Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is retiring next week after 50 years of public service, is the recipient of the 2011 Liberty Medal.
Gates, who was not in attendance for Thursday's announcement, will receive the medal in a ceremony on Sept. 22 at the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall.
"Secretary Gates' steadfast commitment to the well-being of our men and women in uniform makes him an ideal recipient of this year's Liberty Medal," former President Bill Clinton, chairman of the National Constitution Center, said in a statement. "As he embarks on his next chapter, we are pleased to honor his many years of distinguished service to our country."
Since 1989, the award has been given annually to individuals or organizations whose actions strive to bring liberty to people worldwide.
Constitution Center president David Eisner praised Gates for making "unparalleled contributions to national security, defense and intelligence, while transcending party politics in order to put our nation's best interest first."
Gates, 67, came to the Pentagon job from the presidency of Texas A&M University. He retired from government service in 1993 after 27 years at the CIA, where he became the first entry-level employee to rise to the position of director.
He is scheduled to leave his Pentagon post on June 30 _ roughly 4 1/2 years after his arrival in December 2006 as the successor to Donald Rumsfeld, who quit in the wake of a Republican trouncing in that November's congressional elections.
Then-President George W. Bush recruited Gates to return to Washington to turn around the flagging and increasingly unpopular U.S.-led war in Iraq.
President Barack Obama convinced Gates to stay on, making him the only defense secretary to be retained by a new administration and to serve two different political parties. CIA head Leon Panetta has been chosen to succeed him.
"Secretary Gates sets an unsurpassed standard for that it means to make your country and your world better as a result of your service," Eisner said.
Previous recipients of the Liberty Medal include rock singer and human rights activist Bono, former South African President Nelson Mandela and former President Jimmy Carter. Six winners have subsequently received the Nobel Peace Prize.
The National Constitution Center, which opened in 2003 near Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, is dedicated to increasing public understanding of the U.S. Constitution and the ideas and values it represents.
Liberty Medal: http://constitutioncenter.org/libertymedal