Brushing aside President Trump’s public disparagement of the intelligence community, CIA Director Mike Pompeo on Tuesday said his visits to agency stations during his first six months have convinced him that morale is “spectacularly high.”
Almost daily briefings of the president show that the chief executive “not only values the agency’s people but is counting on them to succeed,” Pompeo told contractors at a dinner of the nonprofit Intelligence and National Security Alliance.
Even so, the charge—resisted by Trump—that the Russians “tried to muck with our elections is very real,” Pompeo said, adding that such interference took place in 2016, 2012 and during the 1970s, perhaps by the Chinese as well.
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Trump when he receives the briefings is a “demanding customer, and frankly we like it that way,” Pompeo said. The example he gave was the day in May when Trump was shown “disturbing images from Syria, and wanted to know exactly what happened.” The CIA assembled “a crack team of 200,” and by the next day’s Cabinet meeting, had concluded that the Syrian government had indeed used chemical weapons, “Pompeo, you sure?” Trump asked, which “took my breath away,” Pompeo said. Trump “never looked back” and proceeded to order a strike of 59 cruise missiles on the same airfield used to launch the illegal chemical attacks, “one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency,” the director said.
Like his predecessors, Pompeo laid out the chief threats facing the country and his agency—terrorism, weapons proliferation, cyberwarfare, non-state actors and insider threats that aid groups such as Wikileaks. “We must steal secrets with audacity and stay ahead of the enemy at every turn,” he said. On questioning, he rejected the suggestion that Trump’s ban on travel from six predominantly Muslim countries has harmed agency recruitment.
Pompeo has made several management changes, creating centers focused like “daggers to the heart” on North Korea and Iran, and bringing the agency’s top counter intelligence chief up as a direct report to him so that people in the agency “understand it is an enormous priority.” But he said he rejects the term “modernization” used by previous Director John Brennan for his reorganization, saying it implies that modernizing has an end point.
The CIA is “ready to help,” Pompeo said, on the growing threat presented by North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile testing. “For 20 years, we whistled past the graveyard on North Korea,” he said, but that is not likely to continue.
Pompeo offered a tribute to the bravery of an unnamed CIA officer killed defending station in Afghanistan against two car bombings, grenade attacks and suicide bombers, calling him a “one-man wrecking crew” who died showing no fear. What he admires about CIA employees are their “courage, determination and humility,” he said, stressing that he instructs new arrivals to always tell the truth.
The agency, he agreed with a questioner, must adopt to accelerated threats that change more rapidly in the modern world. That means the agency has to do “operations at full throttle, and we only need the bridle removed to go full speed.” That would also mean “not worshipping the org chart,” Pompeo added, though he acknowledged “there will be bad days.” But if employees are not occasionally coming up short, “they’re probably nor reaching high enough,” he said.
He expressed hope that the agency would offer agents and their families the same kind of support the military does. He told the contractors that the CIA needs help from private sector, and that he wants to “make sure we’re not wedded to technology just because it was invented inside the building.”
It’s frustrating, Pompeo said, to read media articles based on improperly released classified information or that portray CIA as a “rogue agency untethered from the government” when in fact there is oversight from courts and Congress. “It’s important to maintain the trust of the American people, the commander in chief, and our partners at DoD, State and the FBI,” he said. “We need the nation to understand what the agency does and doesn’t do. The work is noble, important and lawful, and central to keeping Americans safe.”
The bottom line, he said, is that “it’s hard to sit in the director’s chair and not see the world as a dangerous place.” Unless you’ve worked on the inside, “it’s impossible to understand.” His biggest surprise in the new job? “How much it involves talking to our partners around the world.”