US President Donald Trump wants ally to review spy agencies, prompting alarm from officials

US President Donald Trump plans to assign Cerberus Capital Management co-founder Stephen A. Feinberg to lead a broad review of US intelligence agencies, according to administration officials.
US President Donald Trump plans to assign Cerberus Capital Management co-founder Stephen A. Feinberg to lead a broad review of US intelligence agencies, according to administration officials. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump plans to assign a New York billionaire to lead a broad review of US 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 Mr 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 Mr Trump during the campaign and since he became President. On Wednesday, Mr Trump blamed leaks from the intelligence community for the departure of Mr Michael T. Flynn, his national security adviser, whose resignation he requested.

There has been no announcement of Mr 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 Mr Trump's economic advisory council.

Mr Feinberg, who has close ties to Mr Stephen K. Bannon, who is Trump's chief strategist, and Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr Feinberg is being groomed for a high position in one of the intelligence agencies.

Mr Bannon and Mr Kushner, according to current and former intelligence officials and Republican lawmakers, had at one point considered Mr 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. Mr 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 US intelligence agencies contradicts the positions of the new administration. The divide is starkest when it comes to Russia and President Vladimir Putin, whom Mr Trump has repeatedly praised while dismissing US intelligence assessments that Moscow sought to promote his own candidacy.

Against this backdrop, Mr Trump has appointed Mr Mike Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, to run the CIA, and former senator 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 Mr Trump. In fact, they each endorsed Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for president during the 2016 Republican primaries.

But the potential White House role for Mr Feinberg follows intense speculation among intelligence professionals that he is in line for a powerful position within the intelligence community.

Reports that Mr Feinberg was under consideration to run the clandestine service rocked the intelligence community in recent weeks, raising the prospect of direct White House control over America's spies at a time when Mr Trump's ties to Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are under investigation by the FBI and congressional committees.

The last time an outsider with no intelligence experience took the job was in the early days of the Reagan administration, when Max Hugel, a businessman who had worked on Reagan's campaign, was named to run the spy service. His tenure at the CIA was marked by turmoil and questions about the politicisation of the agency. He was forced to resign after six months, amid accusations about his past business dealings. (He later won a libel case against the two brothers who made the accusations.) Even the prospect that Mr Feinberg may lead a review for the White House has raised concerns in the intelligence community.

Mr Coats is especially angry at what he sees as a move by Mr Bannon and Mr 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 Mr Feinberg were working at the White House, he could quickly become a dominant voice on intelligence matters.

Mr 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 Mr Pompeo. He does not see an urgent need for a review of the intelligence community, according to current and former US officials, but sees it as better than the appointment of Mr 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 Mr 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 he 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 organisation of the intelligence community", Mr 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 Mr Flynn was forced out, one of his top aides, Mr 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 politicised.

Representative 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," he said.

Another Republican lawmaker said that the predominant view at the White House is also that the politicians in the intelligence agencies need to be cleaned out.

Through Cerberus, his private equity company, Mr Feinberg has strong ties to the government contracting industry. Cerberus owns DynCorp International, which has had a wide array of large contracts providing security to the State Department and other agencies. DynCorp is locked in a major legal dispute over the fate of a US$10 billion (S$14.2 billion) State Department contract that it previously held to provide air support for counter-narcotics operations overseas.

New Homeland Security secretary John F. Kelly was paid US$166,000 a year as a DynCorp adviser until he was named to the new administration.

Cerberus also owns Remington Outdoor, a major firearms manufacturer.

In 2008, Mr Feinberg also considered investing in Blackwater, the security firm founded by Erik Prince, a former member of the Navy SEALs, before it was ultimately acquired by other investors.

New York magazine reported last year that Mr Feinberg went to Blackwater's North Carolina compound in 2005 to take firearms training.