Trump's CIA nominee seeks to calm nerves

Trump's CIA nominee seeks to calm nerves
© Greg Nash

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) at his confirmation hearing Thursday sought to reassure lawmakers that he would be an independent voice for the intelligence community as head of the CIA under President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE.

But the CIA nominee also swatted down some criticism of Trump, pushing back on senators who suggested the president-elect’s rhetoric is damaging morale at intelligence agencies. 

In one notable break with Trump, Pompeo unequivocally backed the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the presidential election, calling their findings “sound.”

“With respect to this report in particular, it's pretty clear about what took place here, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy," he told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “This was an aggressive action taken by senior leadership inside of Russia.” 

He promised that as CIA director, he will “pursue foreign intelligence collection with vigor, no matter where the facts lead.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Pompeo also said he would “absolutely not” comply with an order from Trump to resume the use of interrogation techniques considered by the international community to be torture.

But Pompeo at the same time disputed that Trump would ever ask him to use enhanced interrogation techniques not permitted by law. 

“I can’t imagine that I would be asked that by the president-elect,” Pompeo said.

During the campaign, Trump advocated reinstating waterboarding, which President Obama outlawed.

Pompeo also pushed back on the suggestion that Trump’s rhetoric has damaged morale inside the CIA.

“I haven’t seen the low morale that you’ve described,” he said. “What I’ve seen, from the spirited warriors at the Central Intelligence Agency, is a desire to get out of the middle of this fight and continue to perform their function.”

One of the biggest themes of Pompeo’s testimony was respect for the rule of law and for the legal boundaries that limit the CIA’s espionage activities.

“I understand full well that my job, if confirmed, will be to change roles from policymaker to information provider,” he said during his opening statement.

Questioned on his hawkish positions on surveillance and enhanced interrogation, Pompeo repeatedly said that he would defer to laws passed by Congress.

“My role as director of the CIA is first to comply with the law. You have my assurance that I will always direct the people that work for me to comply with the law with respect to private communications,” he said in response to a question about encryption policy. 

The hearing comes at a time when Trump is openly clashing with intelligence officials.

During his press conference Wednesday, Trump suggested that intelligence agencies might have leaked a dossier alleging that Russia has compromising information on him. He compared their actions to Nazi Germany.

Senior intelligence officials have expressed alarm about Trump’s critical attitude toward the CIA, warning it could foreshadow a broken relationship between the agency and the White House that could endanger national security.

Pompeo, a former Army cavalry officer, sought to lower the temperature around the debate, saying he does not believe the CIA has been politicized.   

“My experience is that I have not seen that,” Pompeo said.

By far the most contentious moment in the otherwise-calm hearing came during heated questioning from Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Democrats release data showing increase in 'mega-IRA' accounts Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines MORE (D-Ore.), one the panel’s staunchest civil liberties advocates.

Wyden pushed Pompeo on a January op-ed in which he advocated for the collection of all metadata, “combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database.” 

Pompeo said there is an obligation for the government to use publicly available information — like social media postings — to prevent terrorist attacks.

“I don’t take a backseat to anybody in terms of protecting this country when our security is on the line,” Wyden said. “That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about your interest in setting up a whole new metadata collection system.”

Wyden asked Pompeo to provide a written assessment of what limits he believes there should be on such a collection program.

But the sharp exchange was the only rough patch in an otherwise congenial hearing.

The panel began under stop-start conditions after an unexpected power outage forced lawmakers to reconvene in another building and lawmakers — including former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) — kicked off the proceedings with a series of lighthearted sallies. 

"My eyesight is not too good, so I thought it was perfect in the other room," joked Dole, who offered remarks in support of Pompeo.

Lawmakers generally appeared satisfied with Pompeo’s answers, suggesting that he will have a smooth path to confirmation. The normally firebrand conservative is widely seen as sharp and hard working, even amongst his Democratic colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee.

Republicans quickly praised his performance.

“I thought he did an excellent job,” committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSenate starts infrastructure debate amid 11th-hour drama The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill MORE (R-N.C.) told reporters after the hearing. “I think you’ve found somebody who is extremely knowledgeable but more importantly, understands the role he has been asked to play.”

Lawmakers reconvened following the hearing for a second session with Pompeo that was conducted behind closed doors.