As the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo has a to-do list that already includes heroic lifts like helping us stay ahead of potential attacks by Islamic State and other terror groups, stepping up our own cybersleuthing efforts and learning all we can about threats from Iran, Russia, China and North Korea, among others.
But to do right by the agents and analysts the former Kansas congressman so clearly admires, he also must make good on his only semi-airtight promise to keep the Trump administration from reopening CIA black sites and reinstituting interrogation techniques that were a betrayal of our values and a boon to our enemies.
He was reportedly blindsided by recent news of a draft executive order that could require the agency to reconsider doing just that, even though the CIA itself learned afresh after 9/11 that torture is as counterproductive as former prisoner of war John McCain has regularly reminded it is. Inside the agency, there would be enormous opposition to such a move, which would violate both U.S. and international law.
The existence of the draft shouldn’t have been that surprising; President Donald Trump has often said he thinks torture does work and, despite all evidence to the contrary, apparently persists in believing that.
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In an interview this week with ABC News, the president noted his enduring surprise that Defense Secretary James Mattis does not share that view.
Asked about his campaign promise to “bring back waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse,” Trump left his options open by suggesting both that he will and will not do that: “As far as I’m concerned, we have to fight fire with fire. Now, with that being said, I’m going with General Mattis. I’m going with my secretary because I think Pompeo’s gonna be phenomenal. I’m gonna go with what they say. But I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence. And I asked them the question, ‘Does it work? Does torture work?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ ” At a news conference on Friday, Trump said the call will be Mattis’ to make: “He will override, because I’m giving him that power.”
In years past, Pompeo himself defended waterboarding by arguing that simulated drowning doesn’t qualify as torture.
But during his confirmation hearing, he told Sen. Dianne Feinstein that he couldn’t even imagine Trump asking him to resort to using such techniques in interrogating terror suspects.
Maybe that was naïve, and maybe he was pre-emptively signaling his soon-to-be boss not to even try reviving that debate. But either way, he must be imagining that conversation now — and should be practicing saying, ‘No, Mr. President,’ for both practical and principled reasons. He’s got to be as clear on this point as the president is muddy.
The former Kansas congressman, a West Point and Harvard Law graduate, former Army officer and member of the House Intelligence Committee, is indisputably well qualified for the important job he has just taken on.
Though his budgets may well be cut, all the recent attention on the president’s differences with the CIA over Russian hacking and meddling in our election has obscured the likelihood that under Trump, the agency likely will continue and even expand former President Barack Obama’s drone program and targeted killings.
“Paramilitary operatives in the field will be more empowered,” predicts Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.”
It’s not on Pompeo alone, of course, to instead stay focused on intelligence. His former congressional colleagues and new overseers must make sure that he does.