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US Senate confirms Panetta as CIA chief

3 min

The US Senate confirmed Leon Panetta (left) on Thursday as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, an organisation hard hit by criticism over its use of waterboarding in interrogation and other tough tactics in the "war on terror."


AFP - Leon Panetta, confirmed Thursday by the US Senate as the new director of the CIA, is a long-time Washington insider with a reputation for political integrity but no hands-on experience in the complex world of spying.

Panetta, 70, takes over the controversy-hit Central Intelligence Agency from Michael Hayden, an intelligence veteran who was forced to acknowledge publicly last year that the agency had engaged in tough interrogation tactics such as "waterboarding."

Panetta's appointment could signal a shake-up at the agency, loudly criticized for its role in the "war on terror" launched in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and focused on capturing Al-Qaeda leaders.

Although he has little direct experience in intelligence, Panetta was a member of the high-level Iraq Study Group, piloted by former secretary of state James Baker, which made several recommendations in 2006 on ending the conflict.

And adding to his rock-solid reputation for integrity, he gained significant foreign policy experience as White House chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1997.

Already under fire for domestic wire-tapping, Hayden publicly admitted in February for the first time that his agency had used waterboarding, denounced by human rights groups as a form of torture, against three senior Al-Qaeda suspects.

The CIA has also been sharply criticized for its so-called renditions, under which terror suspects were transferred covertly to a third country or to US-run detention centers abroad, before mostly ending up at the Guantanamo Bay US military prison in Cuba.

Panetta, who was initially a supporter of president-elect Barack Obama's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, has been sharply critical of what he called administration fear tactics, and has recalled that all forms of torture are prohibited under the US Constitution.

"Unfortunately, fear remains an appealing weapon in the modern political arsenal," he wrote in a commentary in the Monterey County Herald in March.

"Fear exacts a terrible toll on our democracy. Five years ago, America went to war in Iraq over the false fear that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," he said.

"Torture is illegal, immoral, dangerous and counterproductive. And yet, the president is using fear to trump the law. The same rationale is used to justify eavesdropping on US citizens without a warrant," he argued.

The son of Italian immigrants and a first lieutenant in the US Army from 1964 to 1966, Panetta took his first step on the Washington political ladder in 1966 moving from his home in Monterey to serve as a senator's assistant.

He found himself enraptured by a life in the corridors of power and swiftly moved from post to post, moving up the ranks of public service.

After a short stint when he returned home to practice law in California, Panetta was elected to the House of Representatives for the first time in 1976 and served until 1993, including four years as chairman of the House Budget Committee.

In 1993 he left Congress and was appointed as the director of the office of management and budget under the incoming Clinton administration, and was widely credited with helping to balance the federal budget and achieve a surplus.

In July 1994, Panetta was appointed Clinton's chief of staff, serving for almost three years.

Panetta currently co-directs with his wife Sylvia the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, which they founded and is based at California State University. It seeks to boost the number of men and women working in public service.

The couple have three grown-up sons.

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