President-Elect Donald Trump took another step to fill up his national-security Cabinet Friday, tapping a Tea Party Republican and Iran hawk known for his work investigating the Benghazi terrorist attacks as the next director of the CIA.
The selection of Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican and member of the House Intelligence Committee, came as a surprise to a number of current and former intelligence officials. He hadn’t been seen as a leading contender for the job. (A previous frontrunner, former congressman and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, was removed from consideration following an internal power struggle on the Trump transition team.)
Pompeo is a well-known firebrand. But he has developed a reputation on the intelligence committee as a serious thinker who has dealt fairly with the intelligence agencies. He is also close to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence from their days together in the House of Representatives. And while never an enthusiastic endorser of Trump’s candidacy, Pompeo hadn’t disavowed him like many other GOP national-security leaders. He even helped Pence prepare for the vice-presidential debate.
Pompeo has only served in the House since 2011. But he rose a wave of populist support—not unlike the one that carried Trump to the White House—and quickly made a name for himself. He is one of the strongest opponents of the international agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, a signature foreign-policy accomplishment of the Obama administration that Pompeo wants to cancel. And as a member of the House committee investigating the 2012 Libya consulate attacks, Pompeo staked out a more extreme position than his GOP colleagues by blaming former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally for the murder of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
“I am honored and humbled to accept the president-elect’s nomination to lead the Central Intelligence Agency,” Pompeo said in a statement. “This was a difficult decision. I have genuinely loved representing the people of Kansas in Congress—working to make our community stronger and more prosperous. But ultimately the opportunity to lead the world’s finest intelligence warriors, who labor tirelessly to keep this nation and Kansas safe, is a call to service I cannot ignore.”
Pompeo is by no means ignorant of national-security policy. He graduated top of his class from West Point in 1986 and served as an Army officer in Cold War Europe. His résumé makes him a credible candidate for the CIA post when compared to previous directors, including those with less experience.
But two U.S. officials privately told The Daily Beast that Pompeo is also seen within the national-security establishment as an ideologue who has pursued his mixed politics with national security and has used his perch to pursue his adversaries for political gain. Historically, CIA employees tend to be suspicious of outsiders with strong political leanings who take over the helm of the nation’s most storied intelligence service.
“The Tea Party now controls the drones,” one U.S. official said, underscoring the trepidation with which some career national-security officials are likely to greet Pompeo’s nomination.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official said Pompeo would be wise to avoid the path of another lawmaker who became CIA chief, former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss. Even though he had served as a CIA officer, Goss came into the directorship in 2005 with a team of political aides from Capitol Hill who were looking to clean house. Senior CIA leaders soon butted head with Goss’s crew, whom they dubbed “Gosslings,” and the director was out of his job in just over a year.
“Goss came in with an ideology that said, you guys are left-wing and we don’t trust you, and I’m going to bring my own guys in to assert myself,” the former senior official said. Pompeo, he added, should enter the job ready to listen and defend the career establishment. If not, “They will eat him alive.”
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden seemed to echo that sentiment.
“When you go to Langley the first time, get out of the car alone. Don’t bring your own ecosystem.... Embrace the agency,” Hayden said during remarks Friday morning at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“In my conversations with him, I’ve found him to be very well informed and very serious,” the retired Air Force general-turned-CIA chief said of Pompeo. “When I first heard of the choice, I said ‘That’s OK.’”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, congratulated Pompeo and seemed encouraged by his nomination.
“Mike is very bright and hard-working and will devote himself to helping the Agency develop the best possible intelligence for policymakers,” Schiff said in a statement. “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.”
Devin Nunes, the intelligence committee chairman, sounded a similarly positive note.
“Mike has spent an immense amount of time in the field all across the world meeting with our intelligence professionals and service members on behalf of the House Intelligence Committee,” Nunes said in a statement. “One of the most respected voices in the House of Representatives on national-security issues, Mike will undoubtedly develop a close working relationship with Congress in his new post. I am confident his nomination will be widely supported within the CIA, and I look forward to his fast approval by the Senate.”
The early signs looked promising, but Pompeo is certain to face tough questioning over his views on waterboarding terrorist suspects—an abandoned practice that Trump has said he would reinstate—as well as the CIA’s drone program.
Democrat Sen. Mark Warner, the incoming vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, congratulated Pompeo on his nomination in a statement and promised “to conduct vigorous, and bipartisan, oversight of the nation’s intelligence agencies” in Congress.
Pompeo is perhaps best known to the intelligence community, and the public at large, for his service on the House committee that examined the Benghazi attacks. After an exhaustive investigation, the committee released its findings earlier this year. But Pompeo, along with fellow committee member Jim Jordan, thought they didn’t go far enough and released their 42 pages of their own “additional views.” Unlike the main report, Pompeo and Jordan’s held Clinton directly responsible for the attacks.
Pompeo also seems poised to help a Trump administration upend the Iran nuclear deal. “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter on Thursday. (The CIA doesn’t negotiate treaties, but the agency does play a major role in monitoring Iran’s compliance with the agreement.)
Pompeo’s opposition to Iran has occasionally taken a theatrical quality. In August 2015, he hosted a group of reporters at the Washington, D.C., power spot Cafe Milano and railed against the Iranian regime’s military support for insurgents in Iraq who had killed large numbers of U.S. soldiers with improvised explosives and roadside bombs. Pompeo pointedly chose the venue: In 2011, authorities foiled an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States with a bomb while he dined at the popular Georgetown restaurant.
Critics of the Trump’s pick for his national-security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, are likely to find troubling parallels in some of Pompeo’s policy views.
In the weeks after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Pompeo said that Muslim leaders might be “complicit” in acts of terrorism.
“When the most devastating terrorist attacks on America in the last 20 years come overwhelmingly from people of a single faith, and are performed in the name of that faith, a special obligation falls on those that are the leaders of that faith,” Pompeo said in remarks on the House floor. “Instead of responding, silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts and more importantly still, in those that may well follow.”
Flynn’s critics have said that his views on Islam and terrorism are overgeneralized; they have also veered at times into Islamophobia. Flynn’s position is not confirmed by the Senate, but the CIA director is, so Pompeo could face tough questions on his views about Islam.
Pompeo has also said that Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, should face trial for leaking classified material about U.S. surveillance operations to journalists. But he has also presupposed the outcome.
“He should be brought back from Russia and given due process, and I think the proper outcome would be that he would be given a death sentence,” Pompeo said in an interview on C-SPAN this month.
—with additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier