It was just shy of 6 a.m. when the secure phone rang. Like many of CIA’s senior operations managers, I had arrived early that morning to catch up on overnight events so as to prep my boss for his morning meeting with the director. At the time, that was Mike Pompeo. When I answered the phone, my boss said he needed to see me immediately.
He had been in the office throughout the night, volunteering to serve on the late shift rotation that demanded a senior executive’s 24/7 presence. A counterterrorist operation had not gone exactly to plan the preceding night. At issue wasn’t what happened, but rather, what had not. Pursuing senior terrorist leaders requires patience to strike at just the right moment and place to get the correct target, to avoid civilian casualties, and to protect the sources who lead you there. This time, CIA had drawn on U.S. military enablers, such as air support and a quick reaction force, but then ultimately chose not to go ahead with the operation.
After 9/11, the CIA has enjoyed a great partnership with the U.S. military, and the degree of mutual trust and respect has grown exponentially. Unfortunately, on this evening, at some level within the Pentagon, there was a perception that the CIA had not been fully transparent, and was unnecessarily sidelining finite military resources needed to continue counterinsurgency efforts against Taliban units engaged with Afghan partner forces. At least, that was the message that had made it to Pompeo from a frustrated senior Pentagon official. This prompted the director to call my boss and unleash a verbal barrage of insults, humiliations and curses more familiar from my days as a Marine recruit on Parris Island’s drill deck as opposed to coming from a member of the president’s Cabinet.
The revealing and most disconcerting aspect of this episode was not that Pompeo presumed the worst from his workforce before getting the full story, nor his vicious dressing down of a dedicated senior official and decorated officer. Rather, it was what caused him to be so furious in the first place: The director was worried that the news would come to President Donald Trump’s attention. Anything that could somehow embarrass the president, or make him appear weak, had to be avoided in order to insulate those in his orbit like Pompeo, who had his eyes on yet bigger and better things. The president’s advisers knew their own political futures depended on staying in Trump’s favor and providing him with so-called “successes.” Therefore, Pompeo prioritized shielding Trump from news he didn’t want to hear, an approach to the job that sometimes subjugated the country’s interests to those of the president. Concerned more about his own standing with the president, Pompeo also refused to provide the CIA workforce with any words of support in the face of Trump’s repeated attacks on it, fearing such encouragement would anger Trump.
Such atmospherics were quickly felt at CIA once Pompeo began in 2017, and continue today despite the succession of his loyal deputy, the more competent and well-qualified Gina Haspel. The first evidence of what it would be like under the new administration came with the White House’s direction to change how the U.S. government referred to the Islamic State. CIA had used the standardization: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or, ISIL, which was aligned with how the group saw and referred to itself. But, Trump didn’t like that name, associating its use with his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and demanded we call it as he did, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In a compromise, CIA used the Arabic for Syria, “al-Shams,” to provide the president his preferred “ISIS” acronym. The episode was minor, but revealing of what was to come.
In contrast with past practice, briefings to the director, regardless the issue, were suddenly reduced to a handful of the most senior officers. It appeared that Pompeo was focused on preventing leaks, though it wasn’t a counterintelligence concern that worried him. Instead, he wanted to avoid triggering the president’s quick temper. While still preserving appropriate “need to know,” prior CIA directors welcomed gatherings that included the most capable subject matter experts, so that they could stay informed and better engage the rest of the Intelligence Community and the president. Pompeo, on the other hand, was happy with limiting input to that from only the most senior CIA leaders who would do their best to brief based on what had been prepared by their own staff. This way, if there were a leak, Pompeo would have a better sense of who was responsible.
Having participated in several of these briefings with Pompeo, it became clear to me that it was less about substance, and more about atmospherics. When more junior officers had to be included on occasion, given the highly esoteric and detailed nature of certain briefings, Pompeo routinely said nothing, aside from asking, “How many people know about this?” The focus again being on the risks that the president could first learn about something from the press. Pompeo rarely posed questions beyond this or offered comments. This meant there would be nothing quotable for which he might have to later explain himself to a cross president were his words to leak.
Also, unfortunately, neither Pompeo nor Haspel ever offered much to the intelligence workforce in the wake of the president’s acrimonious tirades against it, even when Trump publicly declared greater faith in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word over that of his own intelligence agencies. And there was no internal message of support when the president accused those within CIA, FBI and NSA of treason for offering assessments that contradicted his own personal beliefs or, as he refers to them, his “gut instincts.” How could they risk saying anything to the workforce that cast the president in anything but the most favorable light? Any such comments would likely have appeared in the press and provoked the president’s wrath. Rather, the only guidance from the director’s suite, whether it was Pompeo or Haspel, was not to be distracted by the chaos and focus instead on the mission for which the American people valued and needed us. This rather patronizing sentiment was widely received with appropriate cynicism by the CIA workforce.
Those of us who have worked with Haspel over the years had little expectation that she would push back against this president. It’s not been in her nature to take such stands against authority, as the record shows in her ascendency. Neither will the images of her enthusiastic applause during the president’s State of the Union speech be lost on CIA’s workforce, particularly when juxtaposed with the absence of any such visible hero worship betrayed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were also in the audience. Some contend this public stance provides Haspel a better ability to privately influence the president. In practice, however, her actions reflect a continued unwillingness to spend any of her political capital on encouraging the president to be more supportive of the Intelligence Community’s views, priorities or its workforce’s morale.
But to her credit, I believe Director Haspel has faithfully represented the CIA’s reporting and assessments, as evidenced by the strong stand she took after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. She is smart, substantive, more interested in details than her predecessor, and open to receiving greater input. Still, like Pompeo, Haspel does not tend to include the participation of more substantive officers in briefings as other directors have done. But unlike Pompeo, Haspel is a voracious reader and savvy as both an intelligence consumer and practitioner. Still, while I’d like to believe that Haspel has not validated the president’s damaging remarks about a Deep State that includes intelligence officials conspiring to undermine him, neither has she done much to correct them.
Despite this, the CIA manages to do its job. Though whether the president and his advisers are listening is sadly another matter. And, when the president dismisses or otherwise spins the intelligence to pursue his personal, rather than national, interests, our nation is put at risk, as are those on whom its security depends. The foreign agents we recruit to spy on terrorist groups, drug cartels, or their own governments are less likely to cooperate. They will judge their risks to be in vain or fear that their very identities and security could be jeopardized. Would the president compromise a CIA Russian agent to Putin or a Saudi to Mohammed bin Salman were it to offer a political win in doing so? I’d like to think that not even Trump would consciously do as much, but what matters is his perception of right and wrong, and our agents’ views as they watch and listen.
CIA’s foreign agents and international partners are also watching the potential impact Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham might have in their investigations of the Intelligence Community. Certainly such politically inspired initiatives send chills down the spines of every intelligence officer whose mantra is to protect sources, speak truth to power, and keep faith with our constitutional oath. Espionage might seem unethical to those looking at it from the outside, but in reality, it’s a people business in which everything depends on reliability and relationships. Your word is your bond. Foreign agents and international partners do not have to like us, or always agree with our views, but they have to trust us in order to assume the risks we ask of them. How will other governments react when their sensitive cooperation is declassified and exposed for political purposes given the political ramifications for them at home? What will the foreign agents we recruit, and those whom we are cultivating think when they see CIA sources discussed in the press, or worse, unmasked for political gain?
The president’s impulsive and reckless decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northwest Syria so as to green light Turkey’s invasion was just such an example. Despite agreements negotiated with the multiple coalition partners collaborating in Syria and Iraq, America’s puzzling move to turn its back on its Kurdish partners who had sacrificed so much in the fight against ISIS would make any ally think twice about taking the U.S. at its word. Just how much stock could then be placed in America’s military, diplomatic and intelligence emissaries who might be subsequently undermined by a presidential tweet from out of left field?
CIA’s workforce will persevere, but it is not unbreakable. Operating in a gray, dangerous world in which neither sacrifices nor achievements can ever see the light of day is challenge enough. Doing so for a president who sometimes views the CIA as his enemy, and is quick to place its cadre, and those they’ve vowed to protect, in harm’s way for the sake of a political win, might be asking too much.
Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images