Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is still heavily influencing the U.S. intelligence community, more than a year after he left the CIA for the State Department, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials.
Pompeo, who was Donald Trump’s first CIA director, is now serving as a key intermediary between Trump and the U.S. intelligence community, the officials say, a very unusual role for the secretary of state, who is supposed to be a customer of the intelligence community, not its master.
The intermediary role Pompeo has largely usurped is supposed to be filled by the CIA director and the director of national intelligence, a post created after 9/11 and designed to coordinate the work of all of the nation’s intelligence agencies. But CIA Director Gina Haspel seems to have accepted the fact that Pompeo continues to help set the agenda on intelligence in the Trump administration from the State Department, the officials say. And after months of rumors that Dan Coats, Trump’s longtime director of national intelligence and nominal head of the U.S. intelligence community, would soon be replaced, Trump announced Sunday that Coats will step down on August 15. The president said he would name John Ratcliffe, a pro-Trump, Republican representative from Texas, to take Coats’s job. Ratcliffe, one of Trump’s most ardent defenders during special counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee last week, will likely be far less independent of the Trump White House than Coats was.
Meanwhile, Pompeo has emerged as the administration’s de facto intelligence czar. Although some officials say that both Haspel and Coats have been present when Trump receives his intelligence briefings and so have had regular, direct access to the president, Pompeo has gained Trump’s trust in a way they haven’t.
Spokespeople for the CIA, the State Department, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
Haspel has little room to maneuver to maintain her independence from Trump, or even from Pompeo. The CIA’s independence and integrity have been threatened as a result.
Haspel, whose ties to the CIA’s torture program made her anathema to Democrats, has been in an unfavorable political position since she became CIA director. She was chief of base at a secret CIA black-site prison in Thailand in 2002, when a detainee was subjected to waterboarding and other torture tactics. In 2005, when she was chief of staff for Jose Rodriguez, then chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, Haspel drafted an order for Rodriguez to destroy videotapes of CIA interrogations.
During Haspel’s 2018 confirmation hearings, Sen. Kamala Harris asked her whether, in hindsight, she believed that the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program had been “immoral.” Haspel refused to give a straight answer to the California Democrat, who is now running for president. Haspel briefly considered withdrawing her nomination in the face of the Democratic resistance, before finally winning a narrow confirmation vote in the Senate.
Haspel skated by, but her lack of bipartisan support on Capitol Hill put her deeply in Trump’s debt. She has little room to maneuver to maintain her independence from Trump, or even from Pompeo. The agency’s independence and integrity have been threatened as a result.
One of the first signs that Haspel would not be a fully independent CIA director came in the months just after her May 2018 confirmation. Insiders say that Pompeo was able to reassure Trump that he could keep an eye on the CIA while at State. At the same time, the White House considered imposing its own choice for deputy director at the CIA, a move that would have virtually eliminated Haspel’s ability to keep the agency free of the White House’s gravitational pull. After what some in the intelligence community saw as a rather unseemly delay, Haspel was finally able to make her own selection, but she chose someone who was sure to be considered harmless by the White House. Vaughn Bishop, 72, one of Haspel’s old agency friends from her time dealing with Africa, came out of retirement to take the post.
Since then, Haspel has been most notable for her absence from high-profile appearances expected of a CIA director, while Pompeo has sometimes taken the lead in dealing with Congress on intelligence-related matters in her stead. Last November, for instance, Pompeo led an administration briefing for the Senate on Saudi Arabia and refused to answer reporters’ questions about why Haspel did not make an appearance.
At the time, the most sensitive issue in the U.S.-Saudi relationship was the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, specifically whether the CIA had evidence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s complicity in the killing. Not long before the November hearing, the press reported that the CIA had determined that the Saudi crown prince, known as MBS, had ordered Khashoggi’s murder, so senators from both parties wanted to hear from the CIA director.
Instead, Pompeo merely told journalists that there was “no direct reporting” that linked MBS to the order to kill Khashoggi.
It seemed clear that Trump didn’t want Haspel to share with Congress the CIA’s evidence linking MBS to the murder because the president wanted to continue working with MBS and the Saudis without interference.
Sen. Dick Durbin said after the briefing that the lawmakers were told that Haspel didn’t show at “the direction of the White House,” adding that he couldn’t remember a similar briefing on a sensitive matter “where we have been denied access to the intelligence agencies of the United States.”
More recently, Pompeo has been the bearer of bad news from Trump to Haspel. Pompeo has relayed to Haspel that Trump has been unhappy with some of the agency’s Iran-related intelligence, according to former intelligence officials. A CIA spokesperson declined to comment.
Pompeo’s outsized role is yet another sign that the former tea party congressperson from Kansas is one of the only high-profile officials in the U.S. national security apparatus who has cracked the code on how to flourish under Trump.
Of course, that’s a dubious distinction, given that it means Pompeo has learned how to properly suck up to a racist, misogynist, would-be autocrat who gained power with the illicit help of Russian intelligence. It also means that Pompeo has learned how to turn a blind eye to the fact that Trump has bullied the CIA ever since he took office and constantly downplayed the intelligence community’s assessment that the Russians intervened in the 2016 election to help him win.
In fact, one of the secrets to Pompeo’s success is that he has become Trump’s willing partner in the politicization of intelligence.
Before joining the administration, Pompeo had plenty of practice in leveraging national security policy for partisan political gain. While in Congress, he belonged to the Republican-led committee that sought to use the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi as a cudgel with which to beat Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state when the attack occurred.
One of the secrets to Pompeo’s success is that he has become Trump’s willing partner in the politicization of intelligence.
While he was CIA director, Pompeo frequently enabled Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community and the Trump-Russia case. In 2017, he said publicly that the intelligence community had concluded that Russian intervention in 2016 did not affect the election’s outcome, a false statement that the CIA’s spokesperson had to publicly deny. (The U.S. intelligence community did not issue an assessment on whether the Russian intervention affected the outcome of the election.) Pompeo also held a private meeting with a former intelligence official who had become an advocate for the disputed theory that the theft of the Democratic National Committee’s emails during the campaign was an inside job, rather than a hack by Russian intelligence. Pompeo took the meeting at the urging of Trump.
As director, Pompeo also reportedly grilled agency officers involved in the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump win and required the agency’s counterintelligence center, which was involved in the Russia investigation, to report directly to him.
As a result, Trump has enthused about Pompeo in a way that he rarely has about any other top official in his administration. “We’re always on the same wavelength,” Trump said last year when he named Pompeo secretary of state.
By contrast, almost everyone else who held a senior national security job at the start of the Trump administration is now gone. The firings, resignations, and other forms of defenestration have led to the departures of one or more occupants of the posts of defense secretary, national security adviser, attorney general, FBI director, secretary of state, White House chief of staff, secretary of Homeland Security, and director of the Secret Service. The national security apparatus is bereft of leadership, as it gets more difficult for Trump to attract talent. The Pentagon has been virtually rudderless since December, when Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in protest over Trump’s policies on Syria. He is finally being replaced by Mark Esper, a former Raytheon lobbyist.
Pompeo has taken advantage of the power vacuum.
Coats never bonded with Trump as Pompeo has. A former Republican senator from Indiana, Coats has repeatedly irritated the president by doing what Pompeo seemed reluctant to do: forcefully and publicly defend the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia intervened in the election to help Trump win.
Coats also stood by the intelligence community’s assessment that Iran was abiding by its nuclear agreement with the West — at least until Trump withdrew the United States from the deal. Intelligence officials say that this may have also led to friction with Trump and Pompeo.
There have been rumors for months that Coats was about to be fired, but Coats’s strong ties to Senate Republicans, as well as Vice President Mike Pence, the former governor of Indiana, protected him until now. Trump seems to have waited to move against Coats until after Mueller’s report was issued and the special counsel had testified before Congress.
Now, Trump will rely ever more heavily on Pompeo as the dominant figure in his administration on national security and intelligence.
Haspel may not last long at the CIA either. But the fact that both she and Coats have survived this long speaks to an oddity of the Trump administration: The U.S. intelligence community that Trump and his far-right supporters have railed against as the supposed bastion of “the deep state” had for two years avoided the kind of high-level personnel purge that is Trump’s trademark. Instead, Trump found that Mike Pompeo was the right man to keep it on a leash.