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4 candidates vie to be military’s next spy chief

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The officers have since been vetted by Kernan’s shop and forwarded to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, according to one of the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Esper, after receiving input from the U.S. intelligence community, will then make his choice and share the recommendation with the White House — although the exact timeline remains fluid as the Defense Department reels from the coronavirus pandemic.

A DoD spokesperson referred comment about the process and the candidates to DIA, which declined to comment.

The selection will be made as President Donald Trump takes aggressive steps to reshape an intelligence community that he has often openly mocked and warred with, replacing veteran operatives with people considered to be loyalists.

In February, the president replaced acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire with U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who previously had not served in any U.S. intelligence agency. The abrupt change set off more personnel moves that have prompted fears among career clandestine officials of a broader loyalty purge.

The Pentagon hasn’t been immune. Last month, POLITICO reported that the White House is holding up Kathryn Wheelbarger’s nomination to become Kernan’s No. 2 because administration officials believe she hasn’t been sufficiently loyal to Trump.

The moves are concerning to current and former defense officials, who believe the selection of a new military spy chief will now have to undergo a political test.

“The fact is, ultimately, it’s a presidential decision and a presidential appointment,” a former senior defense official told POLITICO. “I would hope that those advising him, and then the senior officials in DoD and in the intelligence community, focus on ‘best athlete.’”

“You need a professional. You need somebody that understands intelligence, that is experienced in it, and who will speak truth to power.”

The next director will be responsible for overseeing an agency with about 17,000 employees spread across 140 countries, and which has been examined by both Pentagon brass and lawmakers over concerns that an accumulated glut of responsibilities has distracted from DIA’s mission of providing military intelligence.

Here is more information on the candidates:

Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Kruse is the director for Defense Intelligence Warfighter Support, an organization under Kernan’s office. He served as head of intelligence at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, a role that could help his chances as the Pentagon carries out the administration’s strategy against China and Russia.

Another factor that could boost Kruse’s candidacy is the concept of “service equity” — namely that the armed branches get turns filling significant general officer assignments. DIA hasn’t had an Air Force chief since James Clapper from 1992 to 1995.

Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Michael Groen is the deputy chief of Computer Network Operations at the National Security Agency. Prior to joining NSA, he served in two high-profile posts: head of intelligence for the Joint Staff and for the Marine Corps.

Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier is the deputy chief of staff for Army intelligence. He has held a variety of intelligence roles during his military career, including multiple stints in Afghanistan.

Navy Rear Adm. Trey Whitworth is the Joint Staff’s director of intelligence. His official biography shows a lengthy list of tours at multiple organizations, including U.S. Africa and Central commands, as well as NSA.

Yet while Whitworth’s assignments are impressive, they don’t align well with the administration’s great power competition strategy, one person familiar with the process warned.

“If I were betting, I would say it would be Kruse,” the person told POLITICO, citing his recent regional expertise and his familiarity with the defense intelligence enterprise. The two-star is “politically savvy” and “knows what’s needed to modernize.”

The former senior defense official declined to guess who might get the nod, calling all four “stellar candidates.”

“They have all led large organizations. They all have a war zone experience. They’ve all served in combatant commands,” the former official said. “The intelligence community and DoD are pretty fortunate to be able to have that stiff of competition for a director.”

The two people familiar with the process and the former defense official all said they expect Esper to make an announcement later this spring or over the summer — though the coronavirus pandemic might end up delaying things, including Ashley’s retirement and congressional consideration of his successor.

“You want to give enough time for the Senate to do its due diligence and execute its process before the August recess,” the former official told POLITICO. “If you don’t get it by then, you hope when they come back in September that they’re able to take up the military nominations. But it being an election year, the Hill turns into a ghost town come early October.”

The former official expressed confidence Esper can keep the White House from exerting political influence over the military appointment.

“I hope so,” this person said.



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