By James Risen and Matthew Rosenberg
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump plans to assign a New York billionaire to lead a broad review of U.S. intelligence agencies, according to administration officials, an effort that members of the intelligence community fear could curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview.
The possible role for Stephen A. Feinberg, a co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management, has met fierce resistance among intelligence officials already on edge because of the criticism the intelligence community has received from Trump during the campaign and since he became president. On Wednesday, Trump blamed leaks from the intelligence community for the departure of Michael T. Flynn, his national security adviser, whose resignation he requested.
There has been no announcement of Feinberg’s job, which would be based in the White House, but he recently told his company’s shareholders that he was in discussions to join the Trump administration. He is a member of Trump’s economic advisory council.
Feinberg, who has close ties to Stephen K. Bannon, who is Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, declined to comment on his possible position. The White House, which is still working out the details of the intelligence review, also would not comment.
Bringing Feinberg into the administration to conduct the review is seen as a way of injecting a Trump loyalist into a world the White House views with suspicion. But top intelligence officials fear that Feinberg is being groomed for a high position in one of the intelligence agencies.
Bannon and Kushner, according to current and former intelligence officials and Republican lawmakers, had at one point considered Feinberg for either director of national intelligence or chief of the CIA’s clandestine service, a role that is normally reserved for career intelligence officers, not friends of the president. Feinberg’s only experience with national security matters is his firm’s stakes in a private security company and two gunmakers.
On an array of issues – including the Iran nuclear deal, the utility of NATO, and how best to combat Islamist militancy – much of the information and analysis produced by U.S. intelligence agencies contradicts the positions of the new administration. The divide is starkest when it comes to Russia and President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has repeatedly praised while dismissing U.S. intelligence assessments that Moscow sought to promote his own candidacy.
Against this backdrop, Trump has appointed Mike Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, to run the CIA, and former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., to be the director of national intelligence (he is still awaiting confirmation). Both were the preferred choices of the Republican congressional leadership and Vice President Mike Pence and had no close or long-standing ties to Trump. In fact, they each endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for president during the 2016 Republican primaries.
But the potential White House role for Feinberg follows intense speculation among intelligence professionals that Feinberg is in line for a powerful position within the intelligence community.
Coats is especially angry at what he sees as a move by Bannon and Kushner to sideline him before he is even confirmed, according to current and former officials. He believes the review would impinge on a central part of his role as the director of national intelligence and fears that if Feinberg were working at the White House, he could quickly become a dominant voice on intelligence matters.
Michael V. Hayden, a retired general who ran the CIA and the National Security Agency during President George W. Bush’s administration, said it was hard to wrap his head around “the idea of a DNI nominee in the confirmation process while others consider retooling the position.”
“I think I’d be concerned too,” he said.
The challenge is less immediate for Pompeo. He does not see an urgent need for a review of the intelligence community, according to current and former U.S. officials, but sees it as better than the appointment of Feinberg to a job with actual authority over daily intelligence operations.
Many intelligence officials question what purpose a White House intelligence review would serve other than to position Feinberg for a larger role in the future. Most significant changes to the intelligence community would require an act of Congress, a fact that would ultimately blunt whatever ideas or proposals Feinberg came up with. Even with a Republican majority in both houses, getting Congress to agree to major changes to intelligence agencies seems unlikely.
It is difficult to “object to someone putting fresh eyes on the organization of the intelligence community,” Hayden said. “But, even though the DNI staff has become far too large, I don’t think any of us think a major restructuring of the community is in order.”
Tensions between the intelligence community and the White House have already played out on several fronts. Before Flynn was forced out, one of his top aides, Robin Townley, was denied a security clearance by the CIA. But distrust of the intelligence community has been building for years in conservative political circles, where the CIA during the Obama administration was seen as heavily politicized.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said in a recent interview that some officials in the intelligence community were trustworthy but “not all.”
“People there need to be rooted out,” King said.