According to a long-in-the-works report from Vanity Fair, Peter Thiel is in discussions to head what one insider described as the “only meaningful executive-branch oversight of the intelligence community.” Numerous officials, including Steve Bannon, confirmed this, and one of Thiel’s chief concerns is reportedly the sweeping powers that companies like Google and Amazon have amassed.
Thiel, a founder of PayPal and prolific investor in the tech world, who secretly bankrolled a lawsuit against Gizmodo’s former owner Gawker Media resulting in the company’s bankruptcy, was one of the only prominent members of Silicon Valley to publicly endorse Trump during the 2016 campaign. His outsized influence affords him the luxury of holding unpopular positions, and there was nothing Trump could do that was too outrageous for Thiel. When the infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape leaked, many supporters fled. Thiel reportedly doubled-down and immediately donated $1.25 million to Trump’s campaign. Since then, he’s appeared to enjoy enviable access to the administration. Based on Vanity Fair’s findings, it seems that influence is even larger than anyone imagined.
Almost exactly one month before Bannon’s bombshell resignation from his position as chief strategist at the White House, Vanity Fair’s Adam Ciralsky met with the man who is often been portrayed as Trump’s puppeteer. As other aides scurried around the White House trying to put out the latest fire in the Russia scandal, Bannon was raving about how important Thiel’s influence is in this administration. In the course of their conversation, Bannon dropped this jaw-dropping bit of info about Thiel’s participation in selecting “disruptive” candidates for government positions:
“Of all of the issues we were looking at in preparation for assuming power, 25 to 30 percent were part of Peter’s portfolio,” Bannon explained. Thiel, according to three administration sources, has weighed in on, and suggested candidates to handle, among other things, anti-trust policy, the drug-approval process, cyber-security, and intelligence. Said one top Trump adviser, “When we have conventionally-minded people putting forward conventional approaches, Peter will come up with something radically different.” “Radical” may be soft-pedaling it. According to Bannon, “Peter’s whole mandate was to be disruptive and put forward people who could shake up the system.”
In fact, Steve Bannon, a man who could hardly be characterized as an ideological milquetoast, maintained that some of Thiel’s candidates “were perhaps too disruptive to the system,” and he recalled how during the transition he and Thiel had a standing Saturday lunch at the latter’s New York apartment, where, to hear Bannon tell it, Bannon was the moderating influence. “I’ve been accused of being the internal mastermind of disruption, but at the end of the day I still [had] to make sure we balance[d] disruption with running the country.”
It’s hard to say what qualifies as more disruptive than installing a brain surgeon with no infrastructure experience as head of housing, an anti-environment crusader as chief of the EPA, and putting a man who couldn’t name the Department of Energy in charge of our nuclear arsenal, but apparently, Thiel’s suggestions were pretty out there.
Some of Thiel’s pals made it through the confirmation process, like Michael Kratsios, the former chief of staff at Thiel Capital, who is now deputy chief technology officer. Others didn’t get selected but are still being considered for less-official positions that don’t require congressional oversight. That sort of position is what sources said Thiel is being courted to take on.
Three “senior White House sources,” said told Vanity Fair that Thiel has been offered the chairmanship of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB). And as recently as this month, one source said he’s still Trump’s top pick. The board is tasked with overseeing intelligence operations and advising the president on the legalities and shortcomings of the intelligence community. Depending on the president it serves, the board has had varying levels of power. One senior official said that Trump’s iteration will be handed a ton of influence:
“This P.I.A.B. will have more authority than it did under Obama. . . . [Peter] is not going to just sit back. As a libertarian, he is interested in the oversteps the intelligence community has made in the past. . . . Once”—or if—“he gets in there, he’s going to ensure that there isn’t inappropriate collection of [data on] U.S. persons.”
Considering the fact that Trump has likened the CIA to a group of Nazis, it’s not surprising that he’d want to set up some powerful opposition to the intelligence community. And Thiel does have strong feelings about personal privacy—mostly his own. One colleague who has reportedly known Thiel for nearly 20 years told Vanity Fair that Thiel’s craving for privacy is what drove him to collaborate with the CIA through Palantir, the data-mining monster funded by the agency that helped engineer the NSA’s sweeping surveillance program. “You can only trust that community if you trust—or better yet, if you are—the person at the switch,” the colleague said.
With these things in mind, it isn’t hard to imagine Thiel acting as Trump’s unofficial Director of National Intelligence if he takes the post.
Thiel’s rise to prominence in Washington should also worry tech giants, many of whom are his competitors in the data world. Steve Bannon has recently been talking about turning Google and Facebook into public utilities. A senior administration aide had this to say about Thiel’s feelings on that:
“Peter has indicated that if he takes the P.I.A.B. position he intends to take a comprehensive look at the U.S. intelligence community’s information-technology architecture. He is super-concerned about Amazon and Google”—and Facebook, less so. “He feels they have become New Age global fascists in terms of how they’re controlling the media, how they’re controlling information flows to the public, even how they’re purging people from think tanks. He’s concerned about the monopolistic tendencies of [all three] companies and how they deny economic well-being to people they disagree with.” When I asked this source how likely it is that Thiel will assume the post, he answered, “He’s heavily leaning toward it. He feels there’s a lot of good he can do and it’s worth putting up with all the bullshit and scrutiny that will accompany his appointment.”
Indeed, as recently as May, Thiel has hinted that Google is becoming a monopoly, but at that time his tone was approving. At an energy industry conference, he said that he was only interested in investing in monopolies.
Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, probably won’t be too happy to hear any of this. He called Thiel a “hero” when speaking to Vanity Fair, and praised his willingness to take “a controversial position that no one else in the Valley did.” Schmidt was saying that Thiel is Silicon Valley’s man on the inside, but he could just as easily become its backstabber-in-chief. One close friend of Thiel reportedly said he only has three main priorities in life: “achieving immortality, resisting state control over his actions, and acquiring the money necessary to pull it off.” Taking care of his buds in business was not listed as one of them.
You can read the whole, absurd story here. Highly recommended.
Update: This piece has been updated to include details of Peter Thiel’s involvement in Gawker Media’s bankruptcy.