Russia dominates talk by CIA director at Aspen Security Forum |

Russia dominates talk by CIA director at Aspen Security Forum

Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, right, speaks with moderator Bret Stephens, a columnist with The New York Times for the Aspen Security Forum at the Aspen Institute on Thursday.
Anna Stonehouse / The Aspen Times |

While Iran, North Korea and ISIS repeatedly popped up as threats to the United States in a talk Thursday by CIA Director Mike Pompeo at the Aspen Security Forum, Russia was the dominant focus.

From Russian intervention in Syria to Russian interference in America’s November election to Russian use of Wikileaks and other “asymmetrical” strategies to destabilize other countries, the world power led by President Vladimir Putin was as ubiquitous during the hour-long talk as it is in the country’s current political dialogue.

In fact, toward the end of his talk with New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, Pompeo appeared to become a bit frustrated with the Russia focus, particularly on the question of election interference.

“Look, this is the 19th time you all have asked, and I’m happy to answer for the 20th time now,” Pompeo said in response to an audience question about how he explains President Donald Trump’s characterization of Russian election interference as “fake news” and a “witch hunt” to his CIA team. “I am confident the Russians meddled in this election.”

Earlier, Pompeo said “of course” the Russians interfered in the 2016 American election, as well as “the one before that and the one before that.”

“I hope I didn’t stop at 2008,” he said in response to a later follow-up question about that statement. “I could go back to the 1970s.”

Putin’s emphasis on asymmetrical strategies that destabilize countries without the use of traditional weapons has become easier and cheaper as technology has improved and will likely continue to be a problem, Pompeo said. In fact, the same factors have allowed “non-state actors” like Julian Assange and WikiLeaks to pursue similar strategies, he said.

“WikiLeaks (wants to) take down America and will work with anyone to do so,” Pompeo said. “We now need to understand that threats come from different sources like them.”

Stephens, referring to a statement Trump made during an October campaign rally in Pennsylvania, reminded Pompeo, “We had a presidential candidate saying, ‘I love WikiLeaks.’”

“I don’t love WikiLeaks,” Pompeo replied.

In Syria, Russian intervention “fundamentally changed the landscape” of that war to the detriment of the Syrian people, he said. Pompeo laid that development at the feet of former President Barack Obama, who he said “invited the Russians in” to Syria.

“He had them come solve the chemical weapons problem,” Pompeo said. “It’s a tremendous problem for America to have influence in that area.”

Still, America should find common ground with Russia in the global counterterrorism fight if it can, though it also has a responsibility to keep Russian expansion into places like Crimea and Ukraine in check, he said.

Pompeo characterized Iran as the “largest state sponsor of terrorism” and deflected a question to the State Department about why the United States recently recertified the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration. That deal provides only marginal benefits to the U.S. while allowing Iran to conceal what it’s actually up to, he said.

He likened the Iranians “foot-dragging” to a “bad tenant” who leaves a sofa in the front yard, then drags it to the backyard when asked to move it.

“They love to stick it to America,” Pompeo said. “When we have a strategy in place, I’m confident we will be able to push back.”

That steered the conversation to Iran and any possible help it might have provided to North Korea’s nuclear program.

“They’ve had a lot of willing partners — suppliers, engineers and talented physicists,” Pompeo said.

The best thing to do, he said, is to separate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un from his nuclear weapons. That means concentrating on disrupting the long supply chain necessary to develop, test and deploy such weapons and convincing China especially to reduce trade with the country, Pompeo said.

Finally, there’s ISIS, and the possible migration of its European terrorist cells to the United States. That is one of the most worrying scenarios in the world today, Pompeo said. And while he said he’s confident the group’s caliphate in Syria and Iraq will soon be crushed, somewhat dispelling its threat, Islamic terror isn’t going away anytime soon.

“The threat from radical Islamic terrorism is something that will be around for an awfully long time,” Pompeo said.


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