Months after rumors first circulated that U.S. President Donald Trump wanted to put his spy chief in charge of the nation’s diplomacy, Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo is taking his first steps in making the possible switch to the State Department.
Pompeo, who appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, brings along a reputation as an energetic and, at times, polarizing figure in the Trump Administration.
When the president announced Pompeo’s nomination in March, he praised the CIA chief’s energy and intellect, saying, “We’re always on the same wavelength.”
Since joining the Trump administration, the 54-year-old former three-term congressman from the Midwestern state of Kansas has been seen as a strong ally of the president, known for his tough views on terrorism, torture and Iran.
The two men forged a closer relationship, with Pompeo often giving the president the agency’s daily intelligence briefings in person at the White House, rather than delegating that responsibility to a staff aide.
“He has the grounding for him to be able to grasp this information the way he can ask sophisticated questions that then lead to important policy discussions,” Pompeo said of his briefings to the president during an appearance in Washington in January.
Still, the move from leading the U.S. spy agency to leading the U.S. diplomatic corps is unusual.
“No other official has made that particular transition before, although a couple of former CIA directors have become secretary of defense,” Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer now with Georgetown University, told VOA. “William Casey [CIA director from 1981 to 1987] wanted to be secretary of state, but [then President Ronald] Reagan did not give him that job.”
Pompeo and Russia
And while Pompeo initially won praise from the intelligence community – backing conclusions by U.S. intelligence agencies about the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks and its connections to Moscow he has also alienated some of those under his command.
Pompeo specifically garnered criticism for, at times, expressing views that seemed more in line with those of the White House while contradicting the CIA’s own findings.
“The Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election,” Pompeo told an audience in Washington last October, even though an unclassified report by the top U.S. intelligence agencies issued in January 2017 made no such claim.
“We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” the report said.
Later, the CIA sought to clarify Pompeo’s comments.
“The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed, and the director did not intend to suggest that it had,” a CIA spokesman said.
At other times, Pompeo has publicly refused to rule out working with Russia in areas such as counterterrorism.
“If Russia has information that can help us fight the CT [counterterror] fight around the world, it’s my duty to work with them and “the right thing to do,” he said.
Pompeo also was criticized following a report by The Intercept that at the request of the president, he met with a former intelligence official who has been arguing U.S. intelligence officials are unfairly blaming Russia for the leak of Democratic National Committee emails.
“Pompeo has been far more of a policy advocate, and a political defender of the president, than is appropriate for an intelligence chief,” said Georgetown University’s Pillar. “Whether this move is good or bad for the Department of State or for U.S. diplomacy, it is better that Pompeo be in a policy-making job rather than the CIA job.”
But in the days leading up to his hearing on Capitol Hill, Pompeo has sought to address any concerns, making it known he has reached out to former secretaries of state, including reportedly Hillary Clinton, for advice.
And in excerpts of his prepared testimony, released in advance, he rejected the notion that he is a defense hawk who would rather fight than negotiate.
“There are few who dread war more than those of us who have served in uniform” Pompeo said in the prepared remarks.
“War is always the last resort,” he added. “I would prefer achieving the President’s foreign policy goals with unrelenting diplomacy rather than by sending young men and women to war.”
He also indicated that while he intends to take a tough line on both North Korea and Iran, he would put diplomacy first.
“I have read the CIA histories of previous negotiations with the North Koreans, and am confident that we will not repeat the mistakes of the past,” Pompeo said of upcoming negotiations with Pyongyang over its nuclear program.
On Trump’s threat to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, Pompeo likewise took a more even approach.
“The president is prepared to work with our partners to revise the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to fix its most egregious flaws,” he said. “If confirmed, it will be an immediate personal priority … to see if such a fix is achievable.”
Still, Pompeo indicated he would be taking an even tougher approach to Russia.
“Russia continues to act aggressively, enabled by years of soft policy toward that aggression,” he said. “That’s now over.”
Before his confirmation as CIA director, some critics also voiced concerns about his stance on the use of torture.
Those involved in the CIA interrogation program “are not torturers, they are patriots,” Pompeo said in 2014, adding that the programs were “within the law, within the Constitution and conducted with the full knowledge” of appropriate lawmakers.
During his CIA confirmation hearing, Pompeo told senators he would “absolutely not” bring back such interrogation techniques.
Pompeo, a graduate of Harvard Law School, also drew criticism in 2013 after he suggested Muslim leaders who didn’t publicly condemn terror attacks were “potentially complicit” in the attacks.