The Director of the CIA today told an audience in Texas that "at this very moment, there's a CIA team preparing for a mission in a very dangerous part of the world."
"There's not much of a U.S. footprint there, nor is it a place where our brothers and sisters in the military can operate," Director Mike Pompeo said at the Texas National Security Forum at the University of Texas, Austin. "The infrastructure our officers will need there will be built by the Agency's support specialists, who can set up shop anywhere on the planet...The secrets of greatest utility are typically the ones embedded within the most rugged and hostile environments and possessed by those who do not share American values. If President [Donald] Trump is to make the right policy choices there, he needs to understand the facts on the ground in the grittiest back alleys, densest jungles—in the hard places."
The CIA did not immediately respond to a request for clarification, and it's doubtful the secretive agency would get any more specific than Pompeo's purposefully vague statements (Update Oct. 13: CIA declined to comment). But there are relatively few places the U.S. military cannot go -- below is a map of confirmed and suspected U.S. military installations, according to a 2015 Politico report. Presumably Iran and North Korea would be on the top of a list of potential denied areas that may also include China and Russia, and it's always possible Pompeo is referring to restive regions in otherwise relatively friendly areas. (Or, of course, he could be making the whole thing up, he is the director of a spy agency, after all.)
Pompeo also mysteriously alluded some new permissions that Trump has apparently granted the agency.
"Whenever we’ve discussed the challenges the Agency is facing, [Trump] has given us what we need, whether it’s funding, authorities, or policy guidance -- such as when the law already permits a given action, but the previous administration chose not to do it," Pompeo said. "As long as we’re diligent about mitigating risk, the President encourages us to do what we need to do to get the job done for the American people, and for our allies around the world."
Pompeo used a good portion of his remarks to slam the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of the Iranian military that the Trump administration is reportedly planning to designate as a terrorist organization.
"Put another way, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are the cudgels of a despotic theocracy, with the IRGC accountable only to a Supreme Leader," Pompeo said. "They’re the vanguard of a pernicious empire that is expanding its power and influence across the Middle East. For unlike ISIS and its mirage of a caliphate, Iran is a powerful nation-state that remains the world’s largest state-sponsor of terrorism. The Islamic Republic is Iran’s version of what the caliphate ought to look like under the control of an Ayatollah and his praetorian guard, the IRGC."
Iranian officials have said that if the U.S. designates the IRGC as a terrorist organization, they may treat the U.S. Army as a terrorist group, or even the whole of the U.S. as a "terrorist country."
Here are Pompeo's remarks in full, as prepared for delivery and emailed to reporters:
Good afternoon everyone. It’s great to be in Texas, and a privilege to be with you here at UT Austin. I very much look forward to our conversation today with Stephen Slick and to taking your questions.
Espionage—the art and science of running assets and stealing secrets. This professional activity is at the heart of the organization I am now privileged to lead.
In America, we don’t do espionage for fun, although it often does bring joy and professional satisfaction. We don’t do it to help American businesses or to gain information about Americans.
No, in our Republic, the CIA’s espionage is aimed at the singular purpose of collecting foreign intelligence to keep America safe. Period. Full stop.
I raise this, because while it may seem trite, or even pedantic, it is, as I will share with you today, central to the effectiveness of the team I lead. So that will be my first point: the effectiveness derived from conducting espionage that is solely focused on supporting America’s national security.
The second thing you must know is that the CIA, to be successful, must be aggressive, vicious, unforgiving, relentless — you pick the word. We must every minute be focused on crushing our enemies and providing unfair advantage for our diplomats, our military and our President.
This too may seem obvious, but it has not always been so straightforward. Today, I want to share with you why this matters and how we are punishing our enemies in order to defeat them.
But before I return to why the purpose of CIA’s espionage is so central to our success and to the fact that unceasing risk-taking is foundational, a quick reminder...
At this very moment, there’s a CIA team preparing for a mission in a very dangerous part of the world. There’s not much of a US footprint there, nor is it a place where our brothers and sisters in the military can operate.
The infrastructure our officers will need there will be built by the Agency’s support specialists, who can set up shop anywhere on the planet. The communications and surveillance equipment they require will be provided by our science and technology experts, whose achievements are legendary. And if there’s a need for cyber support, our Directorate of Digital Innovation staff will troubleshoot for them.
The point is that CIA wouldn’t be adding much value to the national security effort—or providing value for American taxpayers—if we confined ourselves to the relative comfort of world capitals and fancy embassies. The secrets of greatest utility are typically the ones embedded within the most rugged and hostile environments and possessed by those who do not share American values. If President Trump is to make the right policy choices there, he needs to understand the facts on the ground in the grittiest back alleys, densest jungles—in the hard places.
Every day, including this one, CIA officers take extraordinary risks to put crucial intelligence in the hands of our President. A few weeks back I was with an officer a bit younger than most of you in this room, had early that morning come back from an operation that would be rejected as implausible by any worthy publisher. The President rightly counts on us to answer his questions about global threats, trends, and hotspots. And if we do our job right, we give an enormously unfair advantage to him and his top policymakers when it comes to dealing with foreign challenges.
Now that our heads are collectively set in the world in which the CIA operates, back to the main mission for today.
The CIA’s Purpose and Why It Matters—A Comparison
So, why do we do what we do? I don’t mean simply why do we conduct intelligence. That’s obvious.
The important question is: For what purpose do we conduct espionage? This purpose matters. Let me show it by comparing our efforts with those of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
At our founding, Americans were deeply skeptical of collecting intelligence leaving the United States alone among the great powers in being reluctant to even get into the spy business. It took two world wars before CIA was established in 1947 as America’s first comprehensive peacetime intelligence agency.
Like all other elements of the US national security community, we take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. We strictly abide by our nation’s laws. We’re subject to oversight by the elected representatives of our fellow citizens.
And as I said, because we conduct espionage that is solely aimed at supporting our country’s national security, we work with a sense of duty, purpose, and righteous resolve—and we’re a lot more effective because of it.
Let’s compare this with the intelligence service of the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The MOIS and IRGC Intel services simply can’t be as effective as the CIA. They serve multiple purposes. In fact, defending Iran from foreign entities is but a very small part of what they do.
Iranian intelligence has the task of assisting in enforcing the rule of law in a thuggish police state. They can’t be as effective when they’re also spying on and providing support to the imprisonment of their own people.
And they’ll never prevail when their fundamental purpose is to perpetuate tyranny.
Put another way, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are the cudgels of a despotic theocracy, with the IRGC accountable only to a Supreme Leader. They’re the vanguard of a pernicious empire that is expanding its power and influence across the Middle East.
For unlike ISIS and its mirage of a caliphate, Iran is a powerful nation-state that remains the world’s largest state-sponsor of terrorism. The Islamic Republic is Iran’s version of what the caliphate ought to look like under the control of an Ayatollah and his praetorian guard, the IRGC.
In recent years, the IRGC has become more reckless and provocative, seeking to exploit the vacuum left by instability in the Middle East to aggressively expand its influence. It openly vows to annihilate Israel. And when you look at the death and destruction inflicted in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq by Tehran and its proxies, the threat is clear: Iran is mounting a ruthless drive to be the hegemonic power in the region.
But it isn’t just our allies that are put in danger by the Islamic Republic. Americans are too.
It was only four years ago that a naturalized US citizen, Manssor Arbabsiar, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for plotting with the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, D.C. Were the plot not thwarted by authorities, the operation would have killed not only the Saudi ambassador in our own capital, but probably a host of innocent bystanders at a popular DC restaurant.
Just this month, an American soldier serving with the 10th Mountain Division in Iraq—Specialist Alexander Missildine of Tyler, Texas—was killed by an IED in an area controlled by a Shia militia aligned with Iran. We do not have evidence of a direct link to Iran, but we are closely examining this tragic incident.
Capturing American sailors and taking Americans hostage, abusing human rights on a massive scale and oppressing its own people—these are the goals in which Iranian intelligence finds purpose. And this contrast in purpose matters.
Because at the end of the day, we at CIA collect foreign intelligence in support of a Republic founded on deeply moral principles, and our work is bounded by our Constitution. This matters too.
It makes us more effective in our mission because our officers and agents understand that their goal is moral and noble, and not repressive and destructive. The CIA’s power is increased by this singular focus, and we and our country benefit from it.
We Must Be Aggressive and Take Risks
And while CIA’s purpose is to protect and uphold our country and our Constitutional system, we are in the business of stealing secrets that some very brutal states and terrorist groups don’t want us to have. So when espionage is done right—when it’s most successful—it’s inherently aggressive, relentless, and risky.
President Eisenhower probably had this in mind when he said that intelligence work is “a distasteful but vital necessity.” I personally find no distaste precisely because our work is so necessary. I know what Ike, a great fellow-Kansan, meant: he meant it required a seriousness and viciousness not often found in the salons of Washington, D.C. The CIA doesn’t always get invited to the swanky parties or to hob knob with global elites. We’re fine with that. When those who fear the grittiness of what we do touching them and they are touched by our enemies, the CIA is always invited to the party and always shows up…in force.
There have been moments in history when CIA was not sufficiently aggressive, with negative consequences for our country. One such period was in the wake of the Church and Pike congressional investigations in the mid-1970s, when our nation’s confidence in the Agency was at its lowest. And so was morale at Langley.
As the Brits would say, we were on our back foot. And while CIA was hardly the sole determining factor, the Agency’s lapses contributed to a difficult and dangerous global situation.
The Soviets and their proxies were making deep inroads in the Third World, culminating in the invasion of Afghanistan. In Iran, the US Embassy was infamously attacked and occupied, its staff rounded up, blindfolded, and taken hostage.
Another dark period for the Agency arose in the 1990s as a result of the so-called “peace dividend.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union, CIA’s budget was slashed, its roster reduced by thousands of officers.
Operational and analytic programs were cannibalized to bolster crumbling infrastructure. Worst of all, our men and women were preoccupied with budgets and staffing. Austerity inhibited audacity.
President Trump gets this. Whenever we’ve discussed the challenges the Agency is facing, he has given us what we need, whether it’s funding, authorities, or policy guidance—such as when the law already permits a given action, but the previous administration chose not to do it. As long as we’re diligent about mitigating risk, the President encourages us to do what we need to do to get the job done for the American people, and for our allies around the world.
So with the President’s backing, we’re taking several steps to make CIA faster and more aggressive.
First, we’re stressing to our officers that they must have the courage to fail. I’m an engineer by training, so I know that when you increase risk and increase speed, your rate of failure will go up too. We want our officers to know that’s OK. As long as they've done their homework, as long as they’ve gone about their work the right way, failure to achieve an objective doesn’t mean they’ve let the Agency down.
I sometimes say that we need to create an award for people who fail really well. I mean it as a joke, but the sentiment behind the idea is real. I’m heartened when I see someone fail while moving aggressively against a very tough target. I prefer that to seeing someone succeed by taking the easy route. I prefer it to seeing someone do fantastic work on something of marginal importance to our mission.
You can’t perform good intelligence work if you’re afraid to fail, because you’ll never take the risks necessary to get the job done. And taking on the tough jobs is what CIA is all about. It’s why we were created. So we have to make sure our officers have the freedom and the support to tackle the really tough stuff, the missions where success is far from guaranteed.
Second, we’re deploying more officers out to the field. CIA is a foreign intelligence service. The threats we’re charged with countering lie beyond our shores. So that’s where we have to be—in force, with all the strength and capability we can muster.
We want our people, tools, and resources to be as close as possible to the center of the fight. That’s the way toseize opportunities quickly. It’s the way to be proactive and to move aggressively against our adversaries, instead of reacting to them. We call it our “field-forward” approach, and it’s a critical part of our strategy for building a stronger, more agile Agency.
We also benefit deeply from a network of partner services throughout the world who are willing to share information, run operations with us, and help us achieve our priorities. And as foreign partnerships are a key topic of this forum, I’ll be happy to talk more about this in our conversation.
Finally, we’re pushing decision-making down to the lowest practical level. Wherever possible, we want the experts on a given issue to determine how we address it. And on tactical matters, that’s almost always the officers who are closest to the subject at hand, rather than senior executives like me.
It’s easy in a large organization to push decisions up. I’ll sometimes see email chains that start with someone in the field requesting guidance on a particular issue. And as you scroll up the email chain, you see more and more layers of management being brought into play. Sometimes this is right way to go, and even the only way to go. But I always worry when I see a decision moving farther and farther away from the person who is best positioned to make it.
So I tell our officers that when they send a proposal for someone else to review, they need to make sure that person truly adds value to the process. If the person doesn’t, don’t send it.
And the same idea applies to managers. If they have nothing significant to contribute to a discussion, they shouldn’t chime in just for the sake of it. There are many cases when good management means doing nothing at all—it means simply getting out of the way so the experts on the matter can do their thing. If we do that more often, we’ll make smarter decisions more quickly, with better results.
Now before I sit down with Steve, I want to thank everyone at this great University for your exceptional hospitality, and for providing such an awesome venue for discussing intelligence and national security issues well outside the Washington Beltway.
I also want to thank the renowned Chancellor of your university system, Admiral Bill McRaven, for joining us up at Langley last month for a chat in our auditorium. He has a lot on his plate leading this great institution, and all of us at CIA appreciate his taking the time to visit us and reminisce a little. Always happy to host a true American hero.
Last spring, at the Agency’s annual Memorial Ceremony, we paid tribute to eight other heroes—CIA men who died in the line of duty, and whose stars were added to our Memorial Wall. Of those eight, three were born in Texas.
Mark S. Rausenberger was an exceptionally accomplished officer, a veteran who had served with CIA for 18 years when he died last year while on a classified assignment. He was a dedicated patriot and a courageous warrior—creative, calm, and resolute in a crisis. Mark was also a loving husband and father who cherished his family.
Darrell A. Eubanks and John S. Lewis were childhood friends, born and raised in Lampasas. As teens, they both went off to Idaho to become smokejumpers—the fearless few who jump out of planes to fight wildfires— and they also took courses here at UT. Darrell and John joined CIA and delivered supplies by air to our allies, the Hmong fighters in Laos, when their plane crashed on 13 August 1961.
Darrell, John, and Mark embodied the spirit of Texas. They were brave, big-hearted, faithful, and adventurous. And we are eternally honored and grateful that they chose to serve their country by lending their talent and spirit to CIA.
Thank you all very much.
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