WASHINGTON — Rep. Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s pick for CIA director, opened his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday with criticism of Moscow even as the President-elect has suggested that the intelligence community’s concerns about its findings of Russian meddling in last year’s election were overblown.
Pompeo told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he embraced those findings as spelled out in a comprehensive report of the intelligence community on the Russian breaches compiled earlier this month.
“With respect to this report in particular, it’s pretty clear about what took place here, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy,” he said in response to questioning. “This was an aggressive action taken by senior leadership inside of Russia.”
He added that Russia would view the debate it has sparked in the US as something that would be “to their benefit.”
In his opening remarks, Pompeo listed Russia as well as China as “sophisticated adversaries” in the cyber realm, saying “hackers are all taking advantage of this new borderless environment” and “the CIA must continue to be at the forefront of this issue.”
In other criticism of Russia, he said the country has “reasserted itself aggressively, invading and occupying Ukraine, threatening Europe, and doing nothing to aid in the destruction and defeat of ISIS.”
His words were more aggressive toward Moscow than Trump’s have been, continuing a theme evident throughout the confirmation hearings this week in which the President-elect’s nominees have seemed more wary of the traditional American foe than their would-be boss.
Pompeo pledged that the the CIA would provide policymakers with “accurate, timely, robust and clear-eyed analysis of Russian activities.”
Along with Russia, Pompeo said other global threats include Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, ISIS’s grip over major urban areas and the conflict in Syria.
“This is the most complicated threat environment the United States has seen in recent memory,” he said.
The hearing moved Thursday afternoon to a closed session.
Along with the hot-button issue of Russian hacking, Pompeo confronted a number of other controversial topics, chief among them the issue of torture.
When questioned Thursday, Pompeo said he would not restart the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques if he is approved for the position.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked, if ordered by President-elect Trump, whether he would restart the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation tactics the that fall outside of the Army Field Manual.
“Absolutely not,” Pompeo responded. “Moreover, I can’t imagine I would be asked that by the President-elect.”
Later in the hearing, Pompeo was asked by Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico if he would commit that to complying with the law and acknowledge that the CIA is out of the enhanced interrogation business.
“Yes, you have my full commitment,” Pompeo said.
The congressman has in the past appeared to agree with Trump on the topic, the latter of whom said he would “absolutely” bring back waterboarding, as well as methods “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
In response to the 2014 Senate report that found the CIA tortured suspected terrorists, Pompeo released a statement saying the methods used were constitutional.
“These men and women are not torturers, they are patriots. The programs being used were within the law, within the Constitution, and conducted with the full knowledge of Sen. Feinstein,” he said. “If any individual did operate outside of the program’s legal framework, I would expect them to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Two of Trump’s other nominees — Jeff Sessions for attorney general and John Kelley for the Department of Homeland Security — earlier in the week appeared to disagree with Trump on the issue.
And retired Gen. David Petraeus, also a former CIA director, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that he thinks Trump has given up the notion that torture will be reintroduced under his administration.
Concerns about Trump’s view of CIA
Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in his opening statement that he’s been “concerned” by rhetoric from Trump. Warner continued that the CIA “and the entire intelligence community has been repeatedly and unfairly subjected to criticisms of its integrity.”
“These comments have affected the morale of these dedicated men and women,” he said. “Today, I would like to hear your plan to reassure CIA employees that those countless hours they commit, and the operations where they may be called upon to put their life on the line, are not in vain, and that their sacrifices will not be disregarded in the White House, or anywhere else in the next administration.”
Warner’s opening statement was interrupted by a power outage at the hearing that put the session into temporary recess.
Trump agreed Wednesday for the first time with the intelligence community’s assessment that Kremlin was behind the hacking.
“I think it was Russia,” he said, after weeks of criticizing the intelligence community’s findings, including a series of tweets this week accusing them of leaking allegations that tie Trump to Russia.
“Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” he tweeted Wednesday.
Asked in his first news conference after his election if he trusts intelligence agencies, Trump said they are “vital and very, very important” but didn’t explicitly say he had faith in their information.
Instead, he pointed to his own nominees like Pompeo, and former Sen. Dan Coats for director of national intelligence, as forward-looking examples of how his administration will address the hacking scandal.
“Within 90 days, they’re going to be coming back to me with a major report on hacking,” Trump said. “I want them to cover this situation.”
Pompeo’s hearing comes just two days after the same committee grilled the nation’s top intelligence officials, including current CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers.
The officials said that the highest levels of the Russian government ordered the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other state-level organizations in an attempt to sow doubt about the country’s electoral process and to discredit Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Old domains of the Republican National Committee were also hacked, Comey said, but there was no evidence that the current RNC or the Trump campaign were successfully penetrated.
Pompeo has been getting briefings by current members of the intelligence community as well as past directors, a source familiar with the preparation said. He has also reviewed confirmation hearings for past nominees and held extensive practice sessions answering “hundreds” of questions that could potentially be posed at the hearing.
“Congressman Pompeo has been preparing for this moment since he was nominated and has taken that preparation seriously,” the source said.
His team feels that his experience serving on the House intelligence committee and experience in the military and business are also major assets.
Also likely to come up from Democrats on the committee are comments that Pompeo made in 2013, in which he said Muslim leaders who don’t condemn radical Islamic-inspired terror attacks are “potentially complicit in these acts, and more importantly still, in those that may well follow.”
On the Republican side, multiple senators, according to their aides, are interested in hearing more about Trump’s reported interest in changing up in the intelligence community, as well as the CIA’s role in cyber espionage and defense.
Pompeo graduated first in his class from the US Military Academy at West Point and served in the US Army from 1986-1991. He was stationed in Germany for a time as a cavalry officer patrolling the Iron Curtain, according to his congressional bio.
He then graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor at the Harvard Law Review. Returning to Kansas, he began a career in business, heading up companies that manufactured and provided materials for aircraft and oilfields.
In Congress, he has built a reputation as a conservative stalwart on national security issues. In particular, he was known as a hardliner on the Select Committee on Benghazi, a panel that he felt was not hard enough on Clinton for the actions of the State Department she then headed in responded to attacks that resulted in the death of four Americans.
He co-authored a lengthy addendum to the committee’s findings in which he blasted Clinton for “a tragic failure of leadership” and accused the Obama administration of trying to cover up the true nature of the Benghazi attack.
When Trump publicly announced Pompeo as his choice, the congressman received some praise from Democrats, including Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, who said Pompeo is “someone who is willing to listen and engage, both key qualities in a CIA director.”