CIA Director Mike Pompeo Warns of Growing Iranian Presence in Syria, Iraq
The discussion ranged from defeating ISIS and countering Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The University of Western Australia
Stephens began by asking Pompeo to identify the United States’ enemies in Syria, a question for which Pompeo said there was no singular answer. Obviously, the defeat of the Islamic State is America’s top priority at the moment, but the second name offered by the CIA director was Iran.
“Today you have Iran extending its boundary, extending its reach, now making an effort to cross the borders and link up from Iraq,” said Pompeo. “It’s a very dangerous threat to the United States. Just yesterday, one more time we learned that Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, and they now have a significant foothold in Syria.”
Pompeo segued from Iran to Russia, saying he hoped the U.S. could find ways to work alongside the Russians in Syria, but “we really don’t have the same set of interests there.”
“When the decision was made to allow the Russians to enter into Syria, now coming on four years ago, it fundamentally changed the landscape, and it’s certainly been worse for the Syrian people,” he said.
Pompeo restated that point more forcefully later, during his question-and-answer session with the audience, recalling an editorial he co-wrote in 2013 saying that President Barack Obama should have acted in Syria, but instead he invited the Russians to step in and address the chemical weapons issue.
“The previous president instead chose to invite the Russians in, and that was a major turning point. That’s not a political statement, it’s a factual observation. It was a major turning point in the capacity of America to influence events in Syria. And so today we find ourselves in the position where we’re working to develop partners and those who are willing to work alongside us to get an outcome that’s in the best interests of America,” he said.
Pompeo said America’s objective in Syria, beyond defeating ISIS, should be enhancing the stability of the Middle East, an objective shared by America’s partners in the region as well as European allies.
Interestingly, he was somewhat ambivalent about whether the Kurds can be counted as an American friend in Syria, arguing that it is not accurate to speak of them as a unified individual element because of their complex internal politics. “Suffice to say there are places where we are definitely working alongside them and which they’re going to help us achieve the outcome that America wants,” he said.
On the biggest Syrian question, Pompeo deferred questions about whether America will push for the end of Bashar Assad’s dictatorship to the State Department. He quoted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assessment that Assad is “not a stabilizing influence” and agreed it is “difficult to imagine a stable Syria that still has Assad in power.”
“He is a puppet of the Iranians. Therefore, it seems an unlikely situation where Assad will be sitting on the throne and America’s interests will be well-served,” Pompeo said.
He expressed concerns about Iran’s use of proxy forces like Hezbollah and Shiite militia groups in Syria, citing the threat posed by these forces to Israel and the Gulf states. He noted other Iranian proxy forces have gained a disturbing foothold in Iraq as well.
“This administration is going to have the task of unwinding what we found when we came in,” he said. “We’re working diligently to get the right place there. I will tell you that some of the actions we have taken have let folks know that we are at least back working this problem in a way that wasn’t the case six months ago.”
As for Russia’s interests in Syria, Pompeo pithily summed them up as: “They love a warm-water naval port, and they love to stick it to America.”
Asked if there was any evidence Russia has pursued a serious strategy against the Islamic State, instead of concentrating its fire on the more “moderate” opponents of the Assad regime, Pompeo bluntly answered, “No.”
However, he said he hoped there were other areas where counterterrorism cooperation with the Russians could be productive and explained it was his duty to work with them if they could provide valuable information about terrorist threats to Americans at home and abroad.
“We live in a world where the Russians have a massive nuclear stockpile and are firmly entrenched in Syria,” he pointed out. “They’ve retaken Crimea. They have a foothold in southeast Ukraine. Those are facts on the ground. America has an obligation to push back against that, not to allow that continued expansionism that has taken place, and to be serious in the way that we deal with them.”
“If we can do that by me working with someone who doesn’t share my value set, but works for the SVR, I’ll do it,” Pompeo said. (The SVR is Russia’s external intelligence agency, analogous to the CIA.)
Turning back to ISIS, Pompeo warned there are signs the terrorist organization is already mutating and spreading into other parts of the world to survive its inevitable defeat in Raqqa, naming Libya, the Sinai peninsula, and the hinterlands of Iraq and Syria as particular concerns.
“We broke the back of al-Qaeda. We crushed them. We didn’t do it just by taking out a handful of folks. We took down their entire network. That’s what we’re going to do again,” he promised.
He stressed that the Islamic State remains dangerous even without its “caliphate” territory, but America is “infinitely better off” with that territory liberated because holding cities in Iraq and Syria helped the Islamic State build the infrastructure it uses for recruiting and terrorist attacks around the world.
Pompeo said that, although the State Department has certified continued Iranian compliance with the JCPOA (i.e. the Iran nuclear deal), the Trump administration remains committed to pushing back against Iran in many areas. A longtime skeptic of the nuclear deal, he humorously compared Iran’s technical compliance with the behavior of a poor tenant who complies with the rules just enough to avoid eviction.
“Grudging, minimalist, temporary, with no intention really of what the agreement is designed to do,” he said. “It was designed to foster stability and have Iran become a re-entrant to the Western world, and the agreement simply hasn’t achieved that.”
Pompeo said it was not easy to articulate what would achieve those goals but stressed that “continued appeasement, continued failure to acknowledge when they do things wrong” will never be the right strategy. He expressed confidence that the Trump administration could engineer a fundamental shift in the Iranian situation.
Stephens turned to North Korea, suggesting that the competence of its nuclear and missile programs has improved to an alarming degree over the past few years. Pompeo said this was a result of “willing partners — suppliers, engineers, talented physicists who were able to come provide them with ways to get up the learning curve faster.”
He revealed that President Trump “rarely lets me escape the Oval Office without a question about North Korea. It is at the front of his mind.”
By contrast, he said previous administrations have “whistled past the graveyard” of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but it is too close to realizing those goals for the Trump administration to take the same approach.
“It would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula, to get those weapons off of that, but the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today,” Pompeo said. “From the administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two — separate capacity and someone who might well have intent, and break those two apart.”
Pompeo said it was still possible to interrupt North Korea’s march to a nuclear arsenal without resorting to military intervention, noting that there is a great difference between building a few nuclear missiles and development a large, reliable missile force along the lines of the American or Russian inventories. He suggested focusing on reducing North Korea’s access to the supplies and expertise it would need to develop anything beyond its first crude ICBMs. He also suggested the North Korean people might have some appetite for overthrowing their brutal dictatorship.
Asked if Russia attempted to intervene in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Pompeo said yes, adding they tried to interfere with many previous elections as well. “They’ve been at this a long time, and I don’t think they have any intention of backing off,” he noted.
Pompeo explained that the cost of effective political interference in other nations has been greatly reduced by the Internet.
“It used to be it was expensive to run an ad on a television station. Now you simply go online and propagate your message,” he said. “They have found an effective tool, an easy way to reach into our systems and into our culture to achieve the outcomes they are looking for.” Later, in response to a question from the audience, he said the CIA is working with German intelligence agencies to investigate possible Russian interference in German elections, although he could not comment on the status of that investigation.
Stephens proposed that one of those tools is WikiLeaks and asked if Pompeo sees that website and its founder Julian Assange as witting or unwitting agents of Moscow.
“WikiLeaks will take down America any way they can and find any willing partner to achieve that end,” Pompeo declared. “If they can work with the Chinese, they’re happy to do it. If they can work with the Iranians, they’ll be part and parcel. If they can work with young American students in our colleges and on our campuses, they’re happy to work for them. You only need to go to WikiLeaks’ Twitter account to see that every month, they remind people that you can be an intern at the CIA and become a really dynamite whistleblower.”
“This is the nature of these non-state hostile intelligence services,” he said:
I think our intelligence community has a lot of work to figure out how to respond to them. We have spent decades figuring out how to respond to nation-state intelligence services that come after us. We have authorities, and rules, and processes that are focused on countries and regions. We now need to make sure that we understand that some of the intelligence threat, some of the threat to America is coming from these folks who don’t have constituents, people who live in their country but rather are free-range chickens, running around the world with resources to spare, and who don’t intend well for the United States of America, and are happy to use cyber or other means to achieve their ends.
Pompeo noted that the First Amendment makes it difficult to combat the spread of information obtained by organizations like WikiLeaks, so it is imperative for the intelligence community and other government agencies to maintain information security and keep that information from being released into the wild. He expressed hope that potential leakers would consider their responsibilities to America and make the right decision about jeopardizing national security.
“We have a publication – you work for it, Bret – that published the name of an undercover officer at the Central Intelligence Agency. I find that unconscionable,” Pompeo said, and then stared at Stephens for a few tense moments while the Aspen Security Forum audience applauded.
Stephens retorted that President Trump was known to declare, “I love WikiLeaks!” on the 2016 campaign trail after it began releasing documents from the Democratic National Committee.
“I don’t love WikiLeaks,” Pompeo said flatly.
Pompeo agreed with Stephens that a pattern of recent incidents suggest the U.S. intelligence and defense communities have an “insider threat” problem, although he stressed that excessive compartmentalization can result in a catastrophic failure of agencies to share vital information, as in the case of the run-up to 9/11. “We’re working inside my organization to make sure we have that balance correct,” he said.
“I come home every night, my wife says, ‘How was your day? What did you do?’ I can’t tell her what I did, but I can tell her that my day was great because America is awesome, and the people who work at the CIA are doing amazing things. I just can’t always share them with you,” said Pompeo, bringing a round of applause from the audience. He stressed that some of those “amazing things” are very much directed against Russian cyber-espionage.
Later, when pressed by an audience question from former 9/11 Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste about President Trump’s dismissal of the investigation into Russian election interference as a “witch hunt,” Pompeo argued that it was not out of bounds for the many high officials served by the intelligence community to challenge its work.
“It is not always the case that our answers are binary,” he said, pointing out that some of the findings in the intelligence community’s analysis of the 2016 election were expressed with more confidence than others. However, he repeated with some exasperation that he personally does not doubt the findings that efforts were made by Russia to meddle in the election.
“I think if you watch this administration’s actions with respect to Russia, it is no comparison in respect to how this administration has dealt with Russia and the previous one,” Pompeo said.
Turning to the war against terrorism, Pompeo provocatively stated that he does not believe in the “lone wolf” designation for many of the terrorists who have struck across the Western world in the past decade.
“I’ve never seen a wolf alone,” he noted. “They always know how to find the pack and where to find them. Someone is always helping each of these folks, so networks still exist.”
However, Pompeo added that terrorism has changed “to the extent it is less centralized, more diffuse, just like effective corporations in America today that have decentralized.” To combat that threat, he said he is working to “decentralize the Central Intelligence Agency, so we can be as nimble as our adversary.”