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One year ago: Senator Whitehouse on Pompeo



The following was originally published on RI Future on January 28, 2017:

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse was in the hot seat early Saturday when a constituent challenged him on his affirmative vote for Michael Pompeo as Donald Trump’s director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Whitehouse defended his vote by first saying that it was necessary to pick his battles on the nominations.

“We’re going to have terrific fights with the extremism and the bad policies and the conflicts of interest with this administration,” said Whitehouse, “We’re going to have a lot of them and I’m all in on those fights as you know from my record.”

Whitehouse’s second reason is that he believes that Pompeo will be tough on issues of national security. “We also have, I think, a significant national security risk, we have Russia, which has already potentially interfered in our election with potentially psychological warfare against our population, enabled by the hack of the DNC emails, we have cyber war happening fairly full time against us in various ways, and its a dangerous world out there. And not only do we have the outside threats…”

“So does that make torture okay?” interrupted a constituent.

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“No, of course not…” replied Whitehouse, caught off guard.

“How can you morally, as a moral person, vote for a man that endorses torture?” asked David Norton, from Pawtucket.

“He doesn’t,” said Whitehouse, “He said he’s not going to…

“Yes he does!” countered Norton.

“No,” said Whitehouse, “His testimony was clear…”

At this point, the room erupted.

Contrary to what Whitehouse asserted, Pompeo’s testimony was far from clear on the subject of torture. He may have sailed through his confirmation hearings and said all the right things, but in his written testimony Pompeo left the door to torture open.

“If experts believed current law [regarding water boarding] was an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country, I would want to understand such impediments and whether any recommendations were appropriate for changing current law,” Mike Pompeo wrote.

“If confirmed, I will consult with experts at the agency and at other organizations in the U.S. government on whether the Army Field Manual uniform application [which currently disallows torture] is an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country or whether any rewrite of the Army Field Manual is needed,” Pompeo wrote.

Back to the room:

“Are you willing to step down as a Senator if… [crosstalk] …waterboarding?” said Norton, followed by more crosstalk. “You’re willing to step down?”

“Of course,” replied Whitehouse, though it’s difficult to know if he was clear on what Norton was asking.

Whitehouse went on to defend his strong opposition to torture during his career as a Senator, saying that other than Senator Diane Feinstein, no Senator worked harder on the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture than he did.

Whitehouse further justified his vote for Pompeo saying that when a “wildly stupid idea” comes flying out of Trump’s White House, there will be some people there to say no. “I believe Pompeo will say no. He was never a Trump guy he was a [Marco] Rubio guy, he’s trusted in the intelligence community, aside from his politics, and I think he’s part of a fire wall around the crazy excesses that are potentially coming out of the Trump Whitehouse.”

I should note here that Marco Rubio is on record as supporting torture, saying, “Yes, we must use any means necessary to prevent terrorism.”

Finally, Whitehouse seems satisfied that Pompeo has passed the first test of his position as CIA director. In the wake of the revelation that the Trump administration was, “preparing a sweeping executive order that would clear the way for the CIA to reopen overseas ‘black site’ prisons, like those where it detained and tortured terrorism suspects before former President Barack Obama shut them down,” Whitehouse said, “My read is that the first test they passed on this torture memo. They pushed back quietly and said, ‘knock it off.’”

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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.