WASHINGTON — Donald Trump, mired in disagreement with the U.S. intelligence agencies over allegations of Russian election hacking, is weighing plans to slim down America’s spy operation and make changes at the CIA, a person familiar with the president-elect’s internal discussions said Thursday.
Trump is still expected to nominate someone to head the Office of the National Intelligence Director, an overarching agency created after 9/11 to improve coordination of U.S. spy and law enforcement agencies. Former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats is the top candidate, the person said.
The person with knowledge of the Trump team’s discussions said the president-elect is looking for ways to streamline operations and improve efficiency, not gut the intelligence agencies or hamper their capabilities. The changes would extend to the CIA, said the individual, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The discussions are independent of Trump’s public challenge to the intelligence community’s Russia assessment, the person said.
The CIA declined to comment, while outgoing National Intelligence Director James Clapper told a Senate panel Thursday that his office has not been engaged in such discussions with the Trump transition team. He noted that lawmakers created his office.
“Congress, I think, gets a vote here,” Clapper said.
Trump, who has embraced the possibility of warmer ties with Russia President Vladimir Putin, has vowed to shake up Washington. And he has bluntly challenged U.S. intelligence officials’ assessment that Russia meddled in the presidential race.
The agencies have concluded that there is no question that Russia was behind hacking of political computer systems — something they say could only have occurred with the approval of top Kremlin officials. That conclusion is detailed in a classified report President Barack Obama ordered up on Russia and other foreign influence in U.S. elections dating back to 2008.
Obama received the report Thursday. Trump was scheduled to be briefed on it Friday in New York. CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey and Clapper were among those expected to lay out its evidence and conclusions to the president-elect.
Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer denied Thursday that Trump was considering “restructuring the intelligence community infrastructure.”
“There is no truth to this idea of restructuring the intelligence community infrastructure. It is 100 percent false,” Spicer said. But he didn’t specifically address possible changes to the Office of the National Intelligence Director, or DNI.
It wouldn’t be the first reorganization.
A few years ago, CIA Director John Brennan ordered sweeping changes to the CIA to make its leaders more accountable and close intelligence gaps amid concern about the agency’s limited insights into a series of major global developments.
The aim was to break down barriers between the CIA’s operations and analytical arms. Historically, case officers who recruit spies and run covert operations have sometimes worked for different bosses in different offices than the analysts who interpret the intelligence and write briefing papers for U.S. officials.
The Wall Street Journal first reported Wednesday night that Trump was looking at making his own changes.
That report has prompted alarm among some intelligence professionals, who argued that Trump was being advised by individuals who have opposed the DNI ever since it began operations in 2005. They questioned whether Trump’s camp has up-to-date information about the office’s success in eroding turf wars among various U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies and improving coordination.
Some lawmakers quickly spoke in opposition.
Sen. Angus King, a Senate intelligence committee member, said “increased coordination is needed now more than ever before.”
“Congress created the DNI based on the careful study of intelligence coordination failures that led to the terrorist attacks on 9/11,” said King, Maine’s independent-aligned senator. “Like many, I am open to considering reforms, but dismantling or weakening the DNI would be a truly dangerous decision.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the House intelligence committee’s top Democrat, said “any move to arbitrarily slash the office will diminish its effectiveness and reverse many of the important gains we had made since 9/11.”
The Trump camp is said to be considering several nominees to head the office.
Among them are Adm. Mike Rogers, who currently leads the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command; former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats; Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO who ran against Trump in the Republican primary; and Fran Townsend, former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush.