Nominee to be CIA watchdog says he'll stand up to Trump

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The Hill

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asks questions during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of Defense Spectrum Policy and the Impact of the Federal Communications Commission's Ligado Decision on National Security during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's nominee to be the CIA's chief watchdog is pledging independence, saying he will perform his role “in an unbiased and impartial manner, free of undue or inappropriate influences” by Trump or anyone else.

Peter Thomson, a New Orleans attorney and former federal prosecutor, faced skepticism about his ability to ward off presidential interference at a nomination hearing Wednesday.

Thomson's nomination as CIA inspector general comes as Trump is attacking the inspector general and whistleblower system. Trump has fired or replaced inspectors general across the federal government in recent months, including the former watchdogs for the intelligence community and State Department.

Trump's moves, made with little or no explanation, have drawn bipartisan criticism and spurred fears that the Republican president is moving to dismantle a post-Watergate network of watchdogs meant to root out corruption, fraud and other problems inside federal agencies.

“The job of an inspector general ... and protecting whistleblowers has never been more important,'' said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “But just doing that job can get you fired.”

Thomson's ability to ignore those threats "and aggressively pursue investigations wherever the facts may lead is at the heart of this confirmation process,'' Wyden said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

Thomson assured Wyden and other senators that he will be independent, even if it means he eventually gets fired. "If I was fired for doing my job in a lawful way, in an appropriate way, then I would be fired,'' Thomson said.

In a testy exchange with independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, Thomson denied that Trump or anyone else had asked him to pledge loyalty to the president. The White House Counsel's office interviewed him before his nomination, but he did not speak personally with Trump, Thomson said.

"I never perceived any kind of loyalty test at all with regard to the president,'' Thomson said.

King said Thomson's job is especially important now, following the removal of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community IG, and Steve Linick, the State Department watchdog. Atkinson, who was fired in April, advanced a whistleblower complaint that resulted in Trump's impeachment. Linick told Congress he was conducting investigations tied to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s use of government resources as well as Pompeo’s decision to approve a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

"This president has made plain his desire to politicize the intelligence agencies — that he doesn’t like the intelligence agencies,'' King said, citing a list of officials Trump has removed, including the acting and deputy directors of national intelligence.

“All you can do is tell me that you will stand up to that, but I certainly hope that you will, because it’s important for the country,” King said.

"If any such pressure was brought on the office to alter its product, or how it evaluates something, I would consider that very serious,'' Thomson replied, adding that he would report such interference to the CIA director and the Intelligence panel.

While he and King don’t really don’t know one another, "I think within a short period of time after working with me ... you would be absolutely convinced that I’m not going to give in to any kind of under inappropriate pressure; that I will always, always stand firm to my convictions,'' Thomson said.

The CIA has been without a Senate-confirmed inspector general since 2015. Former Acting IG Christopher Sharpley, who was nominated by Trump for the permanent post in 2017, withdrew in 2018 after his nomination stalled in the Senate. Two former CIA employees complained that Sharpley and other managers retaliated against them after they alerted congressional committees and other authorities about alleged misconduct at the agency.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., acting chairman of the intelligence panel, told Thomson that after listening to his testimony and reviewing his record, he's confident that "you would never endanger your 37-year career in public service and private practice for any reason,'' including pressure from the president.

Thomson replied that he is “a straight shooter,'' adding that his reputation ”means everything to me, as well as the rule of law.''