Trump's New CIA Director Enters a Maelstrom at the Agency

Mike Pompeo, former Republican congressman from Kansas, was confirmed as director of the Central Intelligence Agency on Monday. The 53-year-old Tea Party representative is walking into a bureaucratic whirlwind, the likes of which Langley has not seen since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Pompeo now has nominal control of one of the powerful and controversial components of the U.S. government, which his patron, the president of the United States, has alternately denigrated and embraced in recent weeks. The new director has the unenviable task of explaining to his new colleagues that Trump didn't really mean it when he blamed outgoing director John Brennan for leaking an unverified dossier on Trump to the media, or when he insultingly compared the CIA to the Nazis.

Pompeo will also have to live down Trump’s appearance at CIA headquarters on the president's first day in office. On Saturday, Trump used the agency as his prop for a television appearance in which he misrepresented the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Just days after insulting CIA leadership, Trump told the assembled personnel, along with a claque of cheering outsiders, that “there is nobody that feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than Donald Trump.”

On Sunday, CBS News quoted unnamed senior Agency officials as saying they were "uncomfortable" with Trump’s antics. On Monday, press secretary Sean Spicer denied that the White House had installed Trump supporters in the front row of the auditorium where Trump appeared. Within hours, CBS News quoted CIA officials confirming that Trump had indeed packed the hall with his cheerleaders.

Such public hostility to the CIA is unprecedented and no doubt disturbing to the clandestine bureaucracy at the heart of what has been dubbed the "deep state" or the "double government." The fact that senior CIA officials were leaking information about an incoming president on his second day in office does not bode well for Pompeo’s job security.

And cleaning up after the president’s verbal poop is not Pompeo’s biggest challenge. The $14.7 billion-a-year agency is historically unfriendly to directors who have not risen through CIA ranks. The last congressman who parachuted into Langley was hapless Florida representative Porter Goss, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2004 to succeed the disgraced George Tenet. Goss, a former operations officer who never held a senior management position in Langley, lasted less than two years. He was shown the door after being outmaneuvered by John Negroponte, the first Director of National Intelligence.

Conspiracy Theorist

Pompeo brings a certain intelligence and indecent tenacity to the job. As a West Point cadet, he was first in his class. As a Tea Party congressman, he led the attack against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her handling of the September 2012 attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya. When the family of slain ambassador Christopher Stevens insisted that his death should not be politicized, Pompeo ignored them.

He also brings a skepticism about climate change that is not shared by the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community. When asked about climate change during his confirmation hearings, Pompeo said, "My role is going to be so different and unique from that."

Such indifference to fact does not bode well for Pompeo’s tenure in Langley. Say what you will about the CIA, careless thinking and partisan politicking are not prized at Langley. Whether agency personnel are engaged in the black arts of clandestine action (ranging from interfering in democratic elections to assassinating jihadists or a U.S. teenager) or the dispassionate analysis of key policy issues (ranging from the real threat of climate change to the reality of Iran’s nuclear ambitions), they believe in the supreme value of intelligence—facts distilled into useful and actionable information.  

Unfounded conspiracy theories are a menace to the agency’s credibility, power and budget. The agency’s critics sometimes forget that Tenet came to the agency as an outsider. He had previously served as staff director at the Senate Intelligence Committee. They also forget that Tenet’s slam-dunk belief in the bogus neoconservative conspiracy theory of Saddam Hussein’s WMD was not universally shared. The career analysts who saw no evidence of Iraqi WMD were overruled by a director from Capitol Hill eager to curry favor with a polarizing Republican president.  

Pompeo inherits the burden of this institutional memory. George Tenet’s folly not only justified the moral and geopolitical catastrophe of the Iraq war, it also proved a bureaucratic setback for the agency. Within two years, Tenet was gone and Congress had created the Director of National Intelligence position, which ended the CIA’s primacy among U.S. intelligence agencies. 

Now the agency is threatened again. Trump and his DNI, retired general Michael Flynn, have floated a plant to reorganize the intelligence community at the CIA’s expense. Then the thoroughly unreliable press secretary Spicer denied there was any such plan.

The coherence and reality of Trump’s CIA plans are open to doubt. Unlike in 2004, there is no great appetite on Capitol Hill for remaking the CIA, even among Republicans.  Amid the Trumpian turbulence, Pompeo may be able to live down his own reputation for partisanship. But he will be hard-pressed to dispel the perception that his boss is an unintelligent and perhaps unstable man and a menace to the agency’s core missions of covert operations and policy analysis.

Both Pompeo and Trump are already floundering on the hard shoals of Washington political reality; presidents and their dreams of taming Langley come and go, while the CIA endures.


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