(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT) — ASPEN, Colo. — Sweating under the hot glare of stage lights, Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had reached the limits of his patience with questions about Russian interference in the presidential election.
“Just look,” he snapped during the rare public appearance last month at the Aspen Security Forum. “This is the 19th time you all have asked.”
It was, in fact, only the fourth question about Russia that evening. But Mr. Pompeo could be excused for snapping: He runs an agency that is certain Russia meddled in the election, yet serves a president who has dismissed the talk of Russian interference as “fake news” and denounced the investigation into it as a witch hunt.
All C.I.A. directors must balance the political demands of the president they serve with the agency’s avowedly apolitical idea of itself. Yet rarely has a director had to straddle so wide a breach as has Mr. Pompeo, perhaps the most openly political spy chief in a generation — and one of President Trump’s favorite cabinet members.
Unlike past directors, who typically sought to avoid policy discussions, Mr. Pompeo readily joins in when the president asks for his opinion, even on matters far afield of national security, such as health care. And he brings to the table the views of a former congressman first elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 who staked out ground on the far right of the Republican Party.
While in Congress, Mr. Pompeo argued for domestic surveillance on a wide scale, insisted that waterboarding was not torture and dismissed a hunger strike by detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as a “political stunt.” He said he believed Hillary Clinton had engaged in covering up the 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, even after a Republican-led House inquiry found no new evidence to support the claim. Like almost all congressional Republicans, he opposed the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.
Mr. Pompeo, 53, is just the kind of well-credentialed tough guy Mr. Trump admires. He graduated first in his class from West Point, served as an Army tank officer and went to Harvard Law School. Since arriving at the C.I.A., he has proved eager to push limits, whether they be on covert operations or on calling out the press for what he considers its failings.
Yet the attributes that have endeared Mr. Pompeo to the president — his hawkish politics and eagerness to speak his mind — have been met with a more mixed reception at the C.I.A. The agency sees its role as delivering hard truths that are unvarnished by political preferences, and there are concerns in the intelligence community that Mr. Pompeo’s partisan instincts color his views of contentious issues, such as Russia’s interference in the election or Iran’s nuclear program.
“The big test is going to be when there’s a direct confrontation between the agency and the administration,” said Vince Houghton, a military and intelligence historian who is the curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington.
“If you have another Iraq weapons of mass destruction situation, if there is a direct hit on the agency from a Trump tweet or something,” he continued, “we’ll see whether he’s embraced the C.I.A. culture — and they’ve embraced him back — versus being loyal to Trump.”
Mr. Pompeo appears to be teaching the C.I.A. to embrace its inner Trump. In response to questions for this article, Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the agency, replied that Mr. Pompeo’s “only bias is toward action and winning.”
As a congressman from Wichita, Kan., the home of Koch Industries, Mr. Pompeo was a favorite of the Koch brothers, the conservative billionaires who run the company. But he can still charm an audience of mixed political views, getting laughs at the Aspen Security Forum by cracking wise about things like “this fuzzy little First Amendment,” while attacking favorite Republican targets like the Obama administration and WikiLeaks (failing to mention that he had once cheered WikiLeaks’ disclosures).
But Mr. Pompeo knows whom not to criticize — namely, Mr. Trump. Since taking over the C.I.A., Mr. Pompeo has gone out of his way to praise what he describes as Mr. Trump’s open-minded approach to intelligence, recasting the president’s churlish mocking of American intelligence agencies as the healthy skepticism of a smart leader.
“The president,” Mr. Pompeo said in a public appearance in April, “is completely prepared to hear things that run counter to the hypothesis.”
Asked how he got along with Mr. Trump, Mr. Pompeo answered effusively. “The relationship is, in my sense, fantastic,” he said then.
Administration officials said the president was so taken with Mr. Pompeo that he insisted that the C.I.A. director personally deliver his daily intelligence briefing when in Washington. (Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, also takes part.)
“There have been days when I thought we were there, ready to give the brief. I thought, ‘There’s not a chance we’re getting in today,’” Mr. Pompeo said in April. “And you know, each day, we’re in there. It’s like clockwork.”
It is only after the briefing, usually in the late morning or early afternoon, that Mr. Pompeo treks across the Potomac River to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., where his ready access to Mr. Trump is seen as a positive. The agency sees the president as its main customer, and conventional wisdom in Washington holds that a C.I.A. director is only as powerful as his access to the Oval Office is strong.
“Pompeo’s ability to communicate in a style in which the president is comfortable, it’s probably good news,” said Michael V. Hayden, a former director of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency.
“Your job is to tell the president things he does not want to hear,” Mr. Hayden said. “But you’ve got to walk them to the truth — you just can’t slap them in the face with it and run out of the Oval Office.”
Officials say intelligence officers have found Mr. Pompeo to be eager to hear about their work and listen to their concerns. And he has won praise for aggressively pushing to expand espionage and covert operations and promoting veteran officers to senior roles. Last week, he traveled to Kabul to discuss security cooperation with Afghanistan’s leaders, including President Ashraf Ghani, in a country where the C.I.A. works closely with Afghan intelligence and agency paramilitary operatives have spent years hunting terrorists.
Current and former C.I.A. officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their careers, said there had been no overt pressure from Mr. Pompeo to shade intelligence on any issue since he took over the agency. But they also said Mr. Pompeo had made little secret of his own opinions — something that could impede the kind of intelligence the agency produced, according to Paul R. Pillar, who spent nearly 30 years at the C.I.A. and is now a fellow at Georgetown University.
“When analysts are preparing their assessments, they can’t blot out of their mind their awareness of what will be welcome and what will be not welcome,” Mr. Pillar said. “There is the hazard of a bias creeping in, even subconsciously.”
Mr. Pompeo is not the first former congressman to run the C.I.A. He follows Leon Panetta, a Democrat, and the Republicans George Bush, who ran the agency in the final year of the Ford administration, and Porter J. Goss. But none of them faced an issue like the Iran deal where they “had taken a very strong view the way Pompeo has” on a matter that the C.I.A. was still wrestling with, Mr. Pillar said.
“None, to my mind, continued to be as outspoken after taking the directorship,” he added.
Mr. Boyd, the agency spokesman, said that on all issues, Mr. Pompeo “has been adamant that C.I.A. officers have the time, space and resources to make sound and unbiased assessments that are delivered to policy makers without fear or favor.”
But Mr. Pompeo’s views were certainly clear last month at Aspen.
Mr. Pompeo went hard at leakers, saying he had moved the C.I.A.’s counterintelligence operations directly under his control in part to combat the problem. He said it was “unconscionable” that The New York Times had published the name of the agency’s Iran operations chief, a senior official who works in Langley but whose identity is classified.
He accused the Obama administration of “inviting” the Russians into Syria, a claim with little traction outside right-wing circles. He also strongly hinted that the United States was considering ways to seek regime change in North Korea. And he all but said Iran had no intention of complying with the nuclear deal.
“Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal is like a bad tenant,” Mr. Pompeo said. “They don’t pay the rent, you call them, and then they send a check and it doesn’t clear. And then the next day there’s this old, tired sofa in the front yard.”
As for Russia’s role in the election, he acknowledged that it had meddled, yet he also played down the significance of the interference because it had meddled before.
“It is true, yeah, of course” the Russians had meddled in the election, he said. “And the one before that, and the one before that. They have been at this a hell of a long time. And I don’t think they have any intention of backing off.”
Correction: August 7, 2017
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the director of national intelligence. He is Dan Coats, not Coates.