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Mike Pompeo, Trump's pick for CIA director, could take the agency back to its darkest days

Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, listens during the House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi hearing on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas to head the Central Intelligence Agency, putting a hawkish lawmaker who favors brutally interrogating detainees and expanding the American prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in charge of America’s premier spy agency.

Pompeo may be an unfamiliar name to many Americans, but he is well-known — and apparently generally well-respected — among intelligence professionals and well-liked by his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

The 52-year-old third-term Congress member serves on the House Intelligence Committee and played a prominent role the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which investigated Hillary Clinton for her role in the deaths of four Americans at the hands of Islamist terrorists in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

Pompeo was particularly harsh on Clinton during the hearings, and in a report afterward accused her of having “put politics ahead of people” and “focusing more on spin and media narrative before an election than securing American lives under attack by terrorists.”

As a member of Congress with experience working closely with — and at times strongly defending — the intelligence community, Pompeo’s nomination as CIA chief could bode well for the future relationship between the CIA and Congress, which has deteriorated in recent years over the CIA’s detainee program and feuds with its nominal overseers on Capitol Hill.

But Pompeo’s extremely hawkish views on critical national security issues, such as his support for keeping open the US prison at Guantanamo Bay; his defense of brutal CIA interrogation practices like waterboarding and “rectal feeding”; and his overwhelming focus on the dire threat of “radical Islamic terrorism” — all positions closely aligned with those of President-elect Trump and his new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — suggest he is not likely to be a particularly sobering or restraining force on the president-elect, particularly when it comes to controversial policies like torture and drone strikes.

Pompeo’s hawkish stance toward Russia, on the other hand, could be a major source of tension between him and the president-elect, who, along with Flynn, seeks to develop closer ties with Russia, particularly in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

Army officer, lawyer, businessman, and politician

Pompeo is a graduate of West Point and served as a cavalry officer in the US Army. After his military service, he attended Harvard Law School and worked for two and a half years as a lawyer doing mostly tax litigation at the Washington, DC, law firm of Williams & Connolly before going into the world of business.

Pompeo founded Thayer Aerospace in 1996, where he “served as CEO for more than a decade providing components for commercial and military aircraft,” according to his biography on his congressional website. After selling his stake in the company in 2006, he became president of Sentry International, which he describes on his website as an “oilfield equipment manufacturing, distribution, and service company.”

In 2010, Pompeo ran for a seat in the US House of Representatives representing Kansas's Fourth District, successfully defeating Democratic nominee State Representative Raj Goyle with the backing of the Tea Party and the Koch Industries political action committee, KochPAC. Now in his third term, Pompeo serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which oversees energy, health care, manufacturing, and telecommunications, in addition to the House Intelligence Committee.

Meet Trump’s new CIA, same as Bush’s old CIA

Trump said during the campaign that he would not only “bring back waterboarding,” which he considers a “minor form” of torture, but that he’d also bring back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."

And as I’ve written elsewhere, that’s something Trump could theoretically do if he wanted to. One of the few things that could potentially prevent that from happening would be if the CIA director refused to carry out an order to reinstate practices like waterboarding and other forms of torture, which the CIA had previously used on detainees under President George W. Bush.

As current CIA Director John Brennan explained at an event at the Brookings Institution think tank back in April, “If a president were to order the agency to carry out waterboarding or something else, it’ll be up to the director of CIA and others within CIA to decide whether or not that direction and order is something that they can carry out in good conscience,” he said.

“As long as I’m director of CIA, irrespective of what the president says, I’m not going to be the director of CIA who gives that order. They’ll have to find another director,” Brennan added.

But Brennan isn’t going to be CIA director anymore; Pompeo is. And Pompeo strongly defended the CIA against its critics in Congress following the 2014 release of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, declaring, “These men and women are not torturers, they are patriots,” and, “The programs being used were within the law, within the constitution.”

Trump also said on the campaign trail that he would keep open the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and “load it up with bad guys.” President Obama's efforts to close down have been stymied by fierce Congressional opposition, and the prison still contained 60 detainees as of October 21, 2016, according to Human Rights First. The advocacy group says 56 of the detainees have been imprisoned there for more than 10 years without trial.

Here again, Trump will find a supporter in Pompeo. In a 2013 congressional hearing on whether to close the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Pompeo described the prison as “critical to national security” and said that closing it would create the “potential for endless litigation and rights expanded well beyond those afforded to enemy combatants.”

Pompeo has also criticized the Obama administration for its handling of the terrorism threat, which Pompeo, much like Trump and Flynn, sees as one of the most critical threats currently facing the United States.

“The challenge that this administration has refused to take on is that there is a very real call in the west to defeat and destroy the threat from radical Islamic terrorism, whether it fights under the name of Al Quaeda [sic] … or Boko Haram or ISIS or any of the other dozens of groups that are founded on the central principle of the destruction of the West and the imposition of Sharia law,” Pompeo said in an October interview with the Wichita Eagle newspaper.

“And this administration has refused to acknowledge that,” he added. “They have simply treated these as ordinary criminals and so they have attempted to apply a criminal law model to a threat, which is not that. And as a result the threat to the west is far greater today than it was seven and half years ago.”

The CIA under Obama and Brennan has also moved away from the Bush administration’s counterterrorism approach of capturing, detaining, and interrogating terrorist suspects, instead preferring to use targeted drone strikes to just kill the individuals outright.

But given both Trump and Pompeo’s statements about terrorism and Guantanamo — Pompeo once said that the prison “has been a goldmine of intelligence about radical Islamic terrorism” — it’s entirely possible that the CIA under the Trump administration may pivot back toward a policy of detaining and potentially even torturing suspected terrorists once again.

In other words, the CIA could be heading back toward a time that many Americans — including some within the CIA itself — believed to be some of the darkest days in CIA, and American, history.

But unlike Trump and Flynn, Pompeo is also hawkish on Russia, putting him much more in sync with most of the nation’s top military brass who see Russia as America’s top national security threat, but potentially at odds with his new boss.

Trump has expressed a desire to work with Russia in Syria to fight ISIS. But Pompeo has called the notion that Russia’s goal in Syria is to defeat ISIS “a fundamentally false narrative” and suggested that Russia’s real goal is trying to establish a foothold in the Middle East. Speaking at a foreign policy forum in Washington in October 2015, Pompeo said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “heck bent on changing the geopolitical future,” and criticized the Obama administration for not being tougher on Russia.

That Pompeo is now going to be working for a man the entire US intelligence community believes was elected in part thanks to Russian interference in the election is rather striking.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Pompeo defeated incumbent Todd Tiahart in the 2010 race for Kansas’s fourth congressional district. Though Tiahart had been elected to that seat in 2008, in 2010 he ran unsuccessfully in the primary for the US Senate seat being vacated by Sam Brownback (who is now governor). Tiahart tried to get his seat back in 2014, challenging Pompeo in the primary and losing.

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