President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the CIA is a Kansas congressman who is widely respected for his intelligence but also seen as a fierce partisan on polarizing issues including the deaths of U.S. personnel in Benghazi, the leaks of Edward Snowden and the email controversy that engulfed Hillary Clinton.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) has used his perch on the House Intelligence Committee to attack major pillars of President Obama’s foreign policy agenda, including the nuclear deal with Iran. Just hours before his name surfaced as Trump’s CIA nominee, Pompeo tweeted that he looked forward to “rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
In closed-door briefings on Capitol Hill, Pompeo has been an intense critic of a covert CIA program to train and arm moderate rebel forces in Syria, according to U.S. officials who said that dismantling the program — or at least subjecting it to a major re-evaluation — would likely be at the top of his agenda if he is confirmed.
Pompeo, 52, has no meaningful experience in espionage issues beyond his relatively brief stint as a member of the House Intelligence Committee. But he has earned a reputation as a serious student of national security issues who finished first in his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, served as a cavalry officer in the Army and earned a law degree from Harvard.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said that Pompeo is not widely known among the CIA rank and file but that his nomination was greeted at least initially as a reassuring development at a spy agency that has been treated largely with disdain by Trump.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who has sparred with Pompeo on Benghazi and other issues, gave the selection tempered praise in a statement released Friday.
“Mike is very bright and hard-working and will devote himself to helping the agency develop the best possible intelligence for policymakers,” Schiff said. “While we have had our share of strong differences — principally on the politicization of the tragedy in Benghazi — I know that he is someone who is willing to listen and engage, both key qualities in a CIA Director.”
Pompeo’s congressional background raised early comparisons to that of Porter Goss, who was plucked from the House Intelligence Committee by then-President George W. Bush to lead the CIA and was forced to resign two years later after a turbulent tenure during which one of his principal executives was convicted of corruption charges.
Pompeo’s ties to the arch-conservative tea party movement and scant background on intelligence issues were also cited as a cause for concern among some CIA veterans.
“The tea party owns the drones now,” one official said, referring to the agency’s involvement in lethal drone strikes against terrorist groups in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
But former senior CIA officials expressed guarded optimism that Pompeo’s ideological bent can be tempered by the analytic approach he has brought to difficult security subjects.
“I’m heartened by the choice,” said former CIA director Michael V. Hayden, who has been a staunch critic of Trump on security matters. “I would recommend that when he goes to Langley he get out of the car by himself and embrace the workforce,” Hayden said, alluding to the rocky tenure of previous directors who arrived with entourages and agendas that put them at odds with the agency’s powerful and entrenched directorate of spies.
In some ways, Pompeo is already part of the intelligence inner circle in Washington. He attended a dinner this week with CIA Director John Brennan at the home of former Republican congressman Mike Rogers, who had previously been seen as a leading candidate for the CIA job under Trump. The gathering included cast and producers of the CIA-themed show “Homeland,” according to a person familiar with the event.
Brennan has led a major bureaucratic overhaul of the agency over the past year, a reorganization designed to replicate the structure of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center. Pompeo would face decisions on whether to preserve those changes.
Pompeo emerged as a surprise pick for Trump. His name had not surfaced in the flurry of postelection rumors that had largely focused on other potential nominees, including Rogers, who was ousted from the Trump transition team this week, and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the current chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who reportedly turned down a chance at the CIA job.
Pompeo reportedly has close ties to the Koch family, Kansas billionaires who have devoted a considerable part of their wealth to advancing a deeply conservative agenda and driving Democrats out of office. Articles in Kansas papers indicate that Pompeo built much of his wealth with investment funds from Koch industries and that his campaigns for Congress have been backed by Koch money.
In just five years in Congress, he has built a political following by staking extreme positions in polarizing debates. He has called for Snowden to face the death penalty and for Clinton to be barred from receiving classified information.
Pompeo was one of the more outspoken Republican members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, saying that the Obama administration was guilty of a scandal “worse than Watergate.” When the committee concluded its final report in July, Pompeo and a fellow member, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), released a 48-page annex charging “failure at the most senior levels of government” and calling for additional information on what Pompeo said was the administration’s intentional misrepresentation and concealment of facts.
During hearings, his questions to administration witnesses were often among the most accusatory. In October 2015, when Clinton testified for the second time, Pompeo grilled her on her relationship with slain U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. He asked a series of rapid-fire questions about why Stevens did not have her personal telephone number, did not know her personal home address and had never “stopped by your house.”
Separately, in remarks that drew sharp criticism from U.S. Muslim organizations, Pompeo said that Muslim leaders who fail to denounce acts of terrorism done in the name of Islam were “potentially complicit” in the attacks.
Pompeo led congressional attacks on the nuclear accord Obama reached with Iran last year, accusing the administration of hiding “secret side deals” from the public, allegations rejected by the White House.
At the same time, it is not clear whether Pompeo will be in agreement with the most extreme positions taken by his new bosses, Trump and his designated national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn.
Trump has called for the CIA to resume the use of waterboarding and other interrogation measures widely condemned as torture. Trump has derided the quality of the intelligence from the nation’s spy community, publicly belittling a multiagency conclusion that Russia used cyberespionage methods to interfere in the U.S. election.
Pompeo is not known to have publicly backed those positions and in some cases has articulated views that would seem at odds with those of the Trump team. In a speech delivered in Kansas last year after returning from a trip to the Middle East, Pompeo cautioned against equating all Muslims with terrorism, saying that a “line needs to be drawn between those who are on the side of extremism and those who are fighting against them.”
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.