I interviewed CIA Director Mike Pompeo in his first sit down with a national network since being confirmed to run the Central Intelligence Agency. Two-thirds of the interview appeared Saturday morning at 8 AM EST on the all-new Hugh Hewitt on MSNBC. The complete audio and transcript of the conversation is below:
Here is the audio of the full interview, including portions that didn’t make it to air on MSNBC due to the limits of time:
And here is the full transcript of the entire interview:
HH: CIA Director Mike Pompeo, thank you for joining me today.
MP: It’s great to be with you, Hugh.
HH: Let’s start with the Washington Post on Friday – extensive piece that alleges that the Agency has intelligence confirming that Russian President Putin had a direct involvement and direction of the attack on our election. Can you confirm that?
MP: I can’t talk about the details of the intelligence, but we have, the intelligence community has said, that this election was meddled with by the Russians in a way that is frankly not particularly original. They’ve been doing this for an awfully long time. And we are decades into the Russians trying to undermine American democracy. So in some ways, there’s no news, but it certainly puts a heightened emphasis on our ability to figure out how to stop them.
HH: The news was actually that Putin personally directed. Do you think the Russian President did that?
MP: I can’t confirm the intelligence related to that.
HH: John Brennan, your predecessor, is said in that story to have called his counterpart, now your counterpart, Mr. Bortnikov, of the FSB, on August 4 of last year. Have you talked to Mr. Bortnikov since you became director?
MP: I don’t talk about the liaison partners that I speak with. But it is important that we continue to work in places where we can on intelligence matters to keep Americans safe. Counterterrorism is a perfect example. Americans fly on Russian planes, Russians fly on American planes, to the extent we can keep planes in the sky. All of those counter terrorism issues and places they overlap, where there are terrorists in Kazakhstan or Russia or other places where the Russians might have information, I certainly expect they’ll share that with us. And by the same token, if we can help keep Russians or American interests in Russia alive by providing them with information, it’s the right thing to do.
HH: Can you explain for a general audience, Director Pompeo, why you can’t confirm or deny things? It has to do with methods and sources. I get it. I used to be in a fringe of this business. But the public often doesn’t get why stuff can’t be confirmed or denied. Can you explain that?
MP: So it’s pretty straightforward, Hugh. To the extent that you ask me a question and I answer it, the next time, you might ask a question that I simply can’t answer, because we’re trying to make sure that assets that the intelligence community is running, or Americans who are out collecting intelligence, are in dangerous places. And as we start to answer questions, every time we answer one, and then the following question we say we can’t answer, we’ve given away the answer. And so we simply refuse to confirm or deny just about every operational activity associated with what we do in the intelligence community.
HH: Sometimes, I think of Adlai Stevenson at the UN in 1962 when Russians were putting missiles into Cuba. I think of Secretary of State Powell at the UN prior to the invasion of Iraq. Classified material was declassified and made public for the world to see. Is there a conversation underway inside the administration with President Trump about what to reveal about the Russian attack so as to fully communicate to the American public the severity of what happened and our resolve to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
MP: Yes, Hugh, and I think we’ve done this in good part. You’ve seen unclassified reports relating to the Russian activities. Not only their cyber activities, but other propaganda active measures that they have been engaged in. We’ll continue to review that. It is important that America understand what the Russians are doing. Frankly, sometimes what the Russians aren’t doing. I’ve read reports in the press where they’re just flat-out wrong, as well. And so it is important that we communicate what the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, all of those folks are up to. And to the extent we can declassify that information in a way that doesn’t harm or put at risk an asset or a method that we’re using, we have an obligation to do that.
HH: Director Pompeo, it’s been a bad month for the intelligence community. In the era of Snowden, I shouldn’t be surprised, Kevin Mallory has been indicted and charged in Northern Virginia alleged to be a former CIA officer, though not currently when he was stung by the FBI, reality winner, breached the NSA. There was a story of a GS-14 at the directorate of National Intelligence who has 636 violations alleged by the inspector general of the intelligence community, but is our intelligence community product safe? Can it even be safe now?
MP: Well I certainly can’t comment on any of those cases, other than what has been released either in the indictment that you referred to or elsewise. But we have an important obligation to perform counterintelligence, that is protecting the secrets that America steals from somebody stealing them back from us. And there have been failures. Failures not only within the last couple of years, but failures before that. We need to redouble our efforts. It’s tough. You now have not only nation states trying to steal our stuff, but non-state, hostile intelligence services, well-funded — folks like WikiLeaks, out there trying to steal American secrets for the sole purpose of undermining the United States and democracy.
HH: This is a hundred-year problem.
MP: It’s not new.
HH: It’s going to get — it goes back a hundred years, but technology is going to turn it into a constant battle. How are you, as the new director — you were on the House Intel committee for a number of years before you came over, so you were aware of this — how are you trying to change the culture where people just give stuff away for political vendetta, or in the case of treachery, treason?
MP: In some ways, I do think it’s accelerated, Hugh. I think there is a phenomenon, the worship of Edward Snowden, and those who steal American secrets for the purpose of self-aggrandizement or money or for whatever their motivation may be, does seem to be on the increase. And so, one of the reasons I’m with you today is to talk about what the intelligence community does, what we don’t do, the fact that every one of the amazing people who work at the Central Intelligence Agency has a single focus — to protect American citizens. We do foreign intelligence collection. And I think the extent we can help people understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, there’ll be a lot less support for these traitors who have done real harm to the men and women of America’s armed forces who are out there on freedom’s frontier.
HH: For a long time, popular culture has loved your business. And whether it’s the novels of John le Carre, through…I brought along the most recent Daniel Silva novel, “House of Spies”. Have you read this yet?
MP: I have not had a chance to get into it yet.
HH: Do you read Silva?
MP: I have before, but I haven’t seen that one.
HH: You’re described in it. The new CIA Director. I’ll tell you about that in a little bit. But whether it’s Spy Games, or Three Days of the Condor, up to “Homeland” now and “24”, there’s a popular culture that thinks they understand what goes on here. And it’s getting used to the idea of there being rogue elements in a deep state. Now I personally don’t use the term deep state, because there are countries that unfortunately have a deep state, and I don’t think we do. But do you trust, around the table, that that what you say here stays here?
MP: I do. I mean, it’s that simple. The men and women who sign up to sacrifice, to work at the Central Intelligence Agency are, with a handful of exceptions, patriots, aimed at lawfully doing what it is that the President directs them to do. And I’ve been here now 152 days, and every person that I’ve met has been singularly focused on serving President Trump, on serving America, on doing their job in a way that has élan and professionalism, and with expertness that will serve our country incredibly well.
HH: Are you looking over your back with the other agencies, though? Because the leak parade has been extraordinarily long and granular. I mean, The Washington Post piece I referenced earlier has got to have 14 sources in it, all of whom probably broke the law when they talked to The Post. The Post didn’t break the law writing the story, but you know how that works. What about the rest of the government?
MP: I can only say this. We, and I would say all of President Trump’s government, is incredibly focused on both stopping leaks of any kind from any agency, and when they happen, pursuing them with incredible vigor. And I think we’ll have some successes both on the deterrence side, that is stopping them from happening, as well as on punishing those who we catch who have done it.
MP: I’m counting on it.
HH: Oh, very good. Let’s talk a little bit about the threats that are arrayed against America now, because you’re in a unique position to talk about those. And I’d like to go through them, and I’ve got five – Sunni extremism, Shiia extremism, North Korea, Russia and the PRC. And I’d like to go through them in that order. On the Sunni extremism, ISIS and related groups, al-Shabaab, whatever they are, in the United Kingdom, there are 23,000 suspected jihadis. And people are moving around the globe. How much of a problem do we have here at home that your foreign intelligence permitted activities casts light on, even though that’s up to the bureau to protect us from, what do you think is the scope of our problem here?
MP: Yes. The scope is very real here. We’ve had incidents here, we’ve seen them in San Bernardino, we saw them Florida. So the United States has not escaped the wrath of ISIS and its ilk, Sunni Islamic extremism. We have to be incredibly vigilant. As we are successful, as I know the Trump administration will be in retaking Iraq and completing the mission in Mosul, at taking the caliphate, the real estate of the caliphate away, we have to be incredibly diligent. And this is partly the CIA’s role in making sure as these fighters decide to return somewhere, whether that’s to Europe or to Southeast Asia, that they don’t come back to the United States. They, in some numbers, present an enormous risk to the United States.
HH: Are you willing to categorize it either in absolute terms or proportional to the United Kingdom’s problem of, the head of MI6 has said, I believe, 23,000 jihadis with 3,000 active investigations. It might have been MI5, I’m not sure. Can you give me some sense of the scale in the United States?
MP: I think the FBI has said, described it this way. There are open investigations in every state in the United States.
HH: In terms of ISIS, even though there are advances in Mosul and Raqqa, they’ve gone mobile. It’s like “The Who” song. And they’re everywhere now, and they’ve metastasized. How does that get put back in the box? And if I can add to it, probably the most important thing I think President Trump has said in his first five months is in Saudi Arabia when he called upon the imams of Islam to fully communicate to radicals that your soul will be fully condemned. A memorable line by President Trump. That’s trying to get at the heart of it. Are we being successful in that?
MP: So there are two pieces to this. One’s the real time piece, those who have been radicalized, those who are currently engaged in terror support or terror activities. That is an intelligence and law enforcement activity, and we have to go find these folks everywhere and take them out everywhere we find them. We are intent upon that. The second piece is what you’ve described. There’s a longer battle. And that battle is, will be fought out in the ideological world. And we need to encourage our partners who have a much greater capacity to have an impact on that. You saw what the President said in Saudi Arabia as a good example. Need to ensure that they are not fomenting this. And that folks inside their country are not supporting it, and their educational curriculum isn’t part of the problem. If we do those things well, then we can get this under control. It will take years, but we can begin to actually prevail in the ideological warfare that is very much at the center of the fight.
HH: Is there a think tank, I go back to Secretary Rumsfeld early in his Pentagon tenure said in a famous Rumsfeld snowflake, we don’t have any metrics. We don’t know how many radicals there are. Then President Obama tried a different path with his speeches abroad in the Islamic world. Now President Trump has tried a different path. Is there a think tank here about how to get our arms around that radicalization problem in a way that is non-partisan, bipartisan, but effective abroad?
MP: Yeah, this isn’t a partisan issue. We have done some work. We’ve done some writing, some analysis inside the Central Intelligence Agency to try and capture the phenomenon from an intelligence perspective, that is what’s going on, who’s sowing what to whom, which messages are resonating in different population sets, hopefully to provide a database for others to think about how you can begin to put it back in the box.
HH: Prime Minister May communicated her concern to the European community and America at the recent summit that internet providers, and we’re talking about the biggest ones, all the familiar names – Facebook, Twitter, are, have become agents of the spread of Islamists radicalism of both Shiia and Sunni variety not because they wanted to, but because they’re privacy-centric, and they don’t understand. And she wants measures taken. Do you think Silicon Valley understands what end to end encryption does to the threat to ordinary people around the world?
MP: I think it varies. To describe Silicon Valley as a monolithic beast, I think, would be a mistake. I think there are places and companies who have done better. I think there are those who haven’t taken it quite as seriously, and perhaps don’t understand how their vector is being used to propagate the very risk to the people who work in their own companies, for goodness sakes. One of the missions that we have here is to make sure that the data set is available. And then I think we all who are leaders in the national security environment need to communicate that in a way so that they can understand the severity of the threat.
HH: Did they teach torts at Harvard Law when you were there, Director Pompeo?
MP: They may have taught it, and if you’re going to ask me a complex question, I am confident it is in the distant recesses of my mind.
HH: Well, I’m just wondering about liability. And this is very serious.
MP: This is very serious.
HH: If jihadis use these platforms, ought not the people who build them to be responsible for the carnage that those jihadis wreak? I was just in the United Kingdom and in Paris, sites of devastating terrorism attacks. People are dead because of end-to-end encryption in platforms. There’s an element of causation here. Do you agree or disagree with me?
MP: You know, I’ll leave that set of issues to the policy makers to think about. My task as the director of the CIA and this place is just to simply make sure everyone understands the how – how was it that a fellow in Wichita, Kansas, in 2013 could radicalize online. He was an ordinary aircraft worker in an attempt to blow up Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. If we can provide data sets, then the policy makers will sort out how best to use legal tools to respond to those.
HH: Do you think we’re getting close to reverse engineering radicalism so that we can stop it at the beginning?
MP: I think we’ve got a long way to go. I would not describe us as close.
HH: Can you talk to us about your relationship with President Trump? Politico had a great piece about how much time you spend with the President. And it’s a lot of time. But would you do so contrasting it, say, with President Obama and John Brennan, or President Obama and Leon Panetta, or President Bush and Mike Hayden? How is your relationship with President Trump compared to those previous directors and their presidents?
MP: I can’t speak to each of those. I’ll describe mine. I’m with the President nearly every day. We have 35 or 40 minutes on his schedule. That almost always runs long, which is great. Great questions. He is a serious consumer of the product that the intelligence community delivers, and I appreciate that, because I think it informs how he thinks about the world. I know that my predecessor handled it differently. Wasn’t there very often. President Obama consumed his intelligence in a different way. President Trump is incredibly demanding of the intelligence community, asks us incredibly difficult questions, and then counts on myself and other leaders in the IC to deliver those answers for him.
HH: Some of his critics like to allege he is uninterested in facts on the ground. What do you think of that?
MP: I cannot imagine a statement that is any more false than the one that would attribute President Trump not being interested in intelligence and facts when it comes to national security. He is an avid consumer of the products we provide, thinks about them, and comes back and asks great questions. And then, perhaps most importantly, relies upon that information.
HH: You’re not shy, Mike Pompeo. West Point, number one in your class, Harvard Law School, successful businessman, House Intel. Do you push back with the President? Do you two mix it up and spark it up, and do other people around him do so?
MP: Absolutely. The whole team does. Look, we want to get to the right answer. And sometimes we get it wrong. And so I think it’s great when the President or Vice President or Secretary of Defense scribbles a note to me and says, hey Mike, I want you to go re-look at this. I want your team to do another scrub. Those are exactly the kinds of conversations. And then we’ll come back and say, no, we had it right, or you’re right, we missed something, and fix it. So we push back. Our goal so to make sure he has the facts, the truth, about what it is going on in the world as we best understand it.
HH: We’ve gotten big things wrong before, we being the United States. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The national intelligence estimate about the Iranian nuclear weapons program that was leaked wrongly from this agency was wrong, about what they were doing there. And we did not connect the dots before 9/11, because of interagency barriers and jealousies. One, do you think we’ve connected all the dots that we can find and done so despite of turf wars?
MP: Yes. I think we’re in a much better place today. Whether we’ve connected them all or not, I suspect, the answer is no. I suspect perfection can’t be achieved. I’m glad to take no credit for this, this would have happened before my watch. But the intelligence community has matured. It has taken lessons from past failures and applied them to today’s problems in pretty sophisticated ways, which I think knocked down lots of the risk that was sitting out there, intelligence gaps or intelligence that wasn’t properly communicated. We still always have a long ways to go. Our adversaries are viciously fast in how they think about attacking America. We have to be just as good. Just as nimble. If we look back at the problems of 2001, or frankly, even the problems of 2011, we won’t be fast enough to crush our adversaries.
HH: Now, in terms of being fast, that also means you might be wrong in a big way. And this Washington Post story, about which you cannot comment, suggests that the intelligence community almost uniformly believed that Secretary Clinton was going to win. They had an assumption built into how they handled intelligence. Assumptions are killers in your business. We had an assumption of WMD in the desert. We had an assumption many different times along the way. What do you do to stop a culture from assumption crippling an assessment?
MP: Yeah, you challenge them every place you find them. You just viciously attack assumptions. That is, you go try and prove them. That is, provide data sets that support the assumption. And then you have either the same folks or different folks attack the assumption present challenges. Make arguments about why that assumption is just wrong, and then try and provide data sets that crush the assumption. It’s that kind of rigor which requires enormous stealing of secrets. That is, you need a big database upon which to rely to understand which sets of assumptions are appropriate. If we do those things well, we’ll get it right most of the time. And on the big questions, we should get it right nearly all of the time.
HH: Second major area of risk, Shia Islamic extremism, headquartered in Tehran, with franchises in Hezbollah land, in South Lebanon, in Yemen and other places around the world. Number one, is Iran, to the best of your ability to tell, living up to the commitments it made in the deal that it did with President Obama?
MP: I’ll leave the judgments about that to others. Here’s what I can say with absolute certainty. Iran remains, the Islamic Republic of Iran, it remains the world’s largest state sponsor of terror. Every place along the way, with respect to the agreement, it has challenged that agreement, that is, it has stretched the understandings in that agreement. And today, we find it with enormous influence, influence that far outstrips where it was six or seven years ago. Whether it’s the influence they have over the government in Baghdad, whether it’s the increasing strength of Hezbollah and Lebanon, their work alongside the Houthis in Iran, the Iraqi Shias that are fighting along now the border in Syria — certainly the Shia forces that are engaged in Syria. Iran is everywhere throughout the Middle East. Frankly, the last seven years have been a disaster, allowing the Iranians to expand all across that important region.
HH: In your opinion, which is the greater threat — Islamist extremists of the Sunni variety headquartered in Raqqa and around the world, or of Hezbollah and Iran and the Shia extremism? Which is more dangerous?
MP: Well they’re fundamentally different. One is a powerful nation state with wealth and resources and an organized government and an established piece of real estate upon which they have complete control. So from a long-term — as a long-term threat to the United States of America, I would say that Iran poses the longer challenge. But I always hesitate to rank order them. ISIS is an enormous risk to the United States today, and we have to do everything we can to defeat them.
HH: Major changes in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom succession this week. Did they surprise the United States? And are you comfortable with the relationship we have with our keystone Sunni allies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf?
MP: My very first trip as the Director of the CIA was to the Middle East. I met with my intelligence counterparts all across the Gulf states. They welcomed an American who wasn’t on the side of the Iranians coming to visit with them. What they wanted to understand was that America was going to understand them, support them when they were pushing back against allies, against adversaries that we share, and that would work closely alongside them to help them expand their economies as well. I think we have great relationships with those Gulf states. We’ve watched the transition in Saudi Arabia taking place. I watched, as a member of Congress, for years. It’s the natural order of things.
HH: There is a deep concern that Saudi Arabia still harbors people who supported the 9/11 attack on the United States, extremist elements. Do you believe they have that problem cabined, contained, and crushed?
MP: I don’t want to comment on the details of the intelligence, but I can tell you that the Saudis have made a fundamental decision that they’re not going to engage in that kind of activity that caused so much trouble over the past decades. We have an obligation to make sure that they live up to that commitment, but I think they understand that it’s no longer in Saudi Arabia’s best interest to support that kind of terrorism. The President has made it very clear to them that the condition of a good relationship to our country will be ensuring that terrorism isn’t sponsored from their country.
HH: America’s best ally in the region, perhaps in the world, is Israel. Have you had a good developing relationship with your counterparts at that state?
MP: I have.
HH: Threat region number four, number three, specialists think North Korea poses a nuclear threat to Hawaii. There is, as Admiral Stavridis has said, two lines, don’t let the streams cross, miniaturization of their nuclear warhead capability, extension of their ICBM capability, they’re coming close to crossing. How much danger does North Korea pose?
MP: A very real danger. I hardly ever escape a day at the White House without the President asking me about North Korea and how it is that the United States is responding to that threat. It’s very much at the top of his mind. For 20 years, America has whistled past the graveyard, hoping on hope, that North Korea would turn colors and become part of the Western civilization . There’s no evidence that that’s going to take place, absent a very real, very concrete set of policies that put pressure on the North Koreans to de-nuclearize. I think that’s what you see Secretary Tillerson trying to do around the world. They are ever-closer to having the capacity to hold America at risk with a nuclear weapon.
HH: There is a degree of concern that their ruler is paranoid, and is hiding every day, and using different cars. What degree of reliability do you put in your intelligence professionals not only about him and his state of mind, but where their nuclear facilities are?
MP: So I don’t want to comment on the specifics of what we know and don’t know about North Korea. I just think it’s important for the American people to understand that we have redoubled our efforts there. I stood up an entire center called the Korea Mission Center, aimed and focused on ensuring that the policy makers had every bit of information I could possibly give them both about the leader, about those around him, about the geography, about their air defense systems, about their economics, that is who is shipping product and who is making money in North Korea. We are very focused on providing policy makers all of that information so that we can make good decisions to ensure that America is never held at risk by Kim Jung Un.
HH: Two more quick questions, and one lighthearted one, Director Pompeo. Russia surprised us when they took Crimea. China surprised us when they built artificial islands. Has your capabilities in those areas seen sufficient resources directed to them so that we’re not surprised again?
MP: The entire mission of the CIA is to ensure that we provide leaders with information to avoid those kinds of tactical and strategic surprise. We have been incredibly blessed by the American taxpayers with resources to perform that function. Now it’s our task, my team’s task, to ensure that something like that doesn’t happen.
HH: A lighthearted one. I mentioned to you Dan Silva. He describes you in this book — I just thought I’d read it to you. Page 314. He calls you “Morris Payne”:
“The agency’s new director, Payne, was West Point, Ivy League law, private enterprise, and a former deeply conservative member of Congress from one of the Dakotas.” Of course, you’re from Kansas. “He was big and bluff with a face like an Easter Island statue and a baritone voice that rattled the beams in the old house’s vaunted entrance hall.” He also said, “He surrounded himself with other military people and that the CIA was going military.”
Richard Helms famously said, we’re not Boy Scouts. If we wanted to be in the Boy Scouts, we’d have joined the Boy Scouts. Is in fact the CIA becoming more operationally potent in the field?
POMPEO: I hope so. It is fervently my expectation that the tradition, right, we came out of the OSS and Wild Bill Donovan. It is fervently my hope that I can spur this organization. And frankly, don’t even have to spur it. The warriors are here. Release the bridle and allow this agency to do the things that will serve and protect America in ways that frankly the last administration just didn’t let them do. We’re going to do it. We’re going to get out there. You can’t win if you don’t take risk. The President has directed the CIA to win, and we’re going to do it.
HEWITT: On that note, Director Mike Pompeo, thank you for the time today.
POMPEO: Thank you very much, Hugh.