January 18, 2017 / 2:27 PM / 2 years ago

Commentary: Open secrets – and Trump’s wrath – will challenge new CIA chief

Have some sympathy for Mike Pompeo, the smiling, sharp-tongued Kansas congressman who breezed through his confirmation on Jan. 11. He's going to be Donald Trump's CIA director. He’ll also have the privilege of being a star witness in Senate hearings on links between Russian spies and the presidential campaigns.

Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) testifies before a Senate Intelligence hearing on his nomination to head the CIA at Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Trump says America’s senior spooks are tantamount to Nazis: “I think it was disgraceful — disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out. I think it’s a disgrace…something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.” His red-faced words at his raucous press conference on Wednesday betrayed his fury at what they had told him about the role Russian President Vladimir Putin had played in the presidential election —the best spy story since the Soviets stole the secrets of the atomic bomb.

Compounding his rage, as his tweets revealed, he thought the spooks leaked the “kompromat” dossier floating around Washington. That’s a different keg of dynamite. Senator John McCain brought it into the spies’ den in December, when he passed along the documents to FBI Director James Comey.

The politesse of the Senate intelligence committee hearings prohibited anyone from asking Pompeo awkward questions: “Mike, how are you going to explain the Nazi thing out at the agency?” (He can’t.) “What if Trump says the CIA’s lying when they call him Putin’s candidate?” (He’ll have to tell the truth.) “What if he tells the CIA to knock off foreign leaders?” (Other presidents told the CIA to pull the trigger; it tried and failed.)

Almost every president has raged at the CIA over covert ops that crashed or cogent analysis that trashed the commander-in-chief’s assumptions. But no president called them storm troopers. None treated them with the contempt that Trump has shown since his election, a disdain that defies understanding — unless he does not want to hear a word they have to say.

I’ve reported on American intelligence for three decades. I reckon the Nazi thing will not play well in the corridors of the CIA. Good luck with the new gig, Mike.

In the CIA’s 70-year history, 21 men have been confirmed as its director. Some, like Robert Gates, later secretary of defense under Bush 43 and Obama, showed cool temperament in times of war and crisis. Others, like Reagan’s CIA chief, William J. Casey, were hotheads — dangerous, deceptive and addicted to disastrous clandestine capers (see the Iran-Contra imbroglio).

Those who succeeded, like Gates and Obama’s John Brennan, had the president’s ear; he heard them out on matters of life and death – ending the Cold War without a shot or sealing the Iran nuclear deal. Both served in the White House as national-security aides who saw their commander-in-chief every day, and many nights.

Those who failed, like Bill Clinton’s first CIA chief, James Woolsey, had the president’s scorn; he shut them out. Clinton saw Woolsey once a year. Now, 24 years later, Woolsey has been working on the sidelines for Team Trump, but hasn’t found a place in the new administration.

Pompeo is smart — first-in-their-class West Point grads rarely wind up last in a war of ideas. At his confirmation, he wisely renounced the return of torture (reversing his past stance) and said he would try to support the provisions of the Iran deal. But he will have to be both wise and wily to circumvent the new president’s national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn. If he wants quality time with Trump, he’ll have dodge Flynn’s gatekeeping.

Flynn was dismissed for cause in 2014 as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He lost the confidence of his command staff, who saw him as pushing “Flynn facts” – arguably falsehoods — on warfighting and terrorism. After that, Flynn dined with Putin in Moscow, received the largesse of the Russian propaganda organ RT, and at times spoke with a messianic fervor unbecoming of an officer with 33 years in Army intelligence. He is a conspiracy-minded man who seems to believe the CIA had a barb out for him.

If Trump wants someone to feed his anger at the CIA’s spies, he has the right man at hand.

Why don’t presidents get along with the CIA? Many took office “with the expectation that intelligence could solve every problem, or that it could not do anything right, and then moved to the opposite view,” said a former deputy CIA director, Richard J. Kerr. “Then they settled down and vacillated from one extreme to another.”

President Harry S. Truman feared the CIA’s secrecy at the dawn of the Cold War. President Dwight D. Eisenhower despaired of the agency’s ability to provide foresight on the Soviets. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon blamed the CIA, unfairly, for failing to conjure a way to win in Vietnam. President Ronald Reagan nearly lost his reputation over the Iran-Contra scandal. And President George W. Bush sent the CIA to its 21st-century nadir when he said the agency was “just guessing” about the course of the war in Iraq.

The real danger is when presidents simply don’t want to know what the CIA thinks because it doesn’t fit their preconceptions.

Pompeo, elected along with the Tea Party Congress in 2010, can be ideological when he wants. His campaign to scapegoat Hillary Clinton for the Benghazi tragedy is the main case in point. His evangelical Christianity sometimes resonates in his political rhetoric. But he knows that zealotry and crusading will not comfort CIA officers or comport with his responsibilities when he sits atop agency headquarters at Langley.

Presidencies can be driven by ideology, of course —but ideology is the enemy of intelligence. Intelligence is information, secret information, analyzed and assayed information — facts, in short; with luck, ground truth. Ideology is the first principle of a post-truth philosophy: My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts. Get out of my Oval Office.

Wars can start that way. And if you strike the fuse of ideology with a spark of bad intelligence, you can start wars you can’t win. The Bay of Pigs. Vietnam. Iraq. 

Senator Angus King of Maine, who votes independent, recited that sad litany at the confirmation hearings on Thursday. He was the only interrogator to raise these salient points in the agency’s history with Pompeo. Would he promise to give the president bad news, to tell him things he won’t want to hear? I will, the nominee said. Will you dig into the Putin-Trump connection? Pompeo replied: “I promise I will pursue the facts wherever they take us.”

One of Pompeo’s first responsibilities at the agency will be responding to inquiries from formidable senators such as John McCain who will want to harness the powers of the CIA to solve this potentially explosive problem. McCain and a few like-minded Republicans are also committed to holding public hearings on the CIA’s conclusion that a Russian intelligence operation directed by Putin supported the election of Trump.

And that is likely to lead the White House, Congress and the CIA, into some very dark places— the kinds of places that Americans learned existed only after the long and bitter autopsies of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the war in Vietnam, and the catastrophic conflagration of rigid ideology and rotten intelligence that led us to war in Iraq.

It will fall to people like Mike Pompeo to see how dark the dark side will be in the presidency of Donald Trump.

About the Author

Tim Weiner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. His books include "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA."

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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