President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise decision Friday to nominate Rep. Mike Pompeo to run the CIA would place a hawk who has butted heads with Muslim-American groups and wants to roll back reforms of domestic surveillance programs atop one of the nation’s leading spy agencies.
The choice of the 52-year-old Kansas Republican, a rising star on the Intelligence Committee who was just reelected to his fourth term, alarmed privacy advocates, who are already gearing up to fight his nomination. The American Civil Liberties Union swiftly blasted Pompeo for beliefs it said raise “serious civil liberties concerns about privacy and due process.”
But the announcement was cheered by his colleagues in both parties, intelligence professionals and former CIA and National Security Agency chief Michael Hayden, who has been highly critical of Trump’s lack of knowledge on national security matters.
“Frankly … when I saw the choice I was heartened,” Hayden said Friday at an event sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Kansans can be proud Mike Pompeo will lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and will be in a position to protect our national security at a time of increasing and varying global threats,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, who chaired the Senate Intelligence panel from 2002 to 2006, in a statement.
Pompeo “has had the kind of military and private sector experience commensurate with the demands of a CIA director,” the Kansas Republican added. “He is a good and wise selection. I was proud to recommend him to the transition team and will work to ensure his Senate confirmation is swift.”
A former Army officer, Pompeo graduated first in his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and graduated from Harvard Law School before working at Williams and Connolly, a top D.C. law firm. He joined the Intelligence Committee in 2013 and has also been a vocal member of the controversial special committee investigating the deaths of four American diplomats and spies in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that Democrats have slammed as a political witch hunt.
House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) on Friday called him “one of the most respected voices in the House of Representatives on national security issues."
But he has used that perch to be a fierce advocate for expanding U.S. surveillance efforts, both at home and abroad. Washington “is blunting its surveillance powers,” Pompeo wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this year, just a few weeks after the deadly 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino, California.
He also bashed a series of surveillance reforms approved earlier this year that shuttered a program to collect bulk phone records, imposed limits on other types of data collection and instituted new public reporting requirements.
“The intelligence community feels beleaguered and bereft of political support,” he wrote. “What’s needed is a fundamental upgrade to America’s surveillance capabilities.”
Yet his reputation as a sharp yet quiet force has won him allies on both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, described Pompeo in a statement as “very bright and hard-working and will devote himself to helping the agency develop the best possible intelligence for policy makers.”
“While we have had our share of strong differences — principally on the politicization of the tragedy in Benghazi — I know that he is someone who is willing to listen and engage, both key qualities in a CIA director,” added Schiff.
Pompeo has also taken a hard-line stance on other controversial topics that have come before the Intelligence panel, including what the fate should be of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked secret documents that exposed the vast underbelly of America’s surveillance apparatus.
In 2014, the Kansas lawmaker chastised the organizers of the South by Southwest festival for allowing Snowden, who has been given asylum by Russia, to address the festival remotely.
“Rewarding Mr. Snowden’s behavior in this way encourages the very lawlessness he exhibited,” he said in a statement. “Such lawlessness — and the ongoing intentional distortion of truth that he and his media enablers have engaged in since the release of these documents — undermines the very fairness and freedom that SXSW and the ACLU purport to foster.”
Pompeo has also become something of a darling of the right because of his work on the House panel formed to investigate the attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
When the committee issued its findings in June of this year, Pompeo and Rep. Jim Jordan — leader of the right-wing Freedom Caucus — filed a 48-page addendum that was far more critical of the administration’s response to the attack.
“We will never know if a more vigorous, comprehensive and urgent response could have saved lives,” the pair wrote.
Pompeo’s nomination could get a frosty reception from Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation. He was a strong critic of its 2014 report on CIA torture of terrorism suspects. The 525-page document detailed evidence of CIA officials condoning torture and misleading government oversight staff about such practices.
“What I can tell you about this report is two simple things,” he said during an interview on the Hugh Hewitt radio program. “One, it has made America less safe, that is this release will ultimately cause Americans to be killed. And second, there was no good rationale for putting forth this report. There was literally no news, save for some salacious details that actually put these very warriors at risk.”
Privacy and civil liberties advocates — who bristle at Pompeo’s opinions on both digital snooping and his push to keep open the Guantánamo Bay detention center — have already launched a campaign against the presumptive nominee.
“These positions and others merit serious public scrutiny through a confirmation process,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero in a statement. “His positions on mass surveillance have been rejected by federal courts and have been the subject of several lawsuits filed by the ACLU.”
Gabe Rottman, deputy director of the Freedom, Security & Technology Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights advocate, blasted Pompeo for what he said is a desire to give government the power to collect "the 21st century equivalent of a dossier" on all Americans through the collection of digital data.
“If there is one thing that everyone across the political spectrum believes, it’s the fundamental American value that government has no business peering into your private life without at least some indication that you’ve done something wrong," Rottman told POLITICO. "This would be exactly that."
Pompeo has also clashed with the Muslim-American community, creating a tense relationship which could loom large, given Trump’s vows to heavily vet Muslim immigrants and spy on certain mosques in the U.S.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, Pompeo took to the floor for a speech in which he said, “Mr. Speaker, it’s been just under two months since the attacks in Boston, and in those intervening weeks, the silence of Muslim leaders has been deafening.”
Muslim groups bristled, noting that a number of major organizations criticized the terrorist attack within hours.
But Hayden, the former CIA director, called Pompeo "a serious man who takes these questions seriously and who’s studied these questions,” during remarks at a Friday morning event at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think-tank.
Pompeo has always had designs on leaving the House. He toyed with challenging Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) in the GOP primary in 2016, but ultimately backed down. Some conservatives quietly urged him to run for speaker.
Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said he helped recruit Pompeo to run for state GOP chair in 2007 — a tight three-way race in which Pompeo finished behind the winner Kris Kobach, now the secretary of state, and Tim Huelskamp, now a fellow congressman.
"The congressman has a very diverse background, from being an attorney, the West Point, to driving a tank, to creating and owning successful businesses," Arnold said. "He has the full capability and knowledge to handle all our state secrets."
Arnold added that Pompeo’s announcement has already set off a political domino effect in Kansas. He said he’s been fielding texts from people interested in running for the seat, which would likely be the subject of a special election early next year, after he’s confirmed for the CIA post.
Tim Starks and Jake Sherman contributed to this report.