Trump wants Jewish billionaire to vet spy agencies – report

As ties fray between White House and intelligence services, Bannon-Kushner associate Stephen A. Feinberg said being considered to lead review

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

President Donald Trump speaks at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump speaks at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Amid an ongoing tussle with spy agencies over leaks regarding contacts with Russia, US President Donald Trump is reportedly looking into tapping a Jewish billionaire from the world of finance to lead a broad review of intelligence services.

Stephen A. Feinberg, who already sits on Trump’s economic advisory council and has no experience of national security issues — beyond the fact that his firm is invested in two gun companies and a private security firm — is expected to be appointed to lead the audit of the intelligence agencies, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing administration officials.

Cerberus Capital Management informed investors earlier this month that Feinberg, its founder, had held talks with Trump transition team officials about a “senior role.”

Feinberg is close to the president’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon and his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

Bannon and Kushner once considered him for director of national intelligence or chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service, intelligence officials and Republican lawmakers told the paper.

Stephen A Feinberg (YouTube screenshot)
Stephen A Feinberg (YouTube screenshot)

Trump on Wednesday lashed out at the intelligence community on Twitter and during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claiming that it was spy agencies’ “illegal” leaks that had brought down his former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Flynn resigned Tuesday following reports that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about his contacts with Russian officials.

In a sign of growing acrimony between Trump and the spy agencies, on Wednesday the CIA sent a clear message to Trump by denying security clearance to Robin Townley, a Trump appointee to the National Security Council without any suggestion of disloyalty, the Washington Times reported.

Trump in January had compared intelligence agencies to Nazis over reports of a leaked dossier which claimed he was being blackmailed by the Kremlin. The president later said any discord had been fabricated by the media.

Top intelligence officials fear that Feinberg’s appointment is a stepping stone into a senior position in one of the intelligence agencies.

The appointment of a Trump political appointee to sensitive positions usually reserved for career intelligence officers is seen as something that could compromise both the professionalism and the independence of the intelligence services at a time when relations between them and the White House are strained.

Officials told the New York Times that Senator Dan Coats, in line for confirmation as director of national intelligence, is furious at what he sees as Bannon and Kushner moving the goalposts before he has entered the game by bringing Feinberg in.

In this Nov. 17, 2016 file photo, then-Indiana Sen. Dan Coats on Capitol Hill in Washington. President-elect Donald Trump is planning to appoint former Coats as Director of National Intelligence. (AP/Susan Walsh)
In this November 17, 2016 photo, then-Indiana Sen. Dan Coats on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Were Feinberg, who avoids the media limelight, to accept a senior role within the administration, he would — according to the firm’s letter to investors — have to go public about his finances.

The New York Times said this could bring more “uncomfortable scrutiny” upon his investment company, because of its involvement with the Remington gun maker, which produced the rifle used in the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

Neither Feinberg nor the White House would comment for the New York Times.

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