Congressman Mike Pompeo is ill-suited to be CIA director.
His résumé is impressive: West Point valedictorian, Army officer, Harvard Law graduate, successful businessman, and a multi-term congressman who sits on the House Intelligence committee.
But he is also brash and intemperate, reflecting his Tea Party roots. Like the President-elect, he has often spouted off on Twitter, defended CIA torturers as “patriots,” and directed personal, partisan attacks at his congressional colleagues. For example, he said that Senator Dianne Feinstein’s decision to release the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence committee’s report on the CIA torture program was “some liberal game” she played with the ACLU that endangered American lives. He said, “[t]he sad conclusion left open is that her release of the report is the result of a narcissistic self-cleansing that is quintessentially at odds with her duty to the country.”
Pompeo’s behavior does not reflect the personal qualities one wants in the leader of a powerful spy agency.
On Thursday, he appeared before the Senate Intelligence committee for a hearing on his nomination to be CIA director. He did better than expected. Apart from a testy exchange with Senator Ron Wyden over NSA surveillance of Americans – no minor issue – Pompeo was calm and respectful. He acknowledged that he had personally apologized to Senator Feinstein. He also promised to trade partisan knife-fighting for sober, nonpolitical leadership of the CIA, for the benefit of the entire country. In addition, he stated that the CIA would not resume the use of torture techniques prohibited by the McCain-Feinstein anti-torture amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. He even assured committee members that he would refuse any presidential order to resume torture as long as the law remained in place.
These were welcome comments, but hardly sufficient to address CCR’s concerns about Pompeo’s confirmation. He (and apparently certain senators) appeared not to understand that the legal prohibition on torture is not limited to the McCain-Feinstein amendment. Torture is absolutely prohibited by U.S. and international law, including the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, treaties to which the United States is a party. Congress cannot pass or repeal a law in order to make torture legal.
A nominee who does not understand this essential point should not be allowed to lead a clandestine agency tasked with “stealing secrets,” as Pompeo put it at his confirmation hearing, not to mention lethal operations. This is particularly so in the case of the CIA, which operated an illegal, worldwide rendition and torture program for many years – a program in which one of CCR’s clients, Majid Khan, was beaten, waterboarded, and raped.
But Pompeo’s apparent confusion (or perhaps obfuscation) is not surprising. And for that, responsibility lies squarely with President Obama. Since assuming office eight years ago, after campaigning for the presidency in part on a promise to end CIA torture and restore the rule of law, the Obama administration has failed and refused to pursue a serious criminal investigation into the CIA torture program. The president famously said he wanted to look forward, not backward.
But Obama’s refusal to examine the crimes of the past administration has had the unfortunate effect of reducing the absolute legal and moral prohibition on torture to a policy debate about whether torture is effective, whether we ought to do it, and, if so, under what circumstances.
This has caused serious damage to anti-torture efforts worldwide and to our country, which once prided itself on its commitment to the rule of law, however real or imagined in practice. And it will continue to cause lasting damage, setting an example of impunity that every two-bit tyrant and dictator can latch onto in order to persecute marginalized communities in their countries. Indeed, we have already seen countries like Syria and Israel follow our example, not to mention authoritarian regimes in China, Russia, and Iran. Those countries certainly do not need a reason to torture, but the example of impunity set by the U.S. surely makes their job easier.
At this point in history, more than 15 years after the attacks of September 11, it is very hard for the U.S. to tell other countries not to torture, and to bring torturers to justice, when our leaders refuse to honor and thereby undermine peremptory norms of international law.
Mike Pompeo has not demonstrated that he understands any of this, and as a consequence his nomination to be CIA director should be voted down in the Senate.