratic congressman and White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, was expected to win easy Senate confirmation -- despite a lack of experience in national security matters and some questions from Republicans concerned about his denunciations of torture.

Committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said Panetta would mark a new beginning for the CIA as its next director.

“He has promised the Senate intelligence committee that he will not allow coercive interrogation practices, secret prisons, or the transfer of terrorist suspects to countries that may use torture,” Feinstein said in a statement announcing the panel’s approval of Panetta’s nomination.

The nomination must be confirmed by the full Senate.

Reporting by JoAnne Allen