Donald Trump's pick to run the CIA took a tough stand against Russia on Thursday, distancing himself from the president-elect, who wants to warm relations with Moscow. He also said he would not follow a presidential order to implement enhanced interrogation techniques that fell outside the Army Field Manual.
Rep. Mike Pompeo, a four-term conservative Kansas Republican, spoke at his confirmation hearing before the Senate intelligence committee amid a testy standoff between Trump and the spy community over Russian activities during the president election.
"Russia has reasserted itself aggressively, invading and occupying Ukraine, threatening Europe and doing nothing to aid in the defeat of ISIS," Pompeo said, referring to Islamic State militants.
If confirmed, Pompeo would take the helm of the CIA in what he said was the "most complicated threat environment the United States has faced in recent memory."
The hearing was briefly disrupted when the lights went out shortly after it began.
A live feed from the hearing also cut out while Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, was discussing Russian hacking. Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman, had noted how "the CIA operates in the shadows" six minutes before the disruption.
It was not immediately clear what caused the outage. The hearing was moved to another room and was continuing.
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Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, there to testify in support of Pompeo, joked that, "my eyesight is not too good so I thought it was perfect in the other room."
Pompeo was a vocal member of the partisan House committee set up to investigate the deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, which occurred while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. He told the committee that he understands that as CIA director he would have to make the transition from a partisan, policymaking lawmaker to an objective intelligence collector.
"I have spent the majority of my life outside politics — as a U.S. Army cavalry officer, litigator and head of two manufacturing businesses," Pompeo said. "Returning to duty that requires hard work and unerring candor is something that is in my bones."
As CIA director, Pompeo could be caught in the role of mending relations between Trump and intelligence officials. Pompeo said Thursday it's pretty clear Russia worked to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy.
Trump has for the most part been dismissive of intelligence agencies' findings that Russia, specifically President Vladimir Putin, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election with the goal of getting Trump elected. On Wednesday, Trump acknowledged Russia was responsible for hacking but speculated that intelligence agencies might have leaked to news organizations details about a classified briefing with him that included unsubstantiated allegations about his ties to Russia. The CIA is one of three main intelligence agencies that came to that conclusion.
Asked about the unsubstantiated allegations that Russian intelligence has compromising material on Trump, and if he would pursue it if evidence emerged, Pompeo answered, "I promise I will pursue the facts wherever they take us…with respect to this issue and each and every other issue as well."
Pompeo on Thursday also told Sen. Dianne Feinstein that he voted for legislation to ban torture and he couldn't imagine that Trump would ask him to follow an order to restart those techniques.
On other issues, Pompeo said Iran has become an "even more emboldened and disruptive player in the Middle East." He said North Korea has dangerously accelerated its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. And he called the conflict in Syria a tragic humanitarian catastrophe that has led to the rise of extremism and sectarianism and has destabilized the Middle East and Europe.
Pompeo has been critical of the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran, which granted Tehran sanctions relief for rolling back its nuclear weapons program.
"While I opposed the Iran deal as a member of Congress, if confirmed, my role will change," Pompeo said. "I will lead the agency to aggressively pursue collection operations and ensure analysts have the time, political space and resources to make objective and sound judgments."
Pompeo graduated first in the Class of 1986 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He served in the Army at a time when the Soviet Union was America's main adversary. As a member of the House intelligence committee, Pompeo traveled widely and met many intelligence professionals.