Attacked and belittled by the unlikeliest of sources in recent weeks, the CIA and the entire U.S. intelligence community are looking closely at President TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE’s first statements and actions for clarification and direction on their role and influence under his administration. Mike PompeoMike PompeoObama looks to give new momentum to McAuliffe The CIA's next mission: Strategic competition with China and Russia Biden, Trump tied in potential 2024 match-up: poll MORE, the former U.S. Representative from Kansas, U.S Army cavalry officer, and newly appointed CIA director, might be their best clue yet. So what should we, or the men and women in the U.S. intelligence community, make of Pompeo?
Pompeo should first be viewed as a peace-keeper. Or. with less and less peace to keep, a well-intentioned peace-maker, along a tense demilitarized zone between the nation’s intelligence bureaucracy and the Trump White House. Perhaps the most important thing to know about Pompeo is that he bleeds Army green. First in his class at West Point, he retains the worldview and work ethic of the over earnest, ramrod straight, zero-defect Army he grew up in.
There is much to admire in this. He calls CIA personnel “warriors” — which he means as a compliment, but which also may reflect a preference for the supposed “doers” on the operational side of the agency over the supposed elitist, lefty academic stereotype of the analytical corps. This easy categorization of CIA into operatives and analysts is itself a stereotype, but more on that below.
That same sense of military command, “people first, mission always” also means it’s likely that he will turn out to rigorously protect the right of his people to perform objective analytical work, unmolested by executive branch politics. He is too rule and order not to. But it is also likely that his penchant for extreme partisanship — he was the leading figure on the committee that kept alive the right’s Benghazi conspiracy theories — will lead him to commit similar mistakes of political passion on behalf of the new president. His worldview reflects the kind of black-hat vs. white-hat dichotomy that Army culture often bestows on people. This is not how CIA culture sees the world. If Pompeo’s proclivity for too simple narratives about foreign societies starts to gallop away, CIA will not be an easy horse to reign in.
Of course, his combination of orthodox partisanship and Army-straight rule following is what makes him the perfect pick for Trump. It is no secret that Trump distrusts the intelligence community. Outgoing Director John Brennan ushered in the most sweeping organizational reforms in the agency’s history. He broke down the normal walls between intelligence gathering operations, paramilitary activities like drone strike teams, and analysts in favor of 10 fusion centers focused on discrete missions like “digital innovation,” “counter-terrorism,” or geographic regions. There has been no clear indication that Pompeo will try to root out Brennan’s reform at the organizational level.
Though Pompeo was unavailable for comment, his confirmation hearing left little indication that he was contemplating wide-spread reform at this point. Instead of rolling back Brennan’s legacy, it is more likely that Pompeo will put his hand on the tiller to direct the areas of focus for the agency under Trump. Likely, first up for the new director is a fresh look at Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal signed under Obama. Pompeo was a strident critic of the deal, and this is probably part of what appealed to Trump during his vetting.
This is also a perfect example of an area where Pompeo risks a revolution in the ranks. There is a danger that a Benghazi-like fixation on overturning the Iran nuclear deal will expose the agency to compromise methods and personnel in pursuit of a policy the facts don't support. If Trump uses Pompeo in this regard, the damage to the national security will be great because good people will leave the CIA rather than go through an Iraq-WMD type scandal again. The CIA is a tight tribe. They believe in the mission of the agency too much to hurt it like that again.
Trump is not the first American president to have public strafes with the intelligence community. Richard Nixon and the CIA feuded in the 70s, but not as early in his administration or in as public a manner as this particular bout.
The culture of the CIA is highly professional and based on intellectual curiosity from a diverse set of viewpoints, it prizes the right to offer unfettered critique of the assumptions policymakers have about the world. This is an art form, and the role of the director of Central Intelligence is sometimes to gently translate those critiques to a President unused to being critiqued.
This is true to some degree for every president, but more so for a personality like Trump. It’s hard not to get shot as the messenger for an agency tasked with as complex a portfolio as CIA. But Pompeo’s military background and institutional prowess will likely see him off to successful start, even as he protects his people and stands as the muzzle on public critiques of the agency from Trump.
Over time directors usually become creatures of the agency. Their loyalties and their legacies come to center around their impact on the intelligence community, and less as the appointee of a particular President. The only thing to be sure of is that eventually events will bring the tensions of the CIA’s worldview and the president’s to the surface.
And the director will have to choose to follow the agency motto and let the truth of facts and expert analysis set the president free, no matter how uncomfortable, or else to shade and distort that truth to match the worldview of the man who appointed him.
Matthew Schmidt is a core member of the Project for National Security Reform and is an assistant professor of National Security and Political Science at the University of New Haven. Previously, he taught military operations planning and political science at the U.S. Army's School of Advanced Military Studies. Schmidt holds a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University and an M.A. in Russian studies from the University of Kansas. Follow on Twitter @matt_j_schmidt
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