The Central Intelligence Agency is supposed to be an apolitical agency. Its director is supposed to serve the public's interest, not those of any party or president. It's critical to the CIA's mission that the agency steer clear of partisan disputes, and be recognized -- by policymakers and the public alike -- as an independent intelligence agency.
But with Donald Trump in the White House, even the most basic functions of the American government have a tendency to be ... different.
The New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago that the president's CIA chief, former Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo, is "perhaps the most openly political spy chief in a generation -- and one of President Trump's favorite cabinet members." Trump has turned to the CIA director as an adviser on all kinds of issues unrelated to Pompeo's duties, including the health care debate.
Overnight, the Washington Post took this quite a bit further, reporting that some CIA officials aren't sure they can fully trust their own CIA director because of his apparent loyalties to his ally in the Oval Office.
As CIA director, Mike Pompeo has taken a special interest in an agency unit that is closely tied to the investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, requiring the Counterintelligence Mission Center to report directly to him.
Officials at the center have, in turn, kept a watchful eye on Pompeo, who has repeatedly played down Russia's interference in the 2016 election and demonstrated a willingness to engage in political skirmishes for President Trump.
Current and former officials said that the arrangement has been a source of apprehension among the CIA's upper ranks and that they could not recall a time in the agency's history when a director faced a comparable conflict.
These circumstances are genuinely chilling. There's an ongoing counter-intelligence investigation underway, examining the most serious attack on the United States since 9/11, and while a special counsel from the Justice Department is overseeing the probe, the CIA is playing an important role in providing materials necessary to get at the truth.
And it now appears CIA officials aren't sure their own boss can be trusted to be responsible with findings the White House wouldn't like.
Indeed, the Washington Post's report is rather explicit on this point. Referring to the CIA unit that works closely with the FBI and continues to monitor Russian interference -- the Counterintelligence Mission Center, which Pompeo has been keeping an eye on -- the article said there's no evidence that the CIA director has interfered with officials' work. That said, "there is concern about what he might do if the CIA uncovered new information potentially damaging to Trump and Pompeo were forced to choose between protecting the agency or the president."
One official told the newspaper, "People have to watch him. It's almost as if he can't resist the impulse to be political."
The Post went on to report that Pompeo has developed a reputation at the CIA for "displaying the fierce partisanship that became his signature while serving as a GOP member of Congress."
When CIA officials can't trust the CIA director, it's an untenable dynamic.