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4 questions we want answered at the Senate confirmation hearing of CIA pick Mike Pompeo

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

Mike Pompeo, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the CIA, goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday for his confirmation hearing. Pompeo may be an unfamiliar name to many Americans, but he is well-known — and apparently generally well-respected — among both intelligence professionals and his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

The 52-year-old Republican from Kansas served on the House Intelligence Committee and played a prominent role in the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which investigated the way then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handled the attack that killed four Americans at the hands of Islamist terrorists in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, as well as its aftermath.

Pompeo has in the past expressed extremely hawkish views on critical national security issues, including keeping open the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, defending brutal CIA interrogation practices like waterboarding and “rectal feeding,” and focusing heavily on the dire threat of “radical Islamic terrorism.” Those positions are closely aligned with those of Trump and his new national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

But being a Congress member is not the same thing as being at the helm of America’s premier spy agency, overseeing a vast bureaucracy of some 80,000 full-time employees engaged in everything from intelligence collection and analysis to covert operations like using armed drones to hunt and kill individual militants around the world.

The stakes of this confirmation hearing are high: Pompeo, if confirmed, will be taking control of the CIA in the midst of a messy public battle between Trump and the entire US intelligence community over its assessment that Russia tried to influence the US election.

Unlike other intelligence agencies, which prepare intelligence reports for a wide range of people and organizations across the national security realm, the CIA is tasked with providing intelligence specifically to the president and his Cabinet. Which means that a lot is riding on Pompeo’s ability to mend the relationship between the CIA and Trump.

Pompeo will also face the potentially exhausting challenge of working with Flynn, who clashed with the CIA before being fired from the military’s own intelligence service and has repeatedly fought with agency briefers during the campaign.

In one particularly glaring incident, the New York Times reported that when the Trump campaign received its first intelligence briefing in August, Flynn “was so combative with the briefers that another person in the room had to urge him to settle down.”

This hearing, then, will be the first time since Pompeo was nominated to the CIA post that lawmakers — and the rest of us — will get to hear directly from him about how he sees the quality of the agency’s attacks and whether he’ll defend it from Trump’s attacks or choose to pile on.

Here are the top four questions we’d really like him to answer during the hearing.

1) What is your view of the role of the intelligence community and its relationship to both the president and Congress?

In recent weeks, Trump has publicly feuded with the country’s top intelligence officials, disputing their assessment that Russia tried to influence the US election and mocking their erroneous pre–Iraq War assertion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Trump has also said he does not need daily intelligence briefings, because, “You know, I'm, like, a smart person.” "I don't have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years,” Trump told Fox News back in December. “I don't need that. But I do say, ‘If something should change, let us know.’”

And the Wall Street Journal reported last week that Trump had plans to restructure the US intelligence community, possibly including reducing jobs at CIA headquarters in Virginia and sending more agents out into the field. The Trump transition team denied the Wall Street Journal report, calling the story “100 percent false.”

But regardless of whether that report was true, the fact is that Trump’s overall attitude toward the US intelligence community has been perceived as dismissive, if not outright hostile.

Last week, in a fiery Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on foreign cyberthreats to the United States, the country’s top spies — along with several senators from both parties — lambasted what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described as Trump’s "disparagement" of the intelligence community.

Clapper and others at the hearing also warned of the potential damage Trump’s comments could do to the nation’s ability to work with other nations to confront security threats like ISIS and the continued threat of radical Islamist terror.

“I have received many expressions of concern from foreign counterparts of what has been interpreted as the disparagement of the intelligence community,” said Clapper.

In response to a question from Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich about how the president-elect’s “dismissive attitude towards the intelligence community” was impacting morale in the intelligence agencies, Clapper tersely stated, “I haven’t done a climate survey, but I hardly think it helps it.”

Adm. Mike Rogers, commander of the US Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, went further, expressing his concern that damage to the morale of the intelligence community’s professional workforce could potentially lead to the departures of key personnel.

“What we do is in no small part driven by the confidence of our leaders in what we do,” said Rogers. “And without that confidence, I just don’t want a situation where our workforce decides to walk.”

This is the mess that Pompeo will be stepping into on day one if he is confirmed.

As Pompeo is a member of Congress with experience working closely with — and at times strongly defending — the intelligence community, his 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.

What is less clear is whether Pompeo will be able to heal the rift between the intelligence community and Trump. As Slate’s Jeremy Stahl notes, Pompeo backed Marco Rubio during the Republican primary and is “by no means a Trump loyalist.”

Which means that while Trump may believe Pompeo is the best man for the job, he doesn’t have a long, close personal history with Trump that he can leverage in order to boost his agency’s standing in the president’s eyes.

Hearing Pompeo’s views today about the role of the intelligence community in helping the president make informed decisions about national security and foreign policy will thus provide more insight into whether we’re likely to see this broken relationship mend in time.

2) Should Russia be treated as a potential ally or an adversary?

Trump has consistently praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and expressed a desire to build closer ties with Russia, especially in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

But Pompeo has traditionally been very hawkish on Russia. That puts 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 very much at odds with his new boss.

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 allowing Russia to operate freely in Syria. “Our secretary of state calls a meeting to deconflict airspace when the Russians attack in the Middle East,” Pompeo complained.

He also 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 to establish a foothold in the Middle East.

Pompeo, if confirmed, would be heading an agency that, along with the rest of the US intelligence community, believes Trump was elected in part thanks to Russian interference in the election. Trump angrily rejects that conclusion and has refused to acknowledge that Moscow played any role in the hacking of the private email accounts of high-level Democratic Party officials.

Even after top intel officials fully briefed him on the details of Russia’s involvement in the hacks, Trump still continued to downplay Moscow’s involvement, issuing a statement that lumped Russia in with China and other unnamed countries and outside groups as potential perpetrators and emphasized that the hacks didn’t affect the outcome of the election.

For all these reasons, it is absolutely vital that Pompeo explain in detail his stance on Russia, and in particular whether Russia should be considered a hostile adversary actively trying to subvert American democracy and thwart American interests abroad, or a potential partner and even friend.

3) Do you consider waterboarding and other forms of “enhanced interrogation” to be torture? And should the CIA be allowed to use such techniques?

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."

As I’ve written elsewhere, that’s something Trump could theoretically do if he wanted to. That’s because although Congress passed legislation aimed at preventing future presidents from reinstating practices like waterboarding and other abuses, there was a major loophole in the legislation that a determined president, backed by a supportive secretary of defense, could exploit to bring back such practices.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who is Trump’s pick to be secretary of defense, seems to have made Trump rethink his stance on waterboarding. When the two met back in November, Trump asked Mattis for his views on waterboarding. Mattis’s answer — that he’d “never found it to be useful” — surprised Trump.

"I'm not saying it changed my mind,” Trump told the New York Times. “Look, we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we're not allowed to waterboard. But I'll tell you what, I was impressed by that answer.”

Beyond changing his mind, though, one of the few things that could potentially stop Trump 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.”

If Pompeo is confirmed, that choice will soon be in the hands of a man who defended the CIA against its critics in Congress following the 2014 release of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. At the time, Pompeo declared, “These men and women are not torturers, they are patriots,” and, “The programs being used were within the law, within the constitution.”

Again, though, that was back when Pompeo was in Congress, a place that tends to encourage over-the-top political grandstanding. What we don’t know is whether Pompeo, as CIA director, would actually be willing to order his agents to use torture methods that have been formally repudiated by his immediate predecessors and that could leave personnel in the interrogation program vulnerable to criminal probes down the road.

Many Americans — including some within the CIA itself — view the CIA’s torture program to be one of the worst stains on CIA history. Getting a clear answer from Pompeo on his views on torture now that he is up for the top CIA post is absolutely essential.

4) Do you think Gitmo should be closed?

Trump 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.” And just last week, Trump tweeted, “There should be no further releases from Gitmo. These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield.”

Here, again, Trump seems to have a supporter in Pompeo. In a 2013 congressional hearing on whether to close the prison at Guantanamo, 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.”

Indeed, he even claimed, “The detainees at Gitmo are treated exceptionally well — so well that some have even declined to be resettled, instead choosing to stay at GTMO.”

He 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 accelerated the Bush administration’s shift from a counterterrorism approach of capturing, detaining, and interrogating terrorist suspects toward one of using targeted drone strikes to just kill the individuals outright. According to the Obama administration’s own official numbers, at least 2,436 people were killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya between January 2009 and the end of 2015.

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.

That possibility is very real — which is why it’s so important that we hear more about Pompeo’s views on these issues during his confirmation hearing.

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