The darkness that fell over a roomful of senators, reporters, and onlookers on Thursday thanks to an unexpected power outage was fitting for a discussion of the future of the Central Intelligence Agency under Rep. Mike Pompeo, a nominee few career intelligence veterans know much about.
The Republican lawmaker from Kansas donned two hats while trying to convince the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence he deserves to be the next spy chief: the congenial small business owner whose license plate reads “EAT BEEF,” and the tough-talking former soldier, first in his class at West Point, ready to defend the country at any cost.
While he promised to abide by current legislation on surveillance and intelligence collection — even suggesting he didn’t intend to seek any policy changes in those areas — his views on making maximum use of government authorities to collect and analyze sensitive personal data alarmed some members of the committee.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., demanded to know where Pompeo stood on the controversial issue of domestic surveillance, pointing to a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal where the nominee proposed amassing “all metadata” publicly available, including financial information and “lifestyle” details, in order to sniff out possible terrorists and criminals. “Are there any boundaries?” Wyden asked.
While Pompeo reassured Wyden there are in fact “legal boundaries” to prohibit him from creating such a massive dossier of information, particularly on Americans, he argued the intelligence community would be “grossly negligent” if it didn’t take advantage of “publicly available information … to make Americans safe.”
Pompeo gave conflicting answers when Wyden demanded to know if he would outsource intelligence collection to foreign partners; he denied its legality during the hearing, but suggested in written testimony he’d be happy to accept nearly any information other nations offered him, including bulk surveillance. “It is appropriate for the CIA to receive such information from foreign partners without the same requirements that would apply if the CIA itself were to collect the information, or to request that the foreign partner collect the information,” he wrote, except in “limited circumstances.”
Pompeo also promised to do everything he could to defend “the critical nature of the authorities” the intelligence community has to spy, and make sure that his employees didn’t shy away from using those authorities out of fear of political retribution.
In the past, Pompeo has denounced former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, even calling for his execution. He has also proposed legislation that would roll back changes made to NSA’s bulk collection of information about Americans’ phone calls, specifically following the passage of the USA Freedom Act in 2015, which placed that information back in the hands of the telephone and internet companies. Even the executive director of the NSA recently praised the shift as a decision that preserves capability while protecting privacy and civil liberties.
Pompeo admitted that he “had not had a chance to have a complete briefing” on the changes to intelligence collection made since the USA Freedom Act passed, despite his vocal opposition to them, suggesting he would bring forward any recommended policy changes after he’d studied it more closely.
However, despite the amount of attention devoted to Pompeo’s positions on surveillance, decisions about signals intelligence and collection won’t be solely his to make. “He’d be a somewhat secondary player in that decision,” Aki Peritz, former CIA analyst and senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, told The Intercept. He suggested Pompeo would have to work with President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense, Gen. James Mattis, to push those types of policies through.
The bigger question may ultimately be how Pompeo gets along with Dan Coats, the Republican senator from Indiana who is slated to become director of national intelligence, and Michael Flynn, who will serve as national security adviser. What Pompeo and Coats say to the president “will get filtered through Flynn, when the doors close, and they go back to their agencies,” noted Ted Johnson, a national security research manager at Deloitte and a former aide-de-camp to two former NSA directors, in an interview with The Intercept.
One of the larger issues Pompeo will face is the morale of the CIA workforce in the face of derision from the president-elect in recent weeks, particularly over assessments of Russian hacking and influence over the presidential election. “Basically, Pompeo is going to have his work cut out for him reassuring a concerned CIA workforce that things aren’t going to turn very ugly over the next four years,” Peritz, former CIA analyst, said. “He also has to show he is willing to speak truth to power, even if it costs him his job. CIA doesn’t need yes-men.”
Several senators noted the frustration and despair of current CIA employees. James Woolsey, former CIA director, abruptly parted ways with Trump’s transition team in early January, reportedly over concerns for Trump’s cozy connection to Russia. Former CIA spokesperson George Little went as far as predicting that after inauguration “we will be less safe” thanks to Trump’s praise for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and Russian President Vladamir Putin.
While President-elect Trump initially avoided taking a firm stand on the intelligence community’s unanimous conclusion that the Russians digitally infiltrated the Democratic National Committee’s servers, Pompeo was straightforward. “It’s pretty clear what took place here,” he said, later concluding he had no reasons to doubt the report prepared by the intelligence community.
He promised to brief Trump on the issue as it continues to unfold, whether it’s politically popular or not. “I would expect the president-elect would demand that of me,” he said.
Pompeo also appeared to part ways with Trump on the issue of waterboarding — a technique that Trump said he supports. When asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein if he would “restart the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques that fall outside of the Army field manual,” Pompeo replied, “absolutely not.”
“It’s significant that Rep. Pompeo publicly committed to abide by the law and reject orders to torture,” Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International, said in a statement following the hearing. “That commitment must remain steadfast if he is confirmed to lead the CIA.”