By Jeff Stein
Updated | Cynthia Storer sat down at her computer last week and started sketching out her next lecture for “The Art and Practice of Intelligence,” an online course she’s teaching for Johns Hopkins University. The topic would be “the politicization of intelligence.” Perhaps it was only a coincidence that the ex-CIA senior counterterrorism analyst, one of the famous “sisters” who tracked Osama bin Laden, decided to devote that week’s lesson to how White House political agendas can infect the spy agency’s work, but Storer’s timing was ideal, given the lengthening string of evidence that CIA Director Mike Pompeo has been bending the agency to his boss’s will.
That deeply disturbs Storer, who has firsthand memories of the constant pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials to come up with proof that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al-Qaeda. With White House encouragement, the agency also came up with thin evidence that Hussein also possessed weapons of mass destruction—issues the administration used to gain support for the misguided 2003 invasion and a still unfolding global disaster. In that sad episode, then–CIA Director George Tenet famously told Bush he could make a “slam dunk” case for attacking Iraq. “The way the [intelligence] analysts talked and wrote about their judgments,” former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell later wrote, “would have led anyone to think it was a slam dunk—that is, that Saddam definitely had active WMD programs.”
The CIA strongly denies the agency is parroting what President Donald Trump wants to hear. “One of CIA’s core missions is to speak truth to whomever we serve,” a spokesman told Newsweek. Pompeo said the same last June when asked whether he “pushes back” with the president. “Absolutely. The whole team does,” he told conservative MSNBC pundit Hugh Hewitt. But he did allow that “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 relook at this. I want your team to do another scrub.’”
That sounds all too familiar to Stephen White, another former CIA counterterrorism analyst. He remembers Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense in the Bush administration, questioning him “a half-dozen times” about Iraq and Al-Qaeda conspiring in the 9/11 attacks— as if doing so would change his mind. It’s exhausting, he said, to be “constantly asked to rehash questions you’ve already answered.”
Storer says aspiring intelligence analysts need to learn how to recognize and resist attempts by politicos to “cherry-pick” the evidence to fit preordained, ideological outcomes. They have a professional duty, she tells her students, to resist: “If you don’t, and another Iraq happens (or worse) you will regret it for the rest of your days.”
Pompeo, a former Tea Party Republican from Kansas, seems to be leading his agency down Tenet’s path by caving to political pressure by Trump on Russia and Iran. On November 7, The Intercept reported that he had met in October, with William Binney, an ex–National Security Agency official who has been promoting a highly disputed theory that the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee was not the work of Russian agents but an inside job. Binney said Pompeo told him he had invited him to CIA headquarters at the behest of Trump, who advised him that if he “want[ed] to know the facts” on the DNC hack, “he should talk to me.” Pompeo offered to set him up with other briefings at the FBI and DHS, Binney said.
To many agency veterans, the Binney meeting was yet another sign that Pompeo is willing to play along with Trump’s agenda. “I suppose the most optimistic view would be that Pompeo is playing to Trump to keep his access, but that he’s being more professional, for lack of a better word, when he’s actually in the job,” John Sipher, a former top CIA Russia hand, told Newsweek. “That would be the hope, that would be the positive spin. I just don’t know.”
Another troubling development on Pompeo’s watch came on November 1 when the CIA released another batch of files captured during the 2011 U.S. raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Normally, such a release would be of little interest beyond historians and experts on the Middle East or terrorism. But in this case the declassification seemed to have a political objective, said Ned Price, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst and national security adviser in the Obama White House. The release “wasn’t about transparency,” as Pompeo claimed, Price wrote for The Atlantic. “A close read of his statements and the CIA’s public rollout of the new documents suggests, instead, that their release is part of his ongoing campaign to link Al-Qaeda to Tehran and, in so doing, undermine the Iran nuclear deal.”
Trump campaigned against the Iran deal and continued blasting it after he took office as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” When CIA analysts told Pompeo last spring that Iran was complying with the arrangement, he reportedly answered, “Good. But we know they’re cheating anyway, we’re not just seeing it.”
Trump eventually decided not to officially disavow the Iran deal, and left it to Congress to decide whether to blow it up and reimpose sanctions. But his prior statements have shaken agency veterans who fear that Pompeo, who took a lead role in repeated Republican congressional investigations of Hillary Clinton and Benghazi, has forsaken his duty to be an honest broker of intelligence between the CIA and White House.
“I’ve had analysts tell me that he will ask the question, the same question, over and over again about Iran’s compliance with the Iran deal, hoping for a different answer, which has echoes of Cheney and Iraq WMD,” said a former senior national security official, asking for anonymity in exchange for discussing internal deliberations. “When he’s been briefed that there’s no evidence that Iran is not living up to its obligations, his perennial response is, ‘They’re clearly not. We’re just not seeing it.’”
All this comes on the heels of Pompeo’s erroneous statement in October that the intelligence community had determined that Russian meddling “did not affect the outcome of the election”—an assessment the agencies never made. (Former National Intelligence Director James Clapper has since concluded that Russian hacking and meddling on social media probably did help get Trump elected.) But conservative media trumpeted Pompeo’s statement, which fit neatly into Trump’s dismissal of evidence that the Russians helped him. “As if we really need to keep talking about Russian meddling in U.S. politics,” the pro-Trump site Town Hall wrote, citing Pompeo’s remark. CIA spokesman Dean Boyd later walked back his boss’s statement, saying, “The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed, and the director did not intend to suggest that it had.”
CIA intelligence analysts are demoralized by the whiplash on Russia and Iran, say Price and other agency veterans. “Half of them are ready to drown themselves in the toilet,” said Susan Hasler, another former top counterterrorism analyst for Langley. (In 2010, she published Intelligence: A Novel of the CIA, which portrayed agency intelligence analysts battling “a management structure bent on denying their findings so the current administration will have the ammunition needed to justify going to war with Iran.”)
To some, Pompeo’s record smacks of dolorous chapters in the CIA’s history when it went along with hardliners in the White House, Congress or the Pentagon in decisions involving Cuba, Vietnam and the Soviet Union, not to mention Iraq. Many longtime and former employees are still shaken over the latter. “From what I’ve heard, management is putting on a happy face and trying to calm the waters, but there’s no degree of glossing over this that will fully calm the troubled waters inside,” said Price.
The Trump administration’s aggressive posture on Iran is particularly troubling. Agency veterans have seen how twisted intelligence and overeager operators can drag the CIA into disastrous projects, like the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that gave the CIA a huge black eye. Or the agency’s decision to snatch a suspected Al-Qaeda agent off a street in Milan in 2003, which led to an Italian court convicting 22 CIA employees and an Air Force officer of kidnapping in absentia. One of those convicted, Sabrina De Sousa, was detained in Portugal in 2015 and sentenced to three years of community service near Rome in November.
Some former officials fear the agency may be pursuing similar operations under Pompeo. In June, he put Mike D’Andrea, a former head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, in charge of Iran operations. “He is someone who is willing to push limits, to go as far as can be gone, and in some cases, he would try to go even further, only to have lawyers and others pull him back,” says the former national security official. “I am confident he was put there for that very reason. Pompeo wants someone there who is not going to be wary of taking aggressive action.”
But aggression based on faulty intelligence analysis can lead to disaster. “Because of Iraq, it should be easier to spot politicization and convince others that it is happening,” Storer advises her students. She urges future and current analysts to “make sure your message is heard, and by one those who can do something about it. You have more avenues to do this legally,” she adds, “than you may know.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that CIA analyst Susan Hasler was pressured by Paul Wolfowitz to make a case tying Iraq to Al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks. It was her husband, Stephen White, also an agency terrorism analyst, whom Wolfowitz questioned “a half dozen times.”