The committee voted 12-3 to approve the general's nomination on Tuesday after about an hour of closed-door discussions.

All eight Republicans and four of the panel's seven Democrats backed him.

Senator Pat Roberts, the committee's Republican chairman, said in announcing the voting results: "General Hayden is an outstanding choice to head the CIA. He is a proven leader and a supremely qualified intelligence professional."

He urged the full Senate to take up the nomination before legislators break for their Memorial Day recess at the end of the week.

Hayden, 61, who would replace Porter Goss as CIA director, is widely expected to win confirmation in a Senate vote that could come as early as Thursday.

Goss, who stepped down after clashing with US intelligence chief, John Negroponte, is expected to leave the agency on Friday.

Eavesdropping

The three dissenting committee votes came from Democratic senators Evan Bayh, Ron Wyden and Russ Feingold, all of whom cited misgivings that the president's National Security Agency eavesdropping programme might infringe on civil liberties.

"[Hayden] is a proven leader and a supremely qualified intelligence professional"

Senator Pat Roberts

Hayden crafted and implemented the programme as NSA director after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US.

It allows the agency to monitor the international phone calls and emails of US citizens without first obtaining warrants, while pursuing terrorism suspects.

Early concerns among Republicans about Hayden leading a civilian spy agency while serving as an active-duty military officer did not affect the panel vote.

He would be the fourth active-duty officer to head the CIA since it was created by the National Security Act of 1947.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was due to vote on Wednesday on whether Hayden should retain his four-star rank if confirmed as CIA director by the full Senate.