The Senate approved President Barack Obama's choice on a voice vote. On Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee sent Panetta's nomination to the full chamber without opposition.
During two days of confirmation hearings last week, Panetta told senators that the Obama administration would not prosecute CIA officers who participated in harsh interrogations even if they constituted torture as long as they did not go beyond their instructions. However, he would not say whether charges would be sought against those who authorized the treatment.
Panetta also said that the Obama administration would continue to transfer foreign detainees to other countries for questioning but only if U.S. officials are confident that the prisoners will not be tortured. Some former prisoners have claimed that they were tortured after the Bush administration handed them over to other countries, a transfer process known as "extraordinary rendition."
"We can protect this country, we can get the information we need, we can provide for the security of the American people and we can abide by the law," he told senators. "I'm absolutely convinced that we can do that."
Besides pledging not to interfere in the CIA's day-to-day intelligence operations, Panetta said he would keep on Deputy Director Steven Kappes and three other top officials at the spy agency. He also said he would encourage differing opinions within the agency and would brief the full House and Senate intelligence committees as much as possible, not just their top members.
"I anticipate focusing primarily on ensuring policy and procedure is handled correctly, rather than intervening personally in the details of operational planning or the production of individual pieces of analysis," he said. "But let me assure you, the decisions at the CIA will be mine."
Panetta, 70, a native of Monterey, Calif., worked in government and practiced law before he served in the House from 1977-1993. He left Congress to join the Clinton administration as director of the Office of Management and Budget and then served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff from July 1994 to January 1997.
At the time of his nomination as CIA chief, Panetta and his wife, Sylvia, directed the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, based at California State University, Monterey Bay. He helped establish the university on the site of Fort Ord, a former U.S. Army base.