5 Best and 5 Worst Moments from the Week’s Confirmation Hearings on US National Security Issues

 

The week of confirmation hearings is over, and it’s time to take stock of what we have learned from the people the President-elect has nominated to lead his administration in areas of national security. On many of Mr. Trump’s most troubling campaign promises (especially in the national security sphere), the nominees disagreed with their new boss. While this was reassuring, it also raises questions about whose views will win the day once Trump takes office and how the government will run with such internal discord. On Friday, responding to news stories that his nominees were disagreeing with him on some of his major policy proposals, Trump weighed in on Twitter, saying, “I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “I would not have taken this job if I didn’t believe the President-elect would also be open to my input on [Russia] or any other matter.” Statements like this can comfort nervous senators because they show there’s a possibility that the White House’s position could change.  

But it’s no guarantee. And as incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said about the cabinet picks, “at the end of the day, each one of them is going to pursue a Trump agenda and a Trump vision.”

With that in my mind, here is my view of the top five most reassuring moments from the week’s worth of hearings, and the top five most alarming ones–looking at what the nominees themselves said.

Top Five Most Reassuring Moments from the Senate Confirmation Hearings

1. Everyone Rejects Torture — After Trump campaigned on bringing back waterboarding and a “hell of a lot worse” on the campaign trail, all of Trump’s cabinet picks disavowed the use of torture and enhanced interrogation techniques, although with different degrees of conviction. Most importantly, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas), Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, said he would “absolutely not” restart the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques. “Moreover, I can’t imagine that I would be asked that by the president-elect or then president,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said that as attorney general he would follow the law banning torture.

“Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use waterboarding or any other form of torture in the United States by our military and by all our other departments and agencies,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, said, “I don’t think we should ever come close to crossing a line that is beyond we, as Americans, would expect to follow in terms of interrogation techniques.” That is a far cry from former CIA director Michael V. Hayden under the Bush administration once telling Congress that officers should operate so close to the legal limit that they get “chalk on their cleats.”

What was the line that Gen. Kelly believes Americans would expect? Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) followed up, saying, “That would be basically the Geneva Conventions.”

To which Kelly said, “Absolutely, yes, sir.”

Mattis was not asked during his hearing, but in written responses to advance policy questions put to him by the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said, “I fully support using the Army Field Manual as the single standard for all U.S. military interrogations. I upheld that same standard before and after it was adopted in 2006.”

2. None of the Nominees Share Trump’s Views on Russia — Needless to say, Trump’s attitude toward Russia is troubling, and the backstory behind it is the focus of intense scrutiny and investigation in Washington. But not one of his cabinet picks echoed Trump’s cozy feelings about Putin or were very optimistic about the opportunities to engage Russia versus confront it. Mattis took the strongest stance, stating that Putin is “trying to break the North Atlantic alliance,” and the US needs to work “with our allies to defend ourselves where we must.”

He later said, “I’m all for engagement but we also have to recognize reality and what Russia is up to and there’s a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and increasing number of areas where we’re going to have to confront Russia.”

Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State nominee and former CEO of ExxonMobil, conceded that Russia has no legal claim to Crimea. He also said it was a “fair assumption” that the hacking operation could not have happened without Putin knowing about it and authorizing it. He stated that Russia “supported Syrian forces that brutally violates the laws of war.” And he eventually conceded that if classified information confirms public reporting, Russia would be guilty of war crimes in its bombing campaign inside Syria.

On the Intelligence Community’s report on the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee, Pompeo, said, “Everything I’ve seen suggests to me that the report is an analytical product that is sound.”

3. Pompeo Defends the Intelligence Community — Since being elected, Trump (along with Kellyanne Conway) has repeatedly disparaged the Intelligence Community, questioning the quality of its analysis and the motives behind its actions. He has taken the word of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange over that of senior U.S. intelligence officials. His criticism has reportedly undermined the morale at the CIA and elsewhere, and most likely given comfort to some of America’s enemies. With this as the backdrop, Pompeo worked to reassure the Senate Intelligence Committee that he did not think the CIA had become politicized and that he would do everything to improve morale.

“I have seen their morale through tough times, where they have been challenged before, and I have watched them walk through fire to make sure that they did their jobs in a professional way and that they always were aimed at getting the truth in depth and in a robust way to policymakers,” Pompeo said.

4. Mattis on Civilian Casualties — Unlike Trump, who said he’d target the families of suspected terrorists, Mattis took a hard stand against such a tactic in his responses to the advance policy questions:

Do you support the killing or detention of the families of known terrorists even if they have no intelligence value or direct connection to terrorist activities?

No.

In your opinion, is the killing or detention of the families of known terrorists, even if they have no intelligence value or direct connection to terrorist activities, consistent with U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions?

No. The killing of non-combatants in a war against a non-state enemy violates Common Article 3 the Geneva Conventions. Legal questions aside, it is my view that such actions would be self-defeating and a betrayal of our ideals.

In your opinion, how important is the avoidance of civilian casualties to our overall strategy to combat terrorism and how must the risk of civilian casualties be weighed against taking direct action against terrorists?

Every decision to take direct action is unique and requires its own risk assessment. Unlike our enemies, we do everything humanly possible to prevent civilian deaths in war.

5. Mattis Talks About his Immigrant Mother — In a little noticed, but important moment during the confirmation hearing for Mattis, he told a touching story about his own family history that struck a very different note than Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. In his prepared remarks, Mattis ended with this eloquent passage:  

I’ve worked at the Pentagon twice in my career. A few people may know I’m not the first person in my family to-do so. When in the wartime spring of 1942, my mother was 20-year-old and worked in military intelligence. She was part of the first wave of government employees to move into the still-unfinished Pentagon. She had come to America as an infant and lived today on the banks of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Little could she imagine in her youth, that more than 90 years after she immigrated to this country, and 75 years after she first walked through the doors of the War Department, one of her sons would be sitting here before you today.

Top 5 Most Alarming Moments from the Senate Confirmation Hearings:

1. Tillerson on Chinese Aggression in the South China Sea — Perhaps one of the most underappreciated statements of the week, thanks to the many bombshell headlines competing for attention, was this from Tillerson: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands [sic] also not going to be allowed.”

He also likened the island-building in the South China Sea to Russia’s taking of Crimea.

No surprise, state media in China fired back. Tillerson’s remarks combined with Trump’s early provocation when he accepted the call from Taiwan’s leader signal the U.S. relationship with China under Trump is off to a rocky start, most unlike the groundwork Trump seems to be laying for his relations with Russia.  

2. Sessions on Locking Up Journalists — Sessions was asked if he’d make the commitment not to put reporters in jail for doing their jobs.

His response:

“I’m not sure, I have not studied that — those regulations. I would note that when I was the United States attorney, we knew — everybody knew that you could not subpoena a witness or push them to be interviewed if they’re a member of the media without approval at high levels of the Department of Justice, that was in the 1980s. And so, I do believe the Department of Justice does have sensitivity to this issue.
There have been a few examples where the press and the Department of Justice haven’t agreed on these issues, but for the most part, this is a broadly recognized and proper deference to the news media, but you could have a situation in which a media is not really the unbiased media we see today. And they could be a mechanism through which lawful intelligence information is obtained. There are other dangers that could happen with regard to the federal government that normally doesn’t happen to the media covering murder cases in the states.”

3. Tillerson Suggests Deeper U.S. Involvement in Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen — When asked about Saudi Arabia’s bombing of civilian targets in Yemen, Tillerson said, “I would hope that we could work with Saudi Arabia, perhaps by providing them better targeting intelligence, better targeting capability to avoid mistakenly identifying targets where civilians are hit. So that’s an area where I would hope that cooperation with them could minimize this type of collateral damage.”

The Obama administration recently adjusted the kind of intelligence it shares with Saudi Arabia, because of the intense international criticism of how the Saudis are waging war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, repeatedly bombing civilian targets like funerals, hospitals and schools.

4. Mattis is Non-Committal on Reforms for Women/LGBT in the military: Under the Obama administration, new combat roles have opened up to women and the military’s longstanding bans on openly serving gay and transgender servicemembers have been lifted. There is widespread speculation that the Pentagon, under Trump, will roll back some of these reforms. Mattis said he had no agenda going into the job, and groups that advocate for LGBT troops found this reassuring. But Mattis’ answers left him room to maneuver once he becomes defense secretary.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) asked him about previous statements he made where he had connected these recent changes to the military with what he described as diminished combat power.

“Do you believe that openly serving homosexuals along with women in combat units is undermining our force?” she asked.

Mattis’s answer:  

“My belief is that we have to stay focused on a military that’s so lethal that on the battlefield it will be the enemy’s longest day and their worst day when they run into that force. I believe that military service is a touchstone for patriots of whatever stripe…Unless a service chief brings something to me where there’s been a problem that’s been proven, then I’m not going in with a idea that I’m going to review these and right away start rolling something back.”

5. Climate Change Skepticism — Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) asked Pompeo whether he had any reason to doubt the assessment of NASA that “multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively published climate scientists agree that climate warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”

Pompeo replied, “I haven’t spent enough time to tell you that I’ve looked at NASA’s findings in particular. I just can’t give you any judgment about that today.”

Meanwhile, Tillerson said, “the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.” He also said, “The risk of climate change does exist, and that the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken.”

But later Tillerson said, “I don’t see it as the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do.”

Tillerson also questioned the precision of scientific models in predicting what could happen as a result of climate change, but added, that “doesn’t mean that we should do nothing.”

Image: Getty Images 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Deputy Managing Editor of Just Security Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council former Senior Reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).