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 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 Flynn, his national security adviser, whose resignation he had 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.
Feinberg, who has close ties to Steve 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, said current and former intelligence officials and Republican lawmakers, had 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. 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.
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.