Incoming CIA Head Weighs in on Big Issues

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

December 12, 2016

President-elect Trump continues to confound critics with his picks to be part of his administration. He rounded out his intelligence-related cabinet picks by tapping Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo to be the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Pompeo, a key member of the House Intelligence Committee, is not known for mincing words while taking controversial stands on topics such as mass surveillance, encryption, and even Edward Snowden.

His selection draws scrutiny because, according to skeptics, his résumé is too thin to hold such a sensitive post. His often contradictory comments and positions also alarm opponents.

Pompeo has been a supporter of mass surveillance practices, while in the next breath opining that the era of technologically-driven surveillance may be drawing to a close due to enhanced security features meant to protect privacy. As a result, he champions an increase in human intelligence assets (HUMINT), possibly at the expense of electronic spying. Some of his views and comments are cryptic, and that may have added to his appeal for the often enigmatic, impetuous President-elect.

For example, Pompeo is not in favor of weakening encryption by forcing manufacturers to install law enforcement-friendly backdoors because this dictate, he has said, “would do little good, since terrorists would simply switch to foreign or home-built encryption.”

While encryption may be employed by terrorists, and is beneficial for them, obviously not everyone who uses it is a terrorist. So Pompeo seems to contradict himself and strike fear into the hearts of innocent citizens when he makes statements like, “the use of strong encryption in personal communications may itself be a red flag.” Ergo, the notion that, if you use encryption, you must be a terrorist. This is a bit scary. And with a conviction ensconced in his statement that “less intelligence capacity equals less safety,”  it’s no wonder that civil libertarians are on guard.

Civil liberty advocates are certainly wary of this nominee. He equates more intelligence with more safety and reasons that the USA Freedom Act (the law that throttled the NSA’s bulk telephone records-gathering program) “gutted” the program, and made America less safe. It is hoped that his aim of more human intelligence on the ground may translate to less electronic mass surveillance of private citizens. But it may explain why so many seasoned, savvy people in the Intelligence Committee are confused, and why activists are alarmed.

Regarding Edward Snowden, his opinion is unequivocal, and his words need no parsing. On the Intelligence Committee in the House, Pompeo took a strident stance on how to treat the NSA whistleblower. In a letter to President Obama, written in reaction to a liberal-led campaign to get him pardoned, he alluded to Snowden as not being a principled whistleblower, but instead a “serial exaggerator and fabricator.” At that time he also referred to Snowden as a “liar and a criminal” deserving “prison rather than pardon.” Later, he escalated his rhetoric and called for the death penalty for him.

It will be interesting to see how this appointment plays out. Pompeo is joining the agency at a time when it is under fire from the Left and Right. President Obama has attempted to shift the blame for his Middle East policy blunders, most notably the rise of ISIS, which he prematurely dismissed a few years ago, as the “Jayvee Team.” He has blamed the CIA in particular, and the intelligence community at large, for providing him with faulty intelligence.

And recently, Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, blasted their conclusion that the Russians conspired to elect him, rather than Hillary Clinton, by electronically interfering in the election. Trump asked how could you trust intel from an organization that claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction – the alleged reason for invading and toppling Iraq.

So, it would appear that before Pompeo can wreak havoc on civil liberties (if that is his aim), he has much work to do to shore up morale at the Agency itself.

Image by Gage Skidmore.
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