White House taps bil­lion­aire to head in­tel­li­gence re­view

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - NEWS - By Vi­vian Salama and Deb Riechmann

WASH­ING­TON >> Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said Thurs­day his ad­min­is­tra­tion has asked a New York-based pri­vate eq­uity ex­ec­u­tive to lead a re­view of the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity as he moves to crack down on “il­le­gal leaks” of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion.

Trump told re­porters that Stephen Fein­berg, co­founder of Cer­berus Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment, “is a very tal­ented man, very suc­cess­ful man” who has of­fered his ser­vices.

Trump added, “I think that we are gonna be able to straighten it out very eas­ily on its own.”

Fein­berg has been asked to make rec­om­men­da­tions on im­prove­ments to ef­fi­ciency and co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the var­i­ous in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, a se­nior White House of­fi­cial said ear­lier Thurs­day. Fein­berg’s po­si­tion is not of­fi­cial un­til he com­pletes an ethics re­view, the of­fi­cial said.

The news emerged as Trump seeks to re­place na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn, who re­signed at Trump’s re­quest this week.

Fein­berg was among the eco­nomic ad­vis­ers for Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Cer­berus Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment, a firm with $30 bil­lion in in­vest­ments, is deeply rooted in the Repub­li­can estab­lish­ment. For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Dan Quayle is the firm’s head of global in­vest­ment, and for­mer Trea­sury Sec­re­tary John W. Snow, who served un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, is the firm’s chair­man.

Democrats were less en­thu­si­as­tic than Trump about the choice of Fein­berg.

“While we must al­ways be open to im­prov­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion and co­or­di­na­tion among in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, taken in con­cert with the large num­ber of trou­bling state­ments Pres­i­dent Trump has made den­i­grat­ing our na­tion’s in­tel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als, I am ex­tremely con­cerned that this ap­point­ment sig­nals a de­sire by the ad­min­is­tra­tion to marginal­ize the role of the DNI or even take un­prece­dented steps to politi­cize in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions,” Warner said. The DNI is the di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence.

Many in­tel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als are view­ing this as an­other slight by the Trump White House, ac­cord­ing to a for­mer se­nior U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer who spoke only on con­di­tion of anonymity out of con­cern for putting for­mer col­leagues at risk. They al­ready are wor­ried about politi­ciza­tion of the in­tel­li­gence prod­uct and fear this could be a way to hin­der their abil­ity to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion that might con­tra­dict the White House’s po­lit­i­cal views, the of­fi­cial said.

Mike Hay­den, for­mer di­rec­tor of both the CIA and the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency, said the White House can re­view in­ef­fi­cien­cies within the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity but should not at­tempt to ex­ert con­trol over the agen­cies’ find­ings.

Hay­den said in an in­ter­view that the pro­posed re­view of the 17 in­tel­li­gence agen­cies could be an un­set­tling de­vel­op­ment for for­mer Sen. Dan Coats, Trump’s nom­i­nee for di­rec­tor of in­tel­li­gence who is yet to be con­firmed by Congress.

Some cur­rent and for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have raised con­cern over the ex­tent to which Trump has em­pow­ered mem­bers of his in­ner cir­cle on mat­ters that are typ­i­cally left to the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies.

The newly es­tab­lished Strate­gic Ini­tia­tives Group, headed by White House strate­gist Steve Ban­non, in­cludes a unit charged with coun­tert­er­ror­ism in­tel­li­gence, cur­rent and for­mer se­nior of­fi­cials say. The unit is headed by White House aide and for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity an­a­lyst Se­bas­tian Gorka, who doesn’t have ap­pro­pri­ate clear­ance, they said — some­thing the of­fi­cials ex­pressed con­cern about given the sen­si­tive man­date of the unit.

The of­fi­cials spoke anony­mously be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the mat­ter pub­licly. Gorka and Ban­non have not re­sponded to mul­ti­ple re­quests to dis­cuss the mat­ter.

U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have con­cluded that Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin or­dered a hid­den cam­paign to in­flu­ence Amer­ica’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Trump’s fa­vor over Demo­cratic ri­val Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Trump said at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day that “I have noth­ing to do with Rus­sia” but that im­proved re­la­tions would be a good thing.

He said, “no­body that I know of” on his cam­paign staff con­tacted Rus­sian of­fi­cials dur­ing the cam­paign.

Trump is not the first pres­i­dent to square off with the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, but his pre­de­ces­sors weren’t nearly as vo­cal about it.

AP FILE PHOTO

In this Dec. 11, 2008 file photo, Stephen Fein­berg is seen on Capi­tol Hill in Wash­ing­ton.

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