Mike Pompeo's Moscow Visit: What the CIA Director May Have Discussed In Russia

Mike Pompeo
Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo arrives for a closed briefing before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 16. Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

CIA Director Mike Pompeo reportedly visited Moscow and held talks with Russian intelligence officials in May, four months after condemning the country's authorities for orchestrating "aggressive action" during the U.S. election, The Washington Post reported on Friday.

The newspaper did not specify what Pompeo discussed during his visit.

President Donald Trump's White House has been plagued by controversy over a handful of undisclosed contacts with Russian officials by several cabinet and campaign figures. The meetings prompted several investigations by lawmakers and the Department of Justice, and resulted in the Senate stripping Trump of the authority to lift sanctions on Russia.

According to Jonathan Eyal, International Director at London's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Pompeo's meeting could have been secret but without any "sinister" undertones.

"It indicates one of the problems that the American intelligence community has, which is that relations with Moscow are so toxic now, and so politically charged at every level, that it is very difficult to engage in political discussion," he tells Newsweek. "But at the same time, there are very practical issues that need to be discussed with Russian intelligence."

The CIA would normally need to keep in touch with Russian security services to discuss problems or harassment U.S. diplomats may have experienced under Russia's jurisdiction. "There is also a need to de-escalate some of the tit-for-tat stuff," says Eyal, referring to the recent deterioration in relations between the countries.

"Intelligence agencies need personal contact to discuss practical issues, and they can be difficult to explain to the public," he says. "The real question is whether there was any attempt by the Americans to reach an informal agreement on cybersecurity."

Pompeo has criticized Russia for orchestrating hacks during the U.S. presidential election that were possibly aimed at sabotaging Hillary Clinton's campaign. Whether Russia was behind the hacks remains a sticking point between the two countries. Dissuading Russia from similar cyber activity is the sort of argument Pompeo could make privately in Moscow with greater success than if it were public, Eyal says.

"What he could do is show the Russians that what they did was counterproductive," says Eyal. "He can explain that what you have now is a president who is the most pro-Russian candidate to come into office probably since 1945, and he will end up more paralyzed than any other president in dealing with Russia. I would be amazed if Pompeo did not say that it was not clever, what they did in the U.S."

In private, the Russian position could be much more malleable, Eyal estimates, and could allow it to "to get out of the tight corner they have painted themselves in" without any combative rhetoric. "That message can only be delivered privately."

The CIA did not respond to a request for comment.