Paul Pillar

The Bolton-Pompeo Package

Both Bolton and Pompeo exhibit disturbing indications of Islamophobia.  This is bad enough for an occupant of any high U.S. office.  It would be especially worrisome for someone who is supposed to lead all U.S. diplomacy with the world, a quarter of which is Muslim.

Unlike Bolton, Pompeo won his last confirmation vote in the Senate—for his current job of CIA director.  But he now has a record in that job.  Senators who voted in favor of Pompeo last time would be fully justified in opposing him this time on grounds that he has not conducted himself the way an intelligence chief is supposed to—which is to provide the best and most objective information and analysis free of policy bias.  Pompeo has instead continued to be as ideological and partisan as he was as a congressman.  He has publicly defended Trump, for example, over his reaction to the white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville, when the president talked about how there were “many sides” of the issues involved and “some good people” participating in the rally.

Pompeo also has been doing Trump’s political spadework in trying to downplay the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.  According to press reports, he made calls on behalf of the White House to news organizations to dispute a New York Times article about contacts between Russians and members of the Trump campaign.  In public comments, Pompeo has contended that what the Russians did in 2016 was no different from what they have done on many other occasions.  That contention is contradicted by the Intelligence Community’s unclassified judgment of January 2017 that the Russian operation in 2016 represented “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity and scope of effort” and that Russia’s objectives went beyond general discrediting of the U.S. democratic process and included trying to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.  Last October, Pompeo further mischaracterized the Intelligence Community’s judgments (and only later corrected himself) when he asserted that the same assessment had determined that Russian interference had not affected the result of the presidential election.  In fact, the participating agencies explicitly stated that they were not attempting to judge the ultimate impact on the election, and that their refraining from doing so is consistent with their mission of staying focused on foreign actors and not getting into analyzing U.S. politics or U.S. public opinion.

That remark by Pompeo in October came in an appearance before the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), the right-wing advocacy group that has become the nearest thing to mission control for efforts to kill the JCPOA.  On this and other occasions, Pompeo has pushed the notion that there is some kind of common cause between Iran and Al Qaeda—a manufactured notion eerily reminiscent of a similar manufactured notion about terrorist connections that the Bush administration used to sell the Iraq War to the American public.  When evidence doesn’t match the line Pompeo is trying to sell, he does more manufacturing.  He ordered a re-exploitation of documents captured in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, even though those documents already had been thoroughly exploited for intelligence purposes, to try to find anything suggesting a connection to Iran.  He then gave an advance, pre-release version of a new selection of documents to FDD, which duly published in its journal a highlighting of one anonymous memo that, if one squinted and spun hard enough, could be construed as reflecting such a connection—even though the overall direction of all the documents is that there was far more conflict than cooperation between Iran and members of Al-Qaeda, some of whom Iran had under a form of house arrest.

Pompeo’s conduct was improper in abandoning the principle of objective intelligence and trying to slant intelligence and the public portrayal of intelligence judgments for political purposes.  He also behaved improperly in giving priority access to documents not to mainstream news organizations but instead to an advocacy group with a specific policy axe to grind.

One might argue that a Pompeo who is an eager policy advocate is better suited for a policy job such as secretary of state than for the job of CIA director.  But the appropriate question is whether he should be promoted when he showed contempt for the standards and principles of the job he already has.  And the problem is not just policy advocacy but a penchant for pushing politically convenient preconceptions, even if this means flouting relevant facts. 

On these and other issues, Pompeo is more of an echo of Trump than a restraint on him.  Considered by himself, there are ample reasons to reject his nomination.  The reasons are multiplied with John Bolton in the West Wing.  They are multiplied further when considering that the occupant of the Oval Office was barely restrained even with the likes of McMaster and Rex Tillerson around, and that he is liable to go on unknown tangents according to whatever the last person he talked to happened to say.       

Image: Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 13, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein