Five hot issues for the CIA confirmation hearings

Five hot issues for the CIA confirmation hearings
© Greg Nash

Hearings to confirm President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrumps light 97th annual National Christmas Tree Trump to hold campaign rally in Michigan 'Don't mess with Mama': Pelosi's daughter tweets support following press conference comments MORE’s pick to lead the CIA are expected to lead to a fierce debate over the limits of government surveillance and the U.S. policy on torture.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) for years has been critical of any attempt to rein in controversial post-9/11 counterterrorism policies.

The combative congressman has already come under criticism from one of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s most powerful Democrats, outgoing ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGiffords, Demand Justice to pressure GOP senators to reject Trump judicial pick Senate confirms Trump pick labeled 'not qualified' by American Bar Association Feinstein endorses Christy Smith for Katie Hill's former House seat MORE (D-Calif.), in a blistering fight over the panel’s 2014 report on enhanced interrogation techniques.

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He is also in the crosshairs of the panel’s most outspoken civil liberties advocate, Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHouse to vote next week on sweeping bill to lower drug prices Trump escalates fight over tax on tech giants Trump administration proposes tariffs on .4B in French goods MORE (D-Ore.), who has called Pompeo's stance on torture “deeply troubling.”

Both have signaled plans to hammer the former cavalry officer when he appears before the panel next month.

There’s little the worried minority Democrats can do to block Pompeo from taking the helm at the agency — but they can draw blood.

Here are the five biggest issues expected to come up in Pompeo’s hearings:

Enhanced interrogation

The Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques — like waterboarding and sleep deprivation — could take center stage during Pompeo’s appearance.

The report, authored by the Senate Intelligence Committee under then-Chairwoman Feinstein, found a number of the CIA’s practices to be overly brutal and possibly illegal.

Two years ago, the California Democrat engineered the release of the 500-page executive summary, sparking fierce criticism from Pompeo.

He lambasted her for “[putting] American lives in danger” by releasing the summary, arguing that it has signaled to allies in the fight against terrorism that the U.S. will not “honor its commitments.”

From his post on the House Intelligence Committee, Pompeo has further condemned new Obama administration rules limiting government interrogators to techniques in the Army Field Manual — regulations that are up for review next year.

Feinstein said Pompeo was “absolutely wrong” when he argued that some of the techniques formerly used by the CIA were within the law.

“Congressman Pompeo would know all of this if he were to read the report the committee prepared over several years,” she said in a November statement, according to multiple sources.

Now, she is urging the release of the full 7,000-page document.

“I plan to speak with Congressman Pompeo about this issue during his confirmation process,” Feinstein said.

Surveillance

Also likely to come under scrutiny is Pompeo’s full-throated endorsement of beefing up the government’s surveillance capabilities.

He has repeatedly called for a return to the bulk collection of U.S. call data curtailed by Congress last year.

In a January op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, he called for Congress to re-establish the collection of all metadata and “[combine] it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database.”

“Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed,” he wrote.

Civil liberties advocates say his position raises serious concerns about privacy and due process.

Expect fierce questioning on the issue from Wyden, who has been a staunch critic of government surveillance.

Russian hacking

Democrats will likely push Pompeo on whether he will stand by an assessment by the current administration’s CIA that Russian hacks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and other political organizations were an explicit attempt to help Trump attain the White House.

Trump has continued to deny the intelligence community’s conclusion, but the committee itself is investigating the hacks — potentially forcing Pompeo to balance his loyalty to the man who appointed him with the lawmakers who are confirming him.

Feinstein has been particularly outspoken on the issue, condemning the intrusions as an attack on democracy — but Republicans are also calling for various investigations into the intelligence community's assessment.

Partisanship and the Benghazi Committee

Pompeo gained a reputation as one of the most outspoken members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi.

His relentless questioning of former Democratic presidential nominee and Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump to hold campaign rally in Michigan Saagar Enjeti ponders Hillary Clinton's 2020 plans Political ad spending set to explode in 2020 MORE during her October 2015 appearance before the panel raised his profile among Republicans but earned him stinging rebuke from Democrats who accused him of conducting a witch hunt.

That criticism is likely to dog Pompeo in his appearance before the Intelligence Committee, which will be evaluating him to fill a post that ideally is supposed to operate above the political fray.

Pompeo has earned praise from Democratic colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee for his work ethic and his grasp of policy — but they warn he will have to change his approach.

“Mike can be very partisan, as you saw in the Benghazi hearings, and he’ll have to set that aside,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffWhite House adopts confident tone after Pelosi signals go on impeachment Democrats could introduce articles of impeachment next week The shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley MORE (D-Calif.), the ranking member of that committee, said following the announcement. “But I’m confident that he can do that.”

Morale at the CIA

Pompeo will head to Langley against the backdrop of a president who has publicly disparaged career intelligence officials and refused to take all of his daily intelligence briefings.

Officials are concerned that Trump’s hostile attitude toward the agency could undercut morale — with dire consequences for national security.

How Pompeo will mediate the relationship between a distrustful agency and a combative president has already drawn scrutiny.

“Donald Trump strikes me as a guy with very strong opinions based on scanty information, and I think that could be a very, very tough boss to serve if you're immersed in the complexities and the shades of gray that the CIA director lives in,” said Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat who serves with Pompeo on the House Intelligence Committee's CIA subpanel.

“I could imagine lots of CIA veterans right now looking at each other and saying, 'Hey, it's time to retire. This guy has contempt for us,’ ” Himes added, referring to Trump. “So I think Mike's got a really serious management problem on day one.”

— Mike Lillis contributed.