Director Pompeo Details How the CIA Is Changing Under President Trump

CIA Director Mike Pompeo: 'This organization is going to be in the business of stealing secrets'

CIA Director Mike Pompeo
Mike Pompeo / Getty Images
July 26, 2017

The following are excerpts of an interview with CIA Director Mike Pompeo by Bill Gertz, Washington Free Beacon senior editor and veteran national security reporter.

Bill Gertz: Tell me about your first six months at CIA.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo: The agency is frankly in a place where it's got great people out there doing the right thing, and the good news is we've got a president who's going to let them go do it. More than let them, he's going to demand that [the agency] give them the authority and capacity to take on those challenges in a way that is in the deepest traditions of what the CIA has done when it was at its best, when it was at its high points throughout its decades of service to the country.

The president—I'm with him often—turns to us for questions that are broad and complex, and is looking for answers and for our capacity to deliver them to him and to other senior leaders in government.

And so when you say, "Mr. President we've got work to do on that one," he says: "What do you need to go get it done?" And he has been willing to give us the scope and the authority to go do it and I know they'll hold us accountable too.

BG: How is the CIA going to be different under the Trump administration? We've heard the administration is decentralizing authority and giving field commanders more authority. Is a similar thing happening in intelligence?

MP: It is. Same thing. We have spent our first weeks identifying places where we needed authorities to go do our mission better, or we needed to make sure we had policy guidance, that is the law already permitted it but the previous administration had chosen not to do it. We need policy guidance to go get it right. In nearly every one of those cases it increases the risk level. It also greatly enhances the likelihood you'll achieve the outcome you're looking for.

And the president has, I think in every case it's fair to say we've come and said, "Here's the mission. Here's the authorities we have today. Here's what we think the gap is; here's how we think we mitigate risk if you provide us those authorities." And every time he's said, "Go do it."

BG: And does that mean operations or analysis or technology?

MP: All of the above. Look, our primary mission is foreign intelligence. 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. That's a great thing and the team loves it. The team is excited. That's why they all went to and signed up.

BG: People have said CIA has lost the focus on espionage and turned instead to drone operations. Are you now getting back more into spying?

MP: I try not to be critical of those who have come before. We will always have a big counterterrorism piece. Our portfolio will always include assisting the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, keeping the homeland safe, the CT 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.

If you don't have that, if you're missing that collection piece, if you're just handing them the same things that have been written some place else, the organization doesn't add the value that the president and team need. So we're going to do that.

BG: Former CIA Director John Brennan made a number of reforms such as creating new "centers" on issues. The administration is doing several major organizational and policy reviews. Is there an intelligence review to look at whether intelligence needs to be reformed, changed, or improved?

MP: Bill, I speak just inside the agency. There are reviews that are being contemplated of the entire intelligence community. I'll leave others to comment on where the administration is on that.

But inside CIA itself we took about 60 days to look at the changes that had been made, the so-called modernization. Pieces of it made sense and were consistent with what the president and my mission are at the CIA. Other pieces I thought weren't working as well. And so we have reshaped it. Some of it's subtle. An enormous set of layers were put in place as a result of the modernization. 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.

We created a couple of mission centers, places where we felt we weren't adequately focused on a very near term piece of a particular threat. So, the Korean Mission Center.

We moved the counterintelligence mission center. We've all seen the leaks. A place where I, even long before I was CIA director, have observed that there was a lot of work to do in counterintelligence. So that now reports to me. That is important for a couple of reasons. 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. We've got a good team. I meet with them quite frequently now. It will take us a little time to get to be where I think we need to be. But I'm convinced we've already begun to put in place the building blocks to achieve that.

BG: Right now we're seeing a kind of anti-Russia hysteria. I've got questions on that. What have you seen in terms of Russian influence operations? Have they abated? Has there been pressure? Has the exposure changed their MO at all?

MP: You've been at this a long time, Bill. This is a decades-old challenge for America. 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. That threat is going to be constant. 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. The agency has a piece of that. Other parts of the intelligence community and the other parts of government have a piece of that too. But we're certainly doing our part to push back.

I've made a trip to Moscow. I met with my counterparts there, trying to find places on counterterrorism where we can work together. You have Americans that fly on Russian airplanes. They might have information that we need. It seems to me if we can find a way to share counterterrorism information with them, we ought to. And at the same time communicate to them that it's just unacceptable to continue to perform these active measures against the United States and that we're watching them and we're going to push back.

BG: I wrote the book iWar that is about information warfare. Is that something the administration is going to look at?

MP: Your point is well taken. Sometimes it just devolves to a cyber discussion. Cyber matters. It's important. The Russians are aggressive. By the way, so are the Chinese, so are the Iranians, the North Koreans. The list is long. But yes the problem expands far beyond just cyber. There are lots of places.

It's all of the CI effort, at least from an intelligence perspective. And then from a U.S. government perspective it's even broader than that. So yes, it's not just a cyber challenge. I wish it were. If we had that, we might be able to put all the resources there and knock it back.

BG: I recently interviewed an exiled Chinese billionaire, Guo Wengui, who was very plugged in to the Chinese elite. He was close friends with the vice minister of State Security. He said that over the past 50 years the Chinese have developed 25,000 spies in the United States—official intel officers, permanent residents, students, business people. Their spying focus, according Guo, has changed since 2012 toward offensive operations. Are you concerned about the Chinese intelligence threat?

MP: Most certainly. I can't comment. I read what you wrote. I'm trying to stay out of the specifics. Look, it's the case, the Chinese have an active campaign. I mean this is a long-time thing. It began with really commercial attacks. Trying to steal our stuff. That continues. They've always tried to get at our military resources, our R & D programs and the like. So those have long histories.

But it is also the case that the Chinese have moved to a place where they, I think, see themselves as a rival superpower and so intend to conduct their version of espionage programs in a way that reflects their superpower status. And so, yeah, we've seen it, some of it comes out of 3PLA; and some of it comes from more unattributable places. But they are working it very, very hard, much like the Russians and to a lesser degree the North Koreans. They just don't have the scale capacity that the others have.

They 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.

BG: You mentioned counterintelligence. Is there some concern there could be penetrations of CIA? Does that keep you up at night?

MP: It does. It does. It's a serious risk. When you have a big work force distributed around the world, you always run the risk that they somehow get inside the curtain. And we have pretty capable programs to identify them. To your point, it only takes one. When it comes to CI we need to attain perfection or near perfection and risk mitigation. We've got to make sure that we're doing our job in a sufficiently compartmentalized way that even if they get one through that they don't have all the keys to the candy store. So that's an important element.

BG: NYT had a piece recently that revealed the loss of recruited CIA agents China. Can you comment on that at all?

MP: No I can't.

BG: Okay. You have spoken about non-state hostile intelligence actors, the insider threat. Is that translating to new policies?

MP: That's a good question. So the insider threat is not new in that sense. It's morphed a touch perhaps, or the risk has changed a little bit. But the risk is the one we were just talking about. Whether it's an employee, contractor is immaterial. Somebody who has access gains information. What has made the world more complicated is you now have an elaborate set of players on the outside. Non-nation states. The history of the Central Intelligence Agency is that we've prepared for our adversaries as countries. So the whole rubric of our operation, our legal authorities, how we think about the world, we're organized around countries or regions. The apparatus has a whole history of knowing how to perform its intelligence functions against nation states.

These characters are different. They don't have a particular home. They may be well operate in multiple countries all around the world and communicate electronically or see each other only in passing in an airport some place. 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. So I have set a group of folks on course to try and make sure we understand where our gaps are, so that we can know whether we have to go to Congress to get legislation to do that which could be possible, or if we can do it as a matter of executive authority, to make sure we're shaping our intelligence activities in a way to address these things that are different.

BG: Does that include better internal audit and monitoring?

MP: Yeah. We have to go after these folks. We've got to think how we run against them. How we monitor their capacity. How we make sure they're not getting inside our organization.

When I used the phrase non-state hostile intelligence services, I meant that as a rubric to think about them. They run spies. They hire people. They try and perform counterintelligence for themselves. They have highly elaborate defenses of their own. They're trying to get inside America's systems. They have sponsors often who provide resources, the money to do what they do. But they also operate the way some other countries do. That is they make money through criminal activity. So when you stare at them for a while they look all the world to be an intelligence services. They have all the central functions. They do intelligence collection. They run operations. They have a support structure. They look and smell like an intelligence service and we should treat them as such.

BG: Have there been cases when CIA or the government has identified these groups trying to get jobs in the intelligence community?

MP: I can't comment specifically on that. But these services will do anything. They'll offer a bounty for information. This is in the finest tradition of intelligence collection but from a very different motive force and from a very different space. They're unanswerable to anyone in the sense of in nearly every country you have a set of citizens to whom you have to answer to one degree or another depending on where you sit in the democratic order of things. These are free-range chickens.

BG: Rest of my questions are on threats to U.S. security interests. What is most immediate threat? What are the more longer term threats?

MP: I would say terrorism and North Korea. North Korea is relatively low-probability, but massive liability risk. The terrorist threat today is non-nuclear. But different and in greater magnitude and in more places around the world. So they're very different threats and our response has to be different. But each of them is on top of us today. So near term I'd place those two at the top.

I think China presents probably the most … well it's hard to pick between China, Russia and Iran to be honest with you. I guess if I had to pick one with a nose above the others, I'd probably pick China. They have a real economy that they have built, unlike Russia that lives and dies on how many barrels of oil they can pluck out of the ground. And Iran that is similarly very single sector derivative and not to the scale of China population wise.

I think China has the capacity to present the greatest rivalry to American of any of those over the medium and long term.

BG: They are building up their military in a very aggressive way. Some say its part of a normal desire to be superpower. But all these niche weapons capabilities are focused on us, whether nuclear or hypersonic missiles. Is that a concern?

MP: Yeah. It's very much focused on countering U.S. power projection. So you see that whether it's going on in the South China Sea or East China Sea, the work they're doing in other parts of the world. You talked about the technical piece. You've probably spent more time on it than me. But we could probably spend hours talking about their technical programs.

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. And so yes. Look, we have other relationships, we have commercial relationships with the Chinese as well. But I think its very clear when they think about their place in the world, they measure their success in placing themselves in the world where they want to be vis-à-vis the United States and not as against anyone else.

BG: And Russia. You touched on that a little bit. One thing they are doing is working on fairly alarming nuclear buildup. Reports from Russia indicate they're building what they consider to be usable nuclear arms that are small-scale nukes.

MP: Yeah. I've read those reports as well. I've seen the reporting on their violations of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty as well. They are clearly building out and I would argue too their forays into places like Syria, their presence that is beginning to pop up in Afghanistan and other places, has two effects. One, it stretches them economically. It's a challenge for Russia to keep pace with that adventurism.

But second, they learn too. When you exercise a force, you get better. So now they've had a chance to exercise their navy. They've had a chance to exercise their army. They've had a chance to do combined operations. Cruise missiles. Combined arms operations with their aviation assets. And so they will be better prepared in the event we're in a scenario where deterrence hasn't worked, whether that's in eastern Europe or some place else.

BG: Plus they are doing hybrid warfare: Achieve strategic goals without using physical force or with little green men.

MP: I am reminded of my days as a young tank platoon leader with the threat from the Russian hordes rolling west. And they've achieved many of their purposes without rolling a single tank across—well maybe that's not quite true in Ukraine—but only a handful of tanks across any international boundary. Yeah, the Gerasimov doctrine [on non-linear warfare] has been around since the 70s. If you go back and read it, it's almost haunting to read how [Gen. Valery] Gerasimov was thinking about this in the 70s and now he's the chief of the Russian general staff. He's their senior military leader. And he is executing that as well.

BG: On the Iran nuclear deal, in the past you've somewhat suggested Iran is not complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran nuclear deal is called. The Trump administration recently certified that Tehran is complying. Do you have doubts about Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal?

MP: I can't give you any of the classified information. I will leave to Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson's statement the compliance piece.

But I think it's fair to think about that agreement and the Iranian's compliance with it like a bad tenant. If you're the landlord, the rent's due on the 10th. You call the tenant a few times and the check comes across the transom. Next day you show up and there's an old sofa in the front yard and you ask them to get rid of it. And you know they kind of drag their feet and they scream at you a little bit and say "I'm not taking it away." And you go, "Come on." And eventually, the sofa disappears. That's Iranian compliance with the JCPOA today. It is grudging. They are pushing the boundaries of it. I think the president or maybe it was the secretary of state and president used the term that 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. And just [last Wednesday] the report from the State Department identifying them as the world's largest state sponsor of terror.

BG: On the North Korea threat, I've seen reports that new intelligence indicates North Korea could have a deliverable nuclear warhead on a long-range missile by the end of the decade? Is that driving the administration's concern?

MP: Yes. Whether it's 10 months or 10 years is difficult from an intelligence perspective to always identify. I think of this, Bill, as a little less of could they do it, but can they do it in a way that's reliable. That's really the risk. It might be that they launch one, put a nuclear warhead [on it] 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.

If you said what's the real threat. It's their knowledge that they can deliver that, repeatedly as against the U.S. defenses. When they get to that point, they hold the United States at risk and the president has made very, very clear he's not going to permit that to happen.

For 20 years previous administrations have just whistled past the graveyard on this. Maybe they had more time. Maybe that was okay. From an intelligence perspective, I think the president agrees with this, we're past that. 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.

BG: What's the answer? There do not appear to be a lot of good options. Diplomacy and sanctions. What's the intelligence side?

MP: We'll see what the president asks the agency to do.

BG: Have they asked you to do anything?

MP: I can't talk about it. 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.

BG: And then there's ISIL. With things changing on the ground in stronghold areas of Iraq and Syria, what's the forecast? Are there concerns foreign fighters will move to Libya, then Europe and on to the United States?

MP: So we're very worried about where those folks go. 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 AO 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.

But we have to be ever mindful that some of them will carry European passports and they'll have visa free access to the United States. That's why I think you heard Secretary [of Homeland Security John] Kelly talk a little bit about our work along not just our borders but all the ways that people get into our country. And then we have a task to try and track these folks. And we have in this sense great European partners who also selfishly have a tremendous interest in preventing attacks in their countries. They're probably closer to the front line on this than we are. They've certainly had more attacks than we've had in our first six months in office. But we worry about where they'll go. But we also worry about where they'll be recreated, where they'll be re-stood up, whether that's ISIS in Afghanistan, or Libya, Southeast Asia—they've started to show up in the Philippines. So yeah this threat from radical Islamic terrorism, in this case of the Sunni variety, is very real, even after the fall of the so-called Caliphate.

BG: Any other topic you want to address?

MP: We touched on it a little bit: The media's insatiable demand for leaks presents enormous risks to the United States of America. 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, once the secrets are out, to identify those who did them.

We talk about. There's an old aphorism in the law that says that, I'll get it a little bit wrong, "Justice is entitled to every man's evidence." This administration is intent on getting to every man to figure out how this happened. It matters to me personally. We have CIA officers who will get killed as a result of these. 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.

Published under: Mike Pompeo