CIA Gives More Power to Spies to Bolster Intelligence Operations

Pompeo: China, not Russia, poses greatest long-term threat

Mike Pompeo

Mike Pompeo

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The Central Intelligence Agency under President Trump is giving more authority to field operatives and cutting excessive bureaucracy in a bid to boost intelligence operations, CIA Director Mike Pompeo says.

In his first news interview since taking charge of the agency in January, Pompeo also said he believes America's greatest long-term security challenge is the threat posed by China, not Russia. Excerpts of the interview can be found here.

During the wide-ranging interview on the sidelines of a security conference in Aspen, Colo., Pompeo revealed the CIA is preparing intelligence options for the president, including covert action, for use against North Korea in efforts to counter the threat of a future nuclear missile attack.

He also outlined how the CIA is stepping up counterintelligence programs against foreign spies and leaks of intelligence.

Other disclosures by the CIA chief included new details of North Korea's drive to develop reliable strategic nuclear missiles and a renewed CIA focus on stealing foreign secrets.

"Look, our primary mission is foreign intelligence," Pompeo told the Washington Free Beacon.

"That is at the core of what we do, and so the ability to go collect against the most difficult places, the most difficult targets in a way that is not one off, that is deep and robust and redundant, is something this agency is really good at when they are allowed to do it. And the president is going to go let us do it."

Similar to the Pentagon shift in giving military commanders greater authority to act in the field, the CIA is unleashing its spying power—clandestine operations, intelligence analysis, and technical prowess.

The CIA chief said decentralizing spying authority presents both risks and promise.

"In nearly every one of those cases it increases the risk level," he said. "It also greatly enhances the likelihood you'll achieve the outcome you're looking for."

The shift followed an internal agency review earlier this year that identified several areas where the CIA needed new guidance, or CIA activities that are allowed under law but had been restricted under President Barack Obama's administration, Pompeo said.

The CIA director said he meets regularly with Trump during intelligence briefings and noted that the president has been very supportive of agency reforms aimed at improving CIA operations.

A former Army officer who until January was a Republican member of the House, Pompeo said the two most immediate security threats are Islamic State terrorists fleeing the Middle East and North Korea's aggressive effort to field long-range missiles with nuclear warheads that can strike the United States.

U.S. Faces Growing Threats From China, North Korea

Over the longer term, however, Pompeo singled out China as the most serious security challenge.

While China, Russia, and Iran all are expected to pose significant problems in the future, China is a greater threat because of its robust economy and growing military power—both aimed against the United States.

"I think China has the capacity to present the greatest rivalry to America of any of those over the medium and long term," he said.

China's military is building up forces that are aimed at countering U.S. power projection around the world, he said.

"So you see that, whether it's going on in the South China or East China Sea, or the work they're doing in other parts of the world," Pompeo said.

In acquiring foreign technology, he noted: "If you look at them, they are probably trying either to steal our stuff, or make sure they can defeat it. And most often, both."

On North Korea, Pompeo indicated the Trump administration's new policy of pressuring the Pyongyang regime is based on new intelligence indicating the North Koreans will be able to strike the United States with a nuclear missile in the coming years.

"Whether it's 10 months or 10 years is difficult from an intelligence perspective to always identify."

The risk is not whether North Korea can reach U.S. soil with a missile but when the regime will perfect and field a reliable strategic force.

"That's really the risk," he said. "It might be that they launch one, put a nuclear warhead and get lucky. That's bad. We need to prevent that. But the real threat is can they do it in a way that's reliable such that they have confidence in their deterrent capability."

"When they get to that point, they hold the United States at risk; the president has made very, very clear he's not going to permit that to happen," Pompeo said.

For 20 years, successive administrations have not had to deal with threatening long-range North Korean nuclear missiles.

"From an intelligence perspective, I think the president agrees, we're past that," he said. "We're too close. Whether it's 10 years or five years and what the actual range will be, and what the scope and scale of that nuclear warhead will be, we know they're working it. We know they're determined. We know they get closer with each launch, whether it's successful or a failure. And the president's very focused on assuring that this particular leader doesn't have those particular weapons."

Pompeo declined to say what role the CIA is playing in the administration's new effort to denuclearize North Korea.

"I can't talk about it," he said. "Having said that, I told you we created a mission center designed to address the threat from the North Korean government to the world and we are looking at every piece of the agency's operations, whether it's foreign intelligence collection, covert operations, the capacity to assist our brothers in arms at the DoD. We are preparing to make sure that when the president comes to us and says ‘We think we've hit the point where diplomacy no longer works' that we're prepared to deliver him a set of options that might well succeed in achieving whatever the policy objective is."

Removing Bureaucratic Barriers

Asked about comments from critics who say the agency in recent years has lost its focus on gathering secrets in favor of anti-terror programs involving drone strikes to kill terror leaders, Pompeo said the agency is shifting its focus but will continue to have a large counterterrorism mission.

"This organization is going to be in the business of stealing secrets, important secrets, secrets that matter, secrets from the folks who don't want us to have them, on the things that matter most for policy makers so that we can deliver that information in a timely way so they can make really good informed decisions," he said.

Obama administration CIA Director John Brennan imposed major reforms as part of a so-called CIA modernization program. The effort included mixing analysts with espionage officers in ways that some critics have said politicized the agency.

Pompeo said those reforms were reviewed for about two months.

"Pieces of it made sense and were consistent with what the president and my mission are at the CIA," he said. "Other pieces I thought weren't working as well, and so we have reshaped it."

Pompeo said as a result of the Brennan reforms an "enormous set of layers" was put in place in the CIA, and he vowed, "we're going to beat the bureaucratic piece of this to let our warriors and our spies on the front line go do their jobs."

Two notable additions to the intelligence agency's structure included the creation of a Korean mission center focused on North Korea, a major policy priority of the Trump administration.

To counter the growing threat of foreign spies and leaks of classified information, Pompeo also has placed the CIA's counterintelligence center directly under his office.

Counterintelligence at the CIA was disparaged during the 1970s as "sick think" because of the aggressive and independent efforts of CIA counterspy chief James Angleton, who upset many CIA officials by conducting probes for Soviet penetration agents, or moles inside the agency.

After Angleton was forced to retire in 1975, CIA counterintelligence became a secondary function and the agency suffered a string of failures, including the compromise of some or all of its recruited agents in Russia, Cuba, and Eastern Europe.

Pompeo declined to comment on a New York Times report in May that up to 20 CIA informants were killed or imprisoned by the Chinese government between 2010 and 2012 as a result of an undetermined compromise of CIA security.

"We've all seen the leaks," Pompeo said, noting that while he was a member of Congress he recognized the need to improve counterintelligence.

Having CIA counterspies report directly to him is important for several reasons, he said. "First I think it communicates to the team and to the world that the CIA is going to take counterintelligence very, very seriously. And second it gives me the capacity to be able to put my imprimatur on how we run CI and how our team executes that," Pompeo said.

Bolstering CIA counterintelligence will take time but, "I'm convinced we've already begun to put in place the building blocks to achieve that," he said.

Countering Russia's Covert Influence Operations

On Russia, Pompeo said there has been no let up in what he termed a constant threat posed by Russian government covert influence operations, such as cyber attacks and propaganda activities that took place during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

"This is a decades-old challenge for America," he said. "No, it hasn't abated. No, I don't expect it to abate. They're Russians, they're Soviets, so no. We still face a threat from the Russians whether it's, pick a name, active measures or propaganda, or trying to shape world public opinion through a whole host of means—some overt, some less so."

The CIA, along with other U.S. government agencies, will be pushing back against the Russian programs.

"We have an obligation to push back, defeat it, to work to make it painful for them so that they'll reduce the magnitude of what they're doing," he said.

Preventing Information Gathering From State and Non-State Intelligence Services

Pompeo said he was familiar with comments by exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, who, based on his past ties to Chinese civilian and military intelligence leaders, revealed earlier this month that China has operated more than 25,000 spies in the United States.

"Look, it's the case the Chinese have an active campaign," he said of the long-term intelligence operations.

Chinese spies have been using cyber means to gain both commercial and military secrets and technology. One of the main collectors is a unit of the People's Liberation Army called 3PLA. Others are carried out by more secret units less directly connected to the Chinese government or military, Pompeo said.

"But they are working it very, very hard, much like the Russians, and to a lesser degree, the North Koreans," he said.

The Chinese "have as part of their mission to reduce the relative power of the United States vis-à-vis their own country, and one of the ways they do that is through these active measures, these spying efforts," Pompeo said.

A new focus of CIA counterintelligence efforts will be to counter what Pompeo calls non-state hostile intelligence services—well-funded groups that seek to penetrate intelligence agencies, steal secrets, and make them public—often through the use of insiders, such as renegade National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The problem of intelligence insiders leaking secrets has evolved in recent years from spies working for foreign states to include private organizations, such as WikiLeaks.

"These characters are different. They don't have a particular home. They may well operate in multiple countries all around the world and communicate electronically or see each other only in passing in a airport some place," Pompeo said.

"We have to make sure the intelligence community and the CIA in particular have the authorities to respond to that, and we're thinking about the problem set from that perspective and there's still work to do."

Congress may be asked to provide additional legislation or established executive authority could be used in addressing the problem, he said, noting: "We have to go after these folks."

Increasing Threats from Iran, ISIS

On Iran's compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal, Pompeo described Tehran's adherence as "grudging," despite a formal declaration by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week that the Iranians are in compliance with the accord.

"They are pushing the boundaries of it," he said, noting that the administration has said, adding "all the things they are doing around the agreement clearly don't get to the core concept, which was to create regional stability. They have not done that."

Pompeo said the Islamic State, which is losing territory it has held for the past three years in Iraq and Syria, remains a major threat, and the danger that ISIS fighters originally from Europe will return to the continent and possibly reach the United States is increasing.

To limit the number of returning fighters, the military is stepping up attacks on the fighters in the Middle East.

"So we're very worried about where those folks go," he said. "It's the reason I think the administration chose to just kill as many of them as they could. That is fewer folks leaving the [area of operations], [and] creates fewer trackable items for the U.S. intelligence community. And so we're hopeful they will be very, very successful and the risk will be lower."

Limiting Media Leaks

Pompeo concluded the interview with an appeal to the news media to limit leaks of classified information that he said could risk the lives of CIA officers.

"The media's insatiable demand for leaks presents enormous risks to the United States of America," he said. "We have the first duty that is to protect our stuff from getting out. But I am confident that this administration is going to do its level best to—once the secrets are out—to identify those who did them."

Pompeo said the issue of leaks is personal.

"We have CIA officers who will get killed as a result of these," he said. "And I don't want to have to go talk to their family members and say ‘yup, this young man, this young woman died as a direct result of some information that was published by a media source that was released from our organization'—or frankly from our government. This is deadly business so we are deadly focused on pushing back against it."

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