WASHINGTON ― There aren’t enough Democrats in the Senate to block Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) from being confirmed as CIA director, and no Republicans have expressed any indication they will oppose him. He’ll probably be running the spy agency soon.
Even so, Pompeo, a third-term tea party congressman with a reputation as a fierce partisan, seemed eager to make everyone happy at his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. It was a tricky balancing act: Pompeo had to stay in line with future boss Donald Trump, win the confidence of the CIA rank and file, and keep Republican and Democratic senators on board.
Pompeo’s efforts to please at least four very different constituencies produced testimony that was vague and often contradicted his previous positions on key national security issues. It all suggests that the longtime defender of the CIA, and other spy agencies, really wants the job.
Senate Democrats know Pompeo best as a top crusader on the House Benghazi Committee, a defender of the CIA’s torture program, and a man who went to extreme lengths to express his opposition to the Iran nuclear accord.
But in a private meeting on Monday with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who was the driving force behind a critical December 2014 Senate report on the CIA’s torture program, Pompeo apologized for calling her “narcissistic” and “at odds with her duty to the country” for pushing to declassify the executive summary of that report. (She publicly accepted his apology at the hearing.) He had not yet read the full summary of the report when he attacked Feinstein, he admitted in response to questions from two Senate Democrats on Thursday.
Asked by Feinstein whether he would comply if Trump ordered him to “restart the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques that fall outside of the Army Field Manual,” Pompeo pledged, “Absolutely not.”
“Moreover,” Pompeo said, “I can’t imagine that I would be asked that by the president-elect.” (In the past, Trump has said that “torture works” and pledged to bring back waterboarding and “much worse.”)
As for the Iran nuclear accord, a particularly tricky subject for any Cabinet nominee given Trump’s own shifting positions, Pompeo implied that he planned to uphold the deal — another stark reversal of his own past statements. The day before he was picked to head the CIA, Pompeo tweeted that he looked forward to “rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
At the time, Republicans had reason to believe that Trump would scrap the nuclear agreement. But in the weeks since, the president-elect has suggested he will continue to enforce it. “If confirmed [as CIA director], my role will change,” Pompeo said Thursday, promising to monitor Iran’s compliance with the agreement. But, he warned, “the Iranians are professional at cheating.”
On some issues, such as surveillance, there was no way Pompeo could bridge the gap between his positions and those of the Democratic lawmakers who may soon be overseeing the agency he runs. The congressman has previously said that the intelligence community should be allowed to collect “all metadata” — information about communications other than their content — along with “publicly available financial and lifestyle information,” into a “comprehensive, searchable database.”
Asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) if he envisioned any boundaries on the sweeping collection of metadata, Pompeo ducked the question.
The intelligence community should do “all they can in a lawful, constitutional manner to collect foreign intelligence important to keeping America safe,” Pompeo said. (The metadata collection program described by the congressman in the past would constitute domestic, not foreign, surveillance.)
Russia could have been the most challenging issue for Pompeo, who has talked tough about the country before. Since he was selected to serve as the next spy chief, however, he has been noticeably quiet about the Russian hacking scandal — likely in an effort to avoid a public break with Trump.
Luckily for Pompeo, Trump said earlier this week that he accepted the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia was behind the hacks, giving his nominee more flexibility on Thursday.
“It’s pretty clear about what took place — about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and have an impact on American democracy,” Pompeo testified. Asked if he would continue the CIA’s efforts to investigate Moscow’s role in undermining the U.S. election, Pompeo said he expected Trump “would demand that of me.”
In reality, Pompeo will likely soon find himself running a spy agency eager to pursue its investigation of Moscow’s interference in U.S. politics, but working for a president who wants to put the scandal to rest. That’s a tough position for any incoming CIA director, and Pompeo faces the additional challenge of overcoming skepticism about his partisan neutrality.
Those who have seen the West Point graduate and former Army tank officer in closed-door House Intelligence Committee hearings are not surprised by Pompeo’s enthusiasm for becoming spy chief. In classified briefings, say people who have seen him work on the committee, he sheds much of his partisan rhetoric. He takes his role on the intelligence panel seriously and respects the work of the CIA.
When Pompeo was nominated for CIA director, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a fellow committee member, praised him as “very bright and hard-working” and “willing to listen and engage.”
At times, it has appeared that Pompeo so admired the work of the CIA, he was inclined to use his perch on the intelligence committee to defend spy agencies from criticism rather than to keep them line.
The National Security Agency’s “intelligence collection actions are not only lawful and constitutional, but also consistent with the critical mission of defeating radical Islamic terrorism,” he said in 2013 after the Edward Snowden leaks. Those who carried out the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program “are not torturers, they are patriots,” he argued in 2014. “The intelligence community feels beleaguered and bereft of political support,” he warned last year, referring to a bill passed by Congress that imposed modest restrictions on NSA surveillance.
Those statements don’t make Pompeo sound like a particularly effective congressional overseer. But they will likely endear him to many at the CIA.