In Senate spotlight, outspoken Kansas congressman becomes measured U.S. spy chief

The Mike Pompeo who’s nominated to lead the CIA is not the same Mike Pompeo who’s represented the 4th District of Kansas for the past six years.

In his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, the formerly bombastic Pompeo was more measured, reflecting the new role he’s about to take on leading what he called “the world’s premier espionage organization.”

President-elect Donald Trump nominated Pompeo in part because the three-term Republican lawmaker’s aggressive views on national security were close to his own.

But in answering questions by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pompeo took a more gentle approach to the issues on which he’s been outspoken in the past: the Iran nuclear deal, National Security Agency surveillance, the CIA’s enhanced interrogation of terrorism suspects and even gay rights and climate change.

He also didn’t hesitate to break with Trump on a few notable issues, including Russia, the value of Wikileaks and the credibility of the CIA itself.

“The director of the CIA is not a policymaker,” Pompeo said in the 39-page questionnaire he submitted to the committee. “My previous political positions will in no way influence CIA analysis or how I present that analysis to policymakers.”

For example, Pompeo had criticized a Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. When the report was released in 2014, he defended the constitutionality of the program and the personnel who carried it out.

That prompted a sharp rebuke from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat under whose leadership the committee published the report.

But on Thursday, Pompeo and Feinstein appeared to have patched things up.

Feinstein asked Pompeo whether he would comply if the president ordered him to restart the agency’s use of harsh interrogation techniques.

“Absolutely not,” Pompeo replied.

When Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, pressed Pompeo on his past support for expanded surveillance and the collection of bulk data on American citizens as a countererror measure, Pompeo conceded that “there are, of course, boundaries to this.”

“You have my assurance, we will not engage in unlawful activity,” he told Wyden. “I take a backseat to no one in protecting Americans’ privacy, either.”

Pompeo had been one of the most outspoken critics in Congress of the Obama administration’s deal to ease economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for the regime dismantling is nuclear weapons program.

But on Thursday, Pompeo appeared to pivot from opposing the deal to monitoring its progress and reporting that information to lawmakers.

“We have a very sound inspection regime” for making sure Iran is living up to its end of the agreement, Pompeo told the committee.

As a member of Congress, Pompeo had opposed gay marriage and had co-sponsored bills allowing states to continue to set their own marriage laws to exclude same-sex couples and protect nonprofit groups that opposed marriage equality.

On Thursday, Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, asked Pompeo if he’d keep his private views private as the head of an agency with numerous lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees and protect their benefits.

“You have my full commitment on that,” he said.

She also pressed Pompeo on climate change. Pompeo, who once worked in the oil and gas industry, has expressed skepticism in the past about the science behind global warming.

“I am an engineer by training,” Pompeo said. “Facts and data matter.”

The one subject on which the Pompeo in the hearing room did not differ all that substantially from the Pompeo of the recent past? The threat to national security posed by Russia and its autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin.

Pompeo said he does accept the agency’s finding that Russia was involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails in an attempt to interfere in the presidential election. Trump has dismissed that analysis and questioned the agency’s credibility.

On Thursday, Pompeo told lawmakers that he thinks the report “is sound.”

“I’m very clear eyed about what that intelligence report says.” he testified.

Pompeo broke with Trump on other matters.

Trump has praised Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange, for publishing Democrat Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails, but when asked by Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, Pompeo said he did not consider Wikileaks a credible source.

“I do not think Wikileaks is a reliable source of information,” he said. “I have never viewed it as a credible source of information.”

Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has said that the CIA had become too politicized under President Barack Obama, but Pompeo told King that he had another view.

“My experience is that I have not seen that,” he said.

King asked if Pompeo would commit to delivering news to Trump he didn’t want to hear, as all CIA directors must do from time to time.

“You have my commitment,” Pompeo said.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis