The CIA needs a director to defend it. It got a Trump crony instead.
On October 19, CIA Director Mike Pompeo took the stage at a prominent Washington think tank — and promptly told a lie.
NBC News’s Vivian Salama asked him: “Can you say, with absolute certainty, that the election results were not skewed as a result of Russian interference?”
“Yes,” Pompeo responded. “The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.”
The problem is the January 6 assessment Pompeo referred to — which represented the collective judgment of the FBI, the National Security Agency, and the CIA — actually said something very different: “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.”
That’s not the only problem. Pompeo’s misstatement didn’t occur in a vacuum. Instead, it mirrored a line of falsehoods that President Donald Trump has been peddling since his surprise win last November. “Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results,” Trump tweeted on the morning of January 7, the day after the intelligence community’s report was made public.
Pompeo’s false claim about the assessment wasn’t the only time he put loyalty to Trump above his CIA responsibilities. Late last month, Trump told Pompeo to meet with a conspiracy theorist who believes Russia’s hack and release of Democratic National Committee emails last summer was an inside job — and Pompeo took the meeting.
Put another way, the man responsible for obtaining some of the world’s most important information wasted his time hearing a theory that the intelligence community had already debunked. Pompeo, a skilled politician, would have almost certainly known the meeting would cause him grief with the agency’s rank and file — but he did it anyway.
“He knew that this would create a [problem] for him with his own workforce because of the appearances the visit would have created: equating a conspiracy theory with the high-confidence judgment of the intelligence community,” former CIA Director Michael Hayden told me in an interview.
It doesn’t stop there. Pompeo has also restructured the CIA so a unit that is looking into Trump-Russia collusion reports directly to him. A CIA spokesperson told me Pompeo did this because he wants to improve counterintelligence at the CIA, and that the unit deals with more than just Russia.
Pompeo’s strikingly pro-Trump approach to his job is notable because Trump has repeatedly attacked the intelligence community’s skills and integrity during both the campaign and the early months of his presidency. He dismisses the Russia assessment, going so far as to call it a “hoax.” He has repeatedly mocked American spies for the mistaken conclusion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a rationale that paved the way for the 2003 invasion.
And he even spent part of his first full day in office at a memorial for the CIA’s fallen heroes attacking the media and lying about the size of his crowd at the inaugural.
So if there was ever a time the CIA needed a leader willing to put him- or herself on the line to protect the agency against a hostile president, it’s now. But instead, the CIA got a Trump crony willing to lie on his behalf.
Pompeo puts politics first
Pompeo — a West Point and Harvard Law School graduate — is a three-term Congress member who first came to Washington as part of the Tea Party movement in 2010. He got coveted spots on the House Intelligence Committee and, in 2014, a seat on the Select Committee on Benghazi, both positions that usually go to more senior members.
Democrats felt Pompeo was overly critical of Hillary Clinton during the Benghazi probe, which found no evidence that the then-secretary of state bore personal responsibility for the deaths of the four Americans killed at the US diplomatic compound in Libya.
“The Department of Justice and the CIA need nonpartisan leaders the American people can trust implicitly,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said on November 18, 2016. “Yet Congressman Mike Pompeo, a leading cheerleader of the Benghazi witch hunt, is now being asked to fill one of the most serious and sober national security positions there is.”
On January 11, 2017, one day before Pompeo’s Senate confirmation hearing, Hayden told the New York Times that the nominee had to get one message across: “I’m going to protect you from these guys” — meaning Trump and his team.
It looked promising at first. During the hearing, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked Pompeo if he accepted the intelligence community’s finding that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election. “I do,” Pompeo responded. “Everything that I’ve seen suggests to me that the report has an analytical product that is sound.”
Pompeo also promised to lobby for — and protect — the CIA, stressing that he’d work to convince Trump that the agency was providing him the best intelligence available.
Pompeo’s first real test of his promise to protect the CIA came when Trump visited the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on January 21, the day after he was sworn in as president. Trump stood in front of the agency’s most important memorial — a wall that then featured 117 stars representing CIA agents who died in service — to give a speech intended to make amends with the intelligence community. Ten days earlier, Trump had likened American spies to Nazis because he believed they leaked information about him.
But instead of using his opportunity to repair the relationship, Trump chose to take cheap shots at the media, lie about his inauguration crowd size, and suggest taking Iraq’s oil. He even boasted that the CIA personnel in the crowd likely voted for him, although there would have been no way for him to know that.
An array of former top-ranking CIA officials blasted Trump’s remarks, with a spokesperson for former CIA Director John Brennan relaying he was “deeply saddened and angered at Donald Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandizement.” Pompeo, notably, stayed silent.
Two days after the speech, the Senate confirmed Pompeo as the CIA director with a 66-32 vote, mostly along partisan lines. By contrast, the Senate confirmed other CIA directors with more support: David Petraeus was approved 94-0; Leon Panetta was confirmed in a 100-0vote; and the Senate affirmed Hayden by a 78-15 margin.
Pompeo keeps making pro-Trump moves
Pompeo’s defenders believe he’s a gifted public servant trying to do the best job possible despite a dysfunctional administration.
“Mike Pompeo has established himself as a strong director by defending the workforce and focusing the agency on its core mission,” Juan Zarate, a former top Republican counterterrorism official and a member of Pompeo’s transition team, told me in an email. “At the same time, he has brought sober intelligence counsel to the White House while shielding the agency from the political theater of Washington.”
Pompeo gets to give that counsel nearly every day. He personally delivers the Presidential Daily Brief — the highly classified intelligence report created specifically for the commander in chief. That means Pompeo is one of the few people Trump discusses important national security issues with on a consistent basis. That could explain why they have gotten so close, and why Trump is reportedly considering Pompeo as the next secretary of state.
Pompeo, for his part, keeps doing all he can to protect Trump from one of the most incendiary aspects of the ongoing investigation into possible collusion with Moscow: whether Russian meddling helped Trump win the White House.
In July, Pompeo told a crowd at the Aspen Security Conference that he agreed with the intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow tried to impact the US election, but said Russia also tried to do that in “the [election] before that, and the one before that.”
He also left out the fact that the intelligence report noted Russia’s “activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations” during the 2016 campaign.
One month later, the Washington Post reported that Pompeo made the agency’s Counterintelligence Mission Center — a unit that is looking into possible Trump-Russia collusion — report directly to him. Some current and former CIA officials were upset with the move because it would put a political appointee like Pompeo in a position to shield his boss regardless of any evidence of wrongdoing.
“Pompeo is in a delicate situation unlike any other director has faced, certainly in my memory because of his duty to protect and provide the truth to an independent investigation while maintaining his role with the president,” Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA official who served in Russia, told the Post.
Flash-forward to last month, when Pompeo publicly lied about what the intelligence assessment on Russian involvement actually said (a comment that forced a CIA spokesperson to walk back their own director’s comments, telling me that “the intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed, and the director has never intended to suggest that it had”).
Pompeo’s private actions have been just as troubling as his public ones.
The Intercept reported on Tuesday that Trump asked Pompeo to meet with William Binney, a former NSA official, who believes the Russians weren’t behind the DNC hack last summer. They met for an hour, which kept Pompeo from focusing on more important intelligence matters like ISIS movements or North Korea’s nuclear program.
Some aren’t sure Pompeo attended the meeting of his own volition. “I am sure Director Pompeo would not have wanted to do this,” Hayden told me in an interview. “Clearly this was at the direction of the president.”
Which brings up another question: Is Pompeo doing all this solely because the president wants him to, or is he really simply a partisan political hand trying to defend his boss?
Whatever the reason, it doesn’t change the fact that Pompeo appears to be more loyal to Trump than to the people he leads. A CIA under unprecedented attack from the White House needs a defender of unusual skill and political courage. That’s not what they’ve gotten.