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Mike Pompeo's Confirmation Raises Questions About Evolution Of The CIA


The CIA has a new boss today. Mike Pompeo was sworn in last night. He went straight to CIA headquarters this morning. He's already sent a note to the staff telling them how excited he is to be on the job.

How he plans to carry out that job is not clear yet. As NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports, one question is whether the new CIA chief continues the agency's evolution from spy service to paramilitary force.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: At his confirmation hearing this month, Mike Pompeo laid out his vision for leading the CIA.


MIKE POMPEO: It will be the CIA's mission and my own if confirmed to ensure that the agency remains the best in the world at its core mission - collecting what our enemies do not want us to know. In short, the CIA must be the world's premier espionage organization.

KELLY: The world's premier espionage organization - meaning old fashioned trade craft, stealing secrets. Pompeo went on at that hearing to describe the targets against which he hopes to do that, including Russia, Iran, ISIS. Pompeo's new boss has mostly focused on that last one. Here's President Trump addressing CIA officers at Langley headquarters over the weekend.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have to get rid of ISIS, have to get rid of ISIS. We have no choice.


KELLY: Trump promised no half measures. ISIS will be wiped out.


TRUMP: Just off the face of the earth. This is evil.

KELLY: Trump provided no details during his CIA visit as to how he plans to achieve this, but one likely possibility, says Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations, is pushing the CIA away from its espionage roots and towards a more aggressively military function with a central role in violent conflicts.

That trend is already underway. Think of the CIA's drone program of targeted killings, the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden. Under the past two presidents, Obama and Bush, you could track the blurring of traditional lines between soldiers and spies. Kurlantzick says watch for that trend to accelerate. He points to the influence of Trump's adviser General Michael Flynn.

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: A new national security adviser has said that he wants to reduce the influence of Langley, but he also wants to dramatically step up the war on terror, which, given the constraints on a conventional war, likely means increased use of CIA paramilitary operations in the field.

KELLY: Kurlantzick, who's written a book on the CIA's secret war in Laos, says bolstering the CIA and military special operations forces fits the national zeitgeist under Trump, a zeitgeist that combines the desire to defeat ISIS with growing isolationism and distaste for waging war with boots on the ground.

Put that point to CIA veteran John MacGaffin, and he agrees. Paramilitary operations are likely to be the centerpiece of the Trump administration campaign against ISIS.

JOHN MACGAFFIN: But there are lots of parts of the U.S. government that can do the paramilitary type. But there's only one part of the U.S. government that can do espionage, human source collection.

KELLY: The CIA - MacGaffin is a 30-year veteran of the agency, the former No. 2 spymaster for clandestine operations.

MACGAFFIN: The secrets we're going to need, that President Trump and others are going to need going forward are going to be very much in the things that only espionage can give you - the plans and intentions of hostile governments and others. And to the extent we've put our emphasis on making CIA a centerpiece of paramilitary - as it's done - it's done very well before - we are by definition going to be neglecting the rebuilding of our espionage capability. To do so will be a terrible mistake.

KELLY: Former CIA spy John MacGaffin articulating one of the challenges that awaits Mike Pompeo as he settles in today behind his new desk on the seventh floor of CIA headquarters. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.