Politics & Government

Once an active tweeter, will CIA nominee Mike Pompeo go undercover?

House Benghazi Committee member Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., talks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Oct. 22, 2015, during a break in the committee's hearing.
House Benghazi Committee member Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., talks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Oct. 22, 2015, during a break in the committee's hearing. AP

Ever since he accepted President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination to become the nation’s next spy chief, Mike Pompeo has “gone dark.”

The usually outspoken congressman from Wichita, Kansas, hasn’t commented publicly on national security, politics or whether Russian hacking influenced the election. Nor has he responded to reporters’ phone calls or text messages or answered questions emailed to his staffers.

One exception to this silent treatment? Twitter.

As recently as last week, Pompeo was tweeting about the Wichita State basketball team and Kirstie Alley’s Christmas decorations.

The tweets are a far cry from Pompeo’s usual fiery comments on the Iran nuclear deal or Hillary Clinton’s emails.

It isn’t clear whether Pompeo writes his tweets himself, as some lawmakers do, or his staffers write them. His profile says, “My staff helps me on Twitter,” suggesting that, at the very least, Pompeo might dictate tweets to his staffers, who then post them.

His office did not respond to written questions from McClatchy about Pompeo’s use of Twitter and whether his social media habits might change in his new job.

But for now, anyone looking for clues about Pompeo’s plans for the CIA or his thoughts on Russian hacking or waterboarding won’t learn much from following the congressman’s Twitter feed. Since accepting the CIA nomination on Nov. 18, he’s been publishing rah-rah posts about sports events or canned statements on noncontroversial topics, such as the commemoration of Pearl Harbor Day or his support for a bipartisan bill that boosts medical research funding.

It makes sense for someone who has been tapped to head the CIA to tone down partisan rhetoric and stop giving interviews or speeches in the weeks leading up to Senate confirmation hearings. Most Cabinet-level presidential nominees cut back on public appearances and social media activity, knowing that any gaffe could come back to haunt them in the hearing room.

But some experts say Pompeo might be well advised to give up tweeting altogether — or at least tweet only with caution — when he takes control of the CIA next year.

A spokesman for the CIA wouldn’t say whether the agency has any official regulations about its directors’ use of Twitter. The agency has maintained its own official Twitter feed, @CIA, since June 2014. The account has more than 1.6 million followers.

The agency’s current director, John Brennan, does not have a Twitter account. Nor do his predecessors Leon Panetta and David Petraeus.

That’s in line with the secretive nature of CIA directors’ work, which naturally results in lower public profiles than other Cabinet-level officials. Heads of the CIA hold fewer news conferences and issue fewer news releases. They rarely give interviews.

An exception is former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who tweets in a personal capacity from @GenMhayden.

Even apart from the virtue of discretion, tweeting could pose security risks for Pompeo in his new job, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Hackers could target his account and post inflammatory or false information under his name, Rotenberg said.

“That would be a good movie script, wouldn’t it?” he said. “Hack the CIA director’s Twitter account and start some conflict. Whoa.”

Pompeo also runs the risk of broadcasting his location through tweets or photos posted on Twitter, Rotenberg said.

Social media posts often include a date-time stamp, as well as the latitude and longitude where the file was created.

Such geolocation “tagging” could be a problem for Pompeo, Rotenberg said.

“Particularly the CIA director probably doesn’t want his information, or doesn’t want his location, to be known at any given moment,” he said.

If Pompeo were on an unannounced trip, this sort of metadata could reveal a meeting or consultation that was meant to be kept private, said Paul Pillar, a former CIA officer and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

“When the CIA director does travel overseas, generally it’s not announced and generally the less attention it’s paid, the better, from the U.S. point of view,” Pillar said.

Pillar said Pompeo would be smart not to follow Trump’s example on Twitter.

“It would be hard for Mr. Trump to deny his subordinates indulgence in social media and especially Twitter the same way he uses it so heavily,” Pillar said.

“My personal advice, regardless of who is the CIA director, would be to be very cautious in that regard, not to emulate Mr. Trump, and to steer clear of any controversy,” he said.

Pompeo’s use of social media will send a signal to the CIA’s 21,500 employees, Pillar added.

“The easiest way to set the safest example for his subordinates is to stay off that stuff,” he said.

“It behooves any director to make his or her own behavior the desired behavior for the whole workforce, and this is a workforce that has to exercise a lot of discretion and is barred from saying anything of substance about the work unless it’s specifically approved by the chain of command,” Pillar said.

“It’s so easy to be indiscreet in a harmful way, even if that’s not your intention,” he said, “and that would certainly apply to people at an agency like the CIA.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise