CIA Director Leon Panetta, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Armed Service Committe, June 9, 2011
CIA Director Leon Panetta, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Armed Service Committe, June 9, 2011

BY MICHAEL BOWMAN – The U.S. Senate has confirmed Leon Panetta as defense secretary by a unanimous vote of 100 to nothing. The current director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Panetta will shift to the Pentagon, replacing outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Panetta’s already-impressive resume is about to get longer. The onetime congressman, White House chief of staff, and current CIA director will oversee the military as the United States winds down two wars and engages in a limited mission over Libya.

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, senators lined up to praise Panetta and endorse his nomination.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin called him a “wise and solid” choice.

“Director Panetta has given decades of dedicated service to this nation, and we should all be grateful that he is once again willing to answer the call and take the helm of the Department of Defense. He is going to bring a reassuring level of continuity and in-depth experience. The Department of Defense will need Director Panetta’s skill and wisdom to navigate the extraordinarily-complex set of challenges in the years ahead,” Levin said.

The top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, John McCain, noted Panetta’s vast experience in matters of state.

“Director Panetta has had an extraordinary career of public service. He served in the House of Representatives, representing his California district for eight terms. He served in the White House as President Clinton’s chief of staff, and director of the Office of Management and Budget. Since 2009, he’s been the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, strengthening that agency and forging positive relationships,” McCain said.

At his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill earlier this month, Panetta predicted Iraq will ask the United States to keep some American troops in the country beyond the end of this year. He endorsed a draw-down of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but said reductions should be based on ground conditions there. He said Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi’s grip on power is weakening, and described Pakistan as a critical, if frustrating U.S. ally.

Panetta takes over from Robert Gates, who is leaving the Pentagon after four-and-a-half years as defense secretary, spanning both the Bush and Obama administrations. Senators also lauded Gates for having overseen U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq, refocused the U.S. campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and initiated a restructuring of the massive Pentagon budget.

Senator McCain described Gates as one of America’s greatest secretaries of defense. Speaking of Panetta’s task in replacing Gates, Democratic Senator Richard  Durbin of Illinois put it this way:

“Big shoes to fill. Secretary Gates has had a remarkable term as secretary, and a remarkable career in public service,” Durbin said.

President Barack Obama’s pick to replace Panetta at the CIA is General David Petraeus, who has commanded in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus is also expected to be confirmed by an overwhelming vote.

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