Good Riddance to CIA Director Pompeo
Nobody's throwing goodbye parties at Langley for the outgoing boss.
As the post-mortems of Mike Pompeo’s tenure as CIA director are finalized, a rough consensus has emerged. Pompeo, the conventional wisdom holds, is the rare Trump administration Cabinet official who kept his head down, focused on the mission, and did what President Donald Trump refused to do: He spoke with clarity and conviction about Russia’s ongoing attack on U.S. democracy. He was an effective, if quiet, workhorse pursuing America’s national security interests, we’ve been told, whose close relationship with the president was good for the CIA and, in turn, U.S. national security. He was a founding member of the so-called Axis of Adults, whose membership has steadily dwindled.
As is typically the case in Washington, the conventional wisdom is wrong.
Pompeo, previously a Republican congressman from Kansas, came to the CIA as a square peg in a round hole, as many of Trump’s Cabinet selections did. Unlike some of his colleagues, however, Pompeo didn’t make any effort to become more spherical. He opted to make the role as CIA director conform to him. Many of these efforts were well beyond public view, taking place in secure conference rooms in Langley or within the confines of the White House Situation Room, only occasionally — and even then, subtly — spilling into public view. But the largely shrouded nature of Pompeo’s leadership of the agency didn’t make it any less pernicious to the CIA — its integrity, mission, and workforce.
Well before Pompeo was confirmed as CIA director in January 2017, there was every indication he would not approach the job as his predecessors had. Pompeo made a name for himself in Congress as a leading purveyor of hard-line conservative ideology and even conspiracy theories. While his firebrand reputation would have given most presidents-elect pause, Pompeo’s incendiary rhetoric — especially his relentless, and not always factual, attacks on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the context of the Benghazi investigation — reportedly endeared him to Trump, who himself rose to prominence peddling a conspiracy theory.
Agency-watchers recognized that Pompeo’s selection was fraught, as the CIA workforce prizes its distance — literal and physical — from the politics of Washington. Indeed, there’s no dirtier word within Langley’s corridors than “politicization.” That’s not to say that Pompeo’s tenure was doomed to failure. Previous directors — from George H.W. Bush to Leon Panetta — had successfully made the turn from political animal to above-it-all intelligence chief. As most CIA directors have, they checked their policy predispositions at the great seal and adopted a “just the facts” demeanor — both in public and behind closed doors. Not Mike Pompeo.
Even in public, Pompeo never tried to play the part of CIA director. He not only didn’t discard his policy views, but he also seemed to revel in the opportunity to air them publicly. Last year, as Trump was grappling with how to approach his predecessor’s Iran nuclear deal, Pompeo’s constant boogeyman, CIA analysts reportedly continued to conclude that Tehran was abiding by the 2015 agreement. Pompeo didn’t betray that in his public remarks, however, nor did he stick to cut-and-dry assessments. He told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum in July 2017: “I kind of think of Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal like a bad tenant.… This is Iranian compliance today. Grudging, minimalist, temporary with no intention of really what the agreement was designed to do.” “Just the facts” this was not, but it was classic Pompeo, a CIA director who never let his unique responsibilities stand in the way of his own opinions.
That may be why, contrary to previous CIA directors, Pompeo was a fixture at the White House, where he traveled most mornings ostensibly to take part in Trump’s presidential daily briefing. The president often requested that he accompany him to his next meeting — regardless of the topic — according to one account. Indeed, Trump came to see Pompeo as much more than an intelligence advisor; he became his policy Svengali and, in so doing, blurred the lines between intelligence and policy.
Pompeo took the same liberties during White House meetings. Whereas his predecessors typically spoke at the beginning of a policy discussion to provide an intelligence laydown, Pompeo was a powerful policy voice, especially on his pet issues, including Iran. Intelligence analysts familiar with the matter recounted to me that, in preparation for such meetings, Pompeo would adopt the Dick Cheney-esque strategy of asking the same question repeatedly — namely whether Tehran remained in compliance with the terms of the deal — apparently hoping for a different answer. Even without the facts on his side, Pompeo was said to have argued in favor of trashing the accord and ramping up the pressure on Iran, an approach Trump by many accounts is preparing to take at the next opportunity in May.
There’s also ample evidence to suggest Pompeo was active in shaping favorable public narratives. When asked about Russia’s electoral interference, for example, Pompeo distinguished himself from his boss by acknowledging that it occurred. But he attempted to normalize the unprecedented multipronged assault by quickly adding, as he did mid-last year, that Moscow had meddled in multiple previous elections, having done so for a “hell of a long time.” What’s more, he played fast and loose with the facts, asserting publicly that the intelligence community had found that Russia’s interference had no effect on the electoral outcome. It was a CIA spokesperson who was left to correct him, noting that analysts had come to no such conclusion. Pompeo even entertained — and perhaps propagated — at least one fringe conspiracy theory, holding a private meeting at his Langley office last year with a leading purveyor of the theory that WikiLeaks obtained the Democratic National Committee emails through an insider leak, not a Russian hack — a theory embraced by Moscow. Rather than counter the theory, Pompeo seems to have fueled it, ultimately reportedly referring the former official he met with to other senior intelligence officials.
Sometimes his efforts were more subtle. Shortly after the ouster early last year of Trump’s short-lived national security advisor Michael Flynn, the White House reportedly enlisted Pompeo, along with Republican members of Congress, to place quiet calls to journalists challenging the emerging storyline — now proven beyond a reasonable doubt — that the Trump campaign had extensive ties to suspicious Russians. Previous CIA directors would occasionally intervene with news organizations to attempt to quash a story that would jeopardize sensitive sources or methods, but weighing in on such politically explosive reporting was an early indication that Pompeo would not hesitate to shed his partisan clothing.
Nor was Pompeo above weaponizing intelligence as a political tool. Late last year, he unexpectedly announced the resumption of an effort to declassify files recovered from Osama bin Laden’s compound, an initiative the Director of National Intelligence had declared compete that January. The CIA ultimately released several hundred thousand more files. None of them changed our fundamental understanding of the terrorist mastermind’s final years, but they did put the spotlight back on al Qaeda’s ties with Iran, just as the administration was renewing the case that Tehran was a state sponsor of terrorism that had violated the spirit of the Iran deal. As if to ensure that storyline took hold, Pompeo’s CIA first released the files to a journal run by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank virulently opposed to the nuclear deal, where Pompeo twice spoke publicly during his short time as CIA director. No tactic seemed to out of bounds for this CIA director.
No accounting of Pompeo’s stewardship of Langley would be complete without noting his efforts to impose his worldview on a workforce that prizes diversity as a strength. Agency employees had an early taste of what was to come when, as Foreign Policy reported, their new director became visibly frustrated during his first meeting with his workforce after several employees asked about his commitment to diversity. And they had good reason to ask. According to that same account, Pompeo’s CIA, for reasons that later came under inspector general scrutiny, cancelled a Pride Month appearance by the parents of Matthew Shepard, who was slain in anti-gay hate crime. In addition to his apparent efforts to scale back the programming, Pompeo, breaking with his predecessors’ practice, notably declined to take part in the festivities. During the same period, Pompeo did, on the other hand, consult with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center labels as an anti-gay hate group, regarding an initiative to expand the agency’s chaplaincy program.
Pompeo’s approach was striking for its break with that of his predecessors, who championed the idea that diversity within the agency workforce — much more than a virtue — was an operational necessity. Language skills, cultural familiarity, and historical grounding are but a few of the traits that have served the CIA’s analysts and operations officers especially well. John Brennan, Pompeo’s immediate predecessor, told FP last year: “We have the responsibility of covering the globe, understanding all societies, cultures, and backgrounds.” Pompeo, it seems, preferred a CIA that conformed to his image, not the world’s.
As Pompeo and his champions fix their sights on his next assignment, there’s a sense among them that the State Department will be even better suited to his strengths. As the nation’s top diplomat, the thinking goes, Pompeo will be able to espouse his sincerely and deeply held policy views in a way that was frowned upon at Langley. And his close relationship with the president, they contend, will lead this administration to prioritize diplomacy and galvanize a deeply dispirited workforce.
All of that assumes Pompeo will play the role of a traditional secretary of state. Nothing about his tenure at the CIA suggests he will conform to the role set out for him. What’s more, Pompeo’s time “across the river” raises profound questions about his loyalty. Time and again, Pompeo’s statements and actions — whether in public or behind closed doors — suggested an ultimate allegiance to Trump, whose personal interests have all too often clashed with those of the American people. There’s no reason to believe that would change were Pompeo to transfer to Foggy Bottom.
Above all, however, we must consider the dangerous prospect of Pompeo calling America’s foreign-policy shots. The irony of rewarding Pompeo, who has spoken only grudgingly of diplomacy in the past, with America’s top diplomatic post is a bit much even for this administration. And the stakes could not be higher in the weeks to come, as the administration faces potential war-versus-peace decisions with both North Korea and Iran. Members of Congress will find themselves in the perhaps awkward but exceedingly necessary position of taking a critical lens to one of their former colleagues.
Senators confirmed Pompeo as CIA director last year by a comfortable margin. In spite of the prevailing narrative, however, none of them should be comfortable with his track record at the agency, nor with the prospect of Mike Pompeo taking on an even larger foreign-policy portfolio.