Sounds like the crackdown’s coming, which is understandable after a month of IC leaks growing into a flood against Mike Flynn. What’s less understandable is why a random Wall Street guy is being asked to do it instead of, say, Dan Coats, Trump’s nominee for Director of National Intelligence. If Trump doesn’t trust Coats to do this task diligently for fear that he’ll lose the confidence of the intel bureaucracy, he needs a DNI who will.
It should be noted that restructuring America’s intelligence leviathan isn’t an idea that occurred to Trump this week, in a fit of anger over Flynn’s demise. It came up during the transition (and was duly denied by Team Trump at the time). In particular, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has been a target for reform for years, having grown bloated since it was created after 9/11. Again, though, presumably it’s Coats’s job to take charge on that. Why outsource the task to some hedge-funder?
Bringing [Stephen] 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 Central Intelligence Agency’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 gun makers…
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.
That sounds a bit like what happened with Mike Flynn and Steve Bannon. One of the objections to Bannon being placed on the National Security Council’s Principals Committee was that you don’t want a political officer attempting to influence the judgments of natsec professionals. Partly for that reason, Flynn reportedly felt that Bannon was trying to wrest away some of his authority over national security. Now here comes Feinberg, another White House advisor-in-the-making, being lined up to ride herd on Coats, a natsec appointee like Flynn was. You can understand why, after the past few months of leak-o-rama, Trump would want people he trusts personally inside the intelligence bureaucracy. But if you’re undermining the authority of your own top natsec people within the first month then either you’ve nominated the wrong people or you’ve got serious flaws in your management approach. Or both.
Makes me wonder whether there are so few intelligence pros out there who trust Trump that he has no choice but to go far afield, to Wall Street, to find someone who’d be more loyal to him than to the IC in conducting this review of the agencies. A guy with no experience like Feinberg obviously isn’t optimal; ideally you’d want someone like Bush’s former NSA, Stephen Hadley, but can Trump trust Hadley to place the White House’s interests above those of the intel bureaucrats with whom Hadley used to work? It occurs to me that there is, or was, a good choice out there to investigate intelligence agencies, both in terms of his enthusiasm for reforming the IC and his knowledge of, and experience with, how it works. That choice was … Mike Flynn. Maybe he would have been better off in that reformer role from the beginning, with someone else appointed NSA. It may be that that was another motive for IC bureaucrats to have the knives out for him — they feared that Flynn would eventually lead a crackdown of this sort from his White House perch as NSA and wanted him cashiered before he had a chance.
Relatedly, although Ed already posted this morning on the WSJ story about U.S. intel agents withholding information from Trump, I feel obliged to point out that that’s not the only time that claim has been made lately. John Schindler heard the same thing from his friends in the IC a few days ago. No specific examples are cited in the Journal piece of info being held back but clearly there are people within the administration who want the public to know, or to believe, that this is happening. The question is who, and why. It could be a straightforward case of anti-Trump intel people trying to undermine him again by implying that he’s either too incompetent to handle state secrets responsibly or that he’s been too badly compromised by Russia to trust that those secrets won’t end up in Moscow after Trump is briefed. One of Schindler’s Pentagon sources was specific on that point, saying, “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM.” That’s the “Manchurian candidate” theory of all this.
It occurs to me, though, that officials who are sympathetic to Trump (whether inside the White House or the IC) also have a motive to push the idea that intelligence is being withheld from him. It’s one thing to keep certain specific details about operations from the president to protect sources because you fear they might leak accidentally; it’s another thing to keep broader secrets from him for fear that he’d leak them to enemies deliberately. Blinding the White House as it tries to steer the ship of state is gross insubordination at a minimum. And if you’re a Trump ally who’s eager to launch Feinberg’s crackdown/review, having news circulating that the IC has moved from illegal leaks designed to damage Trump’s appointees to actively concealing information from the commander-in-chief is a shrewd way to build public support for just such a crackdown. The criticism this morning that the Journal story is thin on specifics is true but it may be that they felt obliged to run with it because people on both sides of this dispute are pushing that storyline on them, possibly inspired by Schindler’s piece of earlier this week.
In lieu of an exit question, I leave you with this: