Interview With Michael Morell on Intelligence Matters Podcast

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, welcome to Intelligence Matters.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Mike, it’s great to be with you.

QUESTION: It is great to have you on the show, and it’s particularly great to have you on the show for our one-year anniversary.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you. Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate the opportunity to be with you.

QUESTION: Thanks. We also just passed your one-year anniversary here at State Department, April 26th, so congratulations on that. And just for a little foreshadowing, I’m going to ask you a question at the end about your one-year anniversary. But maybe the place to start, Mr. Secretary, is � since this is Intelligence Matters � with intelligence. What’s your battle rhythm like with regard to your consumption of intelligence? What does your kind of average day look like in terms of consuming intelligence?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, it’s a great question, Mike. You know, it’s changed a little bit since my previous role at CIA. I still � I get my material early in the morning just about every day.

QUESTION: Do you get it in the car?

SECRETARY POMPEO: I get it in the vehicle on my way in, or if I’m traveling I’ll go to the SCIF space there. Sometimes I’ll finish up the reading � depending on how much material is for the day � I’ll finish up the reading while I’m here. I have a trained professional who’s there with me to assist when I have questions, things I want to inquire about further, or, frankly, things that I see and don’t make sense to me, to try to make sure I really can understand what —

QUESTION: Is this somebody from the Intelligence Community?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Somebody from the Intelligence Community who assists me. So I both have a set of readings and a briefer who assists me in absorbing the information. And then as you know, Mike, things develop during the day as well, so I will often be passed information during the day, short pieces more often, things that have developed that are either events of the day or often intelligence that has come in on things that have occurred previously but we just now have in the developed form that is about a meeting that I’m about to take place. So if I’m meeting with a foreign leader and there’s information related to that, that information comes to me midday as well. And then I usually take home more in-depth pieces in the evening to spend some time reading in my secure space in my home.

QUESTION: One of things our listeners may now know is that people at your level get to ask questions, and they get those questions answered usually in 24 hours. So are you a tasker?

SECRETARY POMPEO: I am and it’s a blessing, and the Intelligence Community is phenomenal at doing that. And I do my best not to burden them unduly, but there’s things you want to know. There’s things that are very relevant to conversations you’re going to have around the world, and to be able to get that information turned that quickly, that accurately, even if in a rough format, is of enormous value.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, as you know, there’s critiques out there about the President as an intelligence consumer, and you were with him every morning when you were CIA director and when he got his PDB briefing. You’re with him now in policy meetings when he gets that intelligence. Could you describe him as an intelligence consumer?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, sure. I’ve said this before: He is religious about taking these briefings. That is, they � in my time as CIA director, I can count on one hand the number of times those meetings were cancelled, so it was a true battle rhythm. It was � that time was honored. That’s difficult for our chief executive, who has lots of things coming up in � on his agenda. So the first thing I think was the rigorousness with which we had access to be able to provide him timely information. We then had a trained professional who was the primary briefer, but in those were senior leaders from all across the USG. It was a small group, four or five of us, who were there during the President’s briefing as well, both to listen to the things he was hearing so we made sure we had his � although we’d often seen that information ourselves that same morning � but also be able to help answer and frame any questions that came up.

So as the CIA director, I talked to him about things that we were doing to help flesh out further information for him. He listened; he asked lots of questions. I’ve talked about this before: He was often very focused on economic issues as they related. So there would be good national security policy: Who’s got the weapons? What is a particular government leadership thinking? But he would also ask how can we use America’s capacity, America’s economic capacity, to help shape situations to get good outcomes for the United States.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, the attack in Sri Lanka. Obviously, horrible � one of the five worst attacks outside a warzone since 9/11 in terms of deaths and injuries. Obviously horrible in terms of the targets that were attacked, churches and hotels, the softest of targets. As you know, ISIS has claimed responsibility. Do we have any insight yet to whether that was directed or inspired or are we still working through that?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Mike, you’ve lived these incidents before. They’re � it’s worthy to measure twice and cut once in your analysis in the immediate aftermath. I will say that every indication is that this was at the very least inspired by ISIS, and I think we’ll have more information developed about whether there were any actual connections. The scale, the complexity of the attack certainly would be something that good analysts like yourself would stare at and say we need to dig really hard. The capacity for a local group to pull off a relatively complex simultaneous attack � it could happen, but it’s probably the case that there were others assisting them.

QUESTION: And the destruction of the caliphate was an important and significant success, but what does this tell us about ISIS’s capabilities post-caliphate?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. But � and again, we don’t know exactly the connection to ISIS.


SECRETARY POMPEO: But it is fair to say —

QUESTION: Assuming it’s them.

SECRETARY POMPEO: — even apart from the Sri Lanka incident, it’s absolutely the case that the capacity for ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups, Sunni terror groups, remains. Their ability to network � we have al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula that still has real capacity to put the United States at risk through its expertise. There are lots of pockets we could walk through. But this challenge, this challenge of taking down these networks, is something the United States is going to have to continue to stay right on top of.

QUESTION: For a long time.

SECRETARY POMPEO: For a long time.

QUESTION: For decades, generations.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Almost certainly the case that they show no sign of ideologically having wavered from their desire to conduct attacks on the West, and that means we’re going to have to be vigilant for an awfully long time.

QUESTION: So, Mr. Secretary, let’s stay on terrorism for a second, but shift to Afghanistan and Syria. So as someone who worked counterterrorism issues for 15 years, I’m concerned that not having a physical presence in those places is going to increase the opportunity for al-Qaida in Afghanistan and ISIS in Syria to reappear. There’s a lot of confusion out there about what our policy’s going to be with regard to continued presence in Afghanistan, continued presence in Syria. Can you give us a sense of where your thinking is on that, where the administration’s thinking is?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Sure, I certainly can. So we will start with the mission set, right, the mission set the President’s been unambiguous about, whether it is Afghanistan or Syria. The mission set is very clear: We’re not going to allow them to get the caliphate back in either western Iraq or eastern Syria. We’re going to continue to apply pressure to the networks wherever we find them, whether that’s Southeast Asia, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, all of the places that we could run through.

What that will mean for force posture, what that will mean about what our footprint looks like then, will be based on what we believe is the most effective way to get the outcome that we described. And so there’s an inordinate amount of focus on how many Department of Defense uniformed personnel are on the ground. I think it’s important just to take a step back and say what’s the outcome you’re trying to achieve now with the various tools that we have, certainly intelligence tools that we have, the capacity to work with partner countries in those regions, to use friends to assist us in getting the outcome we want.

We’ve been training Afghan security forces. We worked with the SDF in Syria. We will � every situation will turn out to be different and we will � the President’s committed � we will have the right structure, the right system to push back. And they’ll be different in different places because the threat will appear and manifest itself differently, and they’ll change over time. So when you hear the President � and this is important � when you hear the President talk about Afghanistan, we understand the threat and the risk, but the question is now, a decade and a half on in, do we have the right posture broadly speaking there, and if not, can we get to that right place. And if that right place looks like a significant smaller footprint for the United States of America, we are determined to do it, to put less of our young men and women at risk.

So the President talks about these endless wars ending. I think that’s the right approach. That counterterrorism mission remains.

QUESTION: Yeah. So I thought one of the � one of the most effective ways to deal with this problem was having partners do it for us, right?


QUESTION: Because then we’re not the ones doing it, right, and that’s really important.

SECRETARY POMPEO: I talked about that when I answered the last question. We have to have partners, we have to have friends, we have to have allies. We certainly see this on the intelligence side. We use really capable partners and share intelligence to get good, real-time information, and then for the actual effort � the disruption of the networks � as you well know, we have partners all around the world doing this. It’s one of the things that you stare at Sri Lanka and say, well, wholly apart from intelligence failures that may or may not have taken place, did � how did � how was the network not good enough, the information-sharing network not good enough there in Colombo, in the surrounding regions, to identify this threat in a timely fashion to allow interdiction. We have lots of successes, as you well know, Mike, almost every week. But these failures are unacceptable and we can’t simply say this is business as usual. We have to continue to work the system.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, let’s pivot to Iran, which is obviously a big focus of the President, big focus of yours. Why is it so important?

SECRETARY POMPEO: So Iran is important in its � it turns out to be central to our Middle East policy, our desire to reduce violence and create stability in the broader Middle East context. So when you look at President Trump’s strategy in the Middle East, it is: how do you reduce terror risk? Who are the folks with the resources and money? And it turns out as you peel back � you peel back the challenge today in Lebanon from Hizballah, you peel back the challenge in Yemen from the Houthis, you look at the risk that Iraq won’t be able to stand up and have an independent, sovereign nation � those often emanate from the Islamic Republic of Iran. So that’s how we arrive at Iran as a central pillar of our Middle East efforts.

There are lots of pieces to the effort, and they are � some of them are Iran-specific, some of them are broader. But make no mistake about it, we do see the Islamic Republic of Iran as central to the instability we see in the Middle East today.

QUESTION: So your strategy is to force them back to the negotiating table to get a better —


QUESTION: — nuclear deal and to get them to stop messing around in the region, right?

SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s right. Not � that’s right. Not just a nuclear deal, but to get them to behave like a normal nation is the best way to characterize it.

QUESTION: Right, and you’re increasing the pressure. You’re increasing the pressure by doing away with the handful of oil waivers that were out there. You’re increasing the pressure by designating the IRGC. Just one question on that. So when I was at the agency, it was the Qods Force, right, part of the IRGC, that was the organization that committed terrorism. What was the logic of designating the whole group?

SECRETARY POMPEO: So it’s still true. It is the Qods Force that is their expeditionary force truly driving � truly driving the terror element of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s campaign around the world, underwriting Hizballah, working with the Houthis in Yemen. It is the Qods Force that is most central to that. They work at the direction of the IRGC leadership. And then the second piece of this is the IRGC is also � it’s a mafia family. They also are � own roughly 20 percent of the Iranian economy, so there’s an � the IRGC has penetrated the construction industry, the � big pieces of the Iranian economy. So this designation permits us to go after those places where there’s real wealth creation opportunity that ultimately gets to the Qods Force, and our mission set is very clear: if we can reduce the capacity of the Qods Force to spend � pick a number � 700 million to a billion dollars a year on Hizballah, if we can take down that capacity, they won’t be able to pay salaries and it will be more difficult for them to generate external terror.

QUESTION: The designation gives you real leverage?


QUESTION: So the Iranian strategy, to me, at least � maybe the analysts at CIA have a different view � but the Iranian strategy to me seems to be wait you out. Right, hope that 2020 gives them a different president who’s going to rejoin the nuclear deal. Is that your sense? And if that’s what they’re doing, how can we � how do we put even more pressure on them?

SECRETARY POMPEO: So my sense of the Iranian strategy is to develop a resistance economy. I think it’s probably the case they wish these policies were different and they probably are looking for the moment when there’ll be new leadership in the United States, and perhaps the United States policies will change. I actually think that’s a fool’s errand. My view across a broad political spectrum inside the United States is there is a consistent view of the risk from the Islamic Republic of Iran. There’s lots of debate about the JCPOA, but more broadly speaking, I think � I think everyone gets the terror risk. So I think that’s a bad strategy for them, but I suspect it’s theirs, and I’m sure there are people whispering in their ears, Just hang on until there’s an election in November of 2020 in the United States and perhaps your fortunes will shift. Our effort in this administration is to make sure that we lay down the right policy for our time on duty, our watch, and I’m convinced we’re truly getting there. You can see it in the things that are happening inside the Islamic Republic of Iran, not only the economic distress, which has � is mixed � we want good success for the Iranian people � but make no mistake about it: Their capacity to distribute terror around the world is reduced from where it was even just 12 months ago.

QUESTION: So you know these guys, right, and so at the end of the day, do you think they’re capable of changing, this regime?

SECRETARY POMPEO: No, the individuals in this government aren’t, and I know I hear lots of talk about moderates there. I just don’t see it.

QUESTION: Moderates � moderates in an Iranian context, right?

SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s moderates who believe in the Islamic element of the republic. And so once you’ve given up on the capacity for democratic governance and have turned this into an Islamic revolutionary state, I no longer put you in the moderate bucket.

Yeah, I think what can change is the people can change the government. I don’t � I don’t see Rouhani changing, Zarif changing. I don’t see Qasem Soleimani changing or the new leader of the IRGC. They are who they are; it’s deeply imprinted. I was with some of the individuals who were held in 1979 in the American embassy just a week before last, and they reminded me that many of the Iranian leaders today are the individuals who beat them. It’s the same cast of characters.

What we’re trying to do is create space for the Iranian people. This is a country � you know this, Mike � this is a country with education, real diversity in their economy. It has a deep cultural history. There’s real opportunity in this place.

QUESTION: They could have a real future.

SECRETARY POMPEO: They truly could, and the vast majority of the Iranian people, we are convinced, would prefer that, and we’re trying to help them get in that right place.

QUESTION: Okay. Let’s switch to North Korea, Mr. Secretary. They say they don’t like you. By the way, they don’t like me either, and they don’t like Intelligence Matters, I hear. It’s kind of interesting. Looks like maybe your counterpart just lost his job. We just heard that this morning. It’s kind of interesting. But we learned after Hanoi where we stand, right? We put an offer on the table and they said not even close, and they put an offer on the table and we said not even close. We now see Kim Jong-un rattling the cage a little bit, being at this weapons test, whatever that weapons test was, and now meeting with Vladimir Putin. Is that what you think he’s doing, trying to put a little bit more pressure on us with these things? Where do you think his head is at the moment? How do you think about that?

SECRETARY POMPEO: So we have been down this road a number of times with the North Koreans through history. You’ve been involved in some of them. The pattern and practice isn’t terribly different this time. Having said that, each time the mistake that the United States made, in my view, and frankly, the world, our partners who were alongside of us at some of these discussions, was we handed them a bunch of money in exchange for too little, and we’re determined not to make that mistake. I think the North Koreans now see that pretty clearly. We’ve had discussions. What happened in Hanoi was a information-gathering exercise for each of us. I think we each learned a great deal. There was lots of nuance that hasn’t, frankly, been reported a whole lot, because we certainly aren’t going to talk about it. But there was a lot more nuance to the conversation than just, hey, they had a position, we had a position, and we walked away. So there’s more there to that.

We hope that we can build on that. As for the personalization, from Mike Pompeo’s perspective, that was a mid-level guy in the North Koreans. We are very focused on getting the right set of incentives for both sides so that we can achieve the objective. It’s going to be bumpy; it’s going to be challenging. I hope that we get several more chances to have serious conversations about how we can move this process forward.

QUESTION: So in those nuances in Hanoi and in your conversations since, do you see a path to a deal that gets to full denuclearization?

SECRETARY POMPEO: I do. I absolutely do. Ultimately, this turns not on the details of that deal where there’s lots of room to work our way there, it solely turns on whether Chairman Kim makes the fundamental strategic decision, the one that he has told me half a dozen times he has made, the one he’s told the President a handful of times that he has made.

There are lots of elements of this. There are many pieces. It’s an enormous challenge for that country to make its shift, too. It has, for an awfully long time, told its people that those nuclear weapons were the thing that kept them secure. They now need to shift to the narrative which is those are the things that put them at risk; those are things that cause the challenges for the country. So there’s not just a military strategic decision, but a political strategic decision that we think Chairman Kim is prepared to make. Only time will tell for sure, but I’ve seen enough to believe that there is a real opportunity to fundamentally shift the strategic paradigm on the peninsula there.

QUESTION: And there’s not some clock in the President’s mind in terms of how long he’s going to give this?

SECRETARY POMPEO: No. We’re � the President’s made clear we’re going to have enough patience to make sure that we’re really having good faith negotiations and real conversations. And if that breaks down, if that doesn’t happen, then we’ll have to obviously change paths. But our mission set is very clear: State Department’s in the lead trying to negotiate a solution here. We have great partners in South Korea, Japan, who have been great allies and having these conversations, too. We appreciate all of the work that they’ve done. It’s in their backyard. It matters to them an awful lot, too, obviously.

QUESTION: Speaking of their backyard, China � which is a huge issue, as you know � the consensus among national security experts is that China poses one of the biggest challenges that we’ve ever faced. Some say a bigger challenge than the Soviet Union at the end of the day. How do you see that? How do you think about that?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. I think it’s absolutely the case that a country with 1.5 billion people, truly now technologically very, very, capable, presents a real competitive challenge to the United States of America. We see it in many fronts. You watch the trade negotiations that are taking place. The good news is President Trump has been prepared to confront this in ways that previous presidents haven’t. Perhaps the threat has changed, or perhaps our recognition of the threat has changed. But the President’s been very clear with President Xi, with whom he has a great relationship, he’s been very clear that the trade relationship needs to fundamentally shift and that these other imbalances, whether it’s forced technology transfer, the theft of intellectual property, challenges in the South China Sea, or taking on the risk from technology, we are pushing back against their predatory lending practices all around the world in every embassy.

The United States � they understand the threat that China poses not for competition � we’re perfectly happy to compete with a Chinese company and an American company. We’ll win our fair share. We’ll lose some. But when they show up with an entity that is truly just a shell for a Chinese Government enterprise with deeply subsidized financing and lending practices that will leave the people of that country in worse condition, we’re prepared to call that out and help that country understand the risks that presents to them.

QUESTION: Now when we faced the Soviet Union, we had a national strategy, right? The whole country was organized in a way to deal with that threat. Do we need that sort of same approach on China over the long term?

SECRETARY POMPEO: I think so. It’s more complex than that. Russia, in that sense � sorry, Soviet Union was hermetically sealed. We didn’t have deep important commercial relationships in the same way that we have today. There were some, but it was fundamentally different. That poses a much more complex problem set for the United States. Our economies are deeply intertwined today. That’s a good thing in many respects, right? It’s what the United States began in the early ’70s, to open up the economic relationship between the countries with the theory that the political situation would follow. That hasn’t happened. And so we will continue to develop a strategy that is broad and deep and confronts China at each of those places. And where there is room to cooperate, we will run down that road as well.

QUESTION: It seems to me that one of the really important assets we have here is our allies and partners as we try to deal with China, right? And we’re asking a lot of them. And obviously, we need them in places, but we’re asking � also asking a lot of them in terms of burden sharing, in terms of supporting sanctions that they don’t necessarily agree with. So how do you balance that as the Secretary of State when you’re having a conversation with them?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, you smile and shake hands on the things you agree on, and then arm wrestle on those that you don’t. And you do so with the seriousness that you recognize they’re a sovereign nation, they have their own interests. We have ours. Some places you just simply agree to disagree, and then you provide friction. There’s a rub there to be sure. But with our true friends, our European partners, those folks who have been around a long time, these are deep, sophisticated relationships that are strong and endure past all of them. People think this is all new. You’ll remember from your time, right, we’ve had big fights about Iraq with the Europeans. There’s a long history of having friends and partners with whom you diverge on a particular issue set, so you lean in hard on those things you work on, and China’s a perfect example.

We built out a big coalition with the ASEAN partners in Asia. The Europeans understand the risk from China. I think their acceptance of that is ever increasing day by day. I think there’s a global understanding that something has shifted in China over the last handful of years, that it has gone from a developing country to one now with a very different design. And I think as the world begins to absorb that, I think you will see the coalitions begin to solidify, and the capacity for what we care about � Western democratic values, free and open markets, the capacity to trade around the world, security arrangements that provide security for all, freedom of navigation � those things are the central pillars of our Western democracies. I think you’ll see us unite and begin to do the things we need to do to ensure that that value set continues to dominate this century and the next.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, last question. You’ve been terrific with your time. Thank you. Back to your one-year anniversary in this job. So you are the President’s most senior representative to the rest of the world. You travel to many countries. You have countless meetings with foreign officials. What have you learned about America’s role in the world? The reason I ask is there’s a division here in the United States between those who think we should engage less in the world and those who think we should engage more in the world. What’s your sense after a year as Secretary of State?

SECRETARY POMPEO: We’re irreplaceable in the global firmament for creating the central understandings of what the � what ordered liberty throughout the world must look like. Wherever I travel, Mike, it’s an enormous privilege to serve as Secretary of State. Wherever I travel, people want to meet the American Secretary of State. They don’t want to meet Mike, they want to meet the American Secretary of State because they understand that when we show up, America will show up as a force for good. We may disagree. We may have a � how to get there tactically, but they understand that America’s not out there solely with some mission to conquer or solely with some mission to create a win/lose proposition for them.

We’re there to certainly present America’s value set and to get good outcomes for our citizens � my first task; the President’s primary mission � but they know we bring with us the capacity for reason and thoughtfulness and process and lawfulness. All the core values of Western democracies are very much embodied in the United States, and there’s no one that can replace us in the world with respect to each of those issues.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time. And give my best to your family.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you. Bless you too. Have a good day.


Source: U.S. State Department