Dan Coats will wade into the middle of a fight when he goes before his former colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday for a confirmation hearing to serve as director of national intelligence. And it will have little to do with the former senator’s qualifications for the job.
Coats, 73, is likely to face tough questioning because President Donald Trump has nominated him to supervise the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies—from the CIA and FBI to the National Security Agency and the military’s intelligence operations—while they’re mired in explosive investigations touching on Russian hacking and Trump.
“Coats is definitely walking into a very tough job,” David Gordon, a former acting chairman of the National Intelligence Council who was director of policy planning under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said in an interview. “He’s walking into this environment of polarization between the intelligence community and the White House and the president himself.”
The intelligence agencies, which already have found that Russia was behind the hacking and leaking of Democratic emails to help Trump in last year’s campaign, are now looking into the extent of contacts that Trump’s associates had with Russian officials before and after the Nov. 8 election.
While Trump has said there were no improper contacts, Michael Flynn, his initial national security adviser, was forced to resign after the disclosure that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. before Trump took office.
Coats, a conservative Republican, has friends on both sides of the partisan aisle from his stints as a senator and House member from Indiana, his term as U.S. ambassador to Germany and his years as a high-powered corporate lobbyist.
‘Find the leakers’
If confirmed by the Senate, Coats would have to serve as intermediary, seeking to build trust between the intelligence community and a president who has repeatedly mocked the agencies, at one point comparing them to Nazi Germany for leaks damaging to him. “The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time,” Trump tweeted on Feb. 24. “They can’t even find the leakers within the FBI itself.”
Carrie Cordero, a former national security lawyer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department, said “the intelligence community is going to be looking for him to exert leadership, looking for him to ensure the work they do is considered professional within the White House.”
The Senate committee will press Coats to promise cooperation with its own developing investigation of Russian interference.
Democrats will want Coats to address “his willingness and ability to respond to all of our requests” in the investigation, and they hope he “will be responsive to those requests,” according to Brett Freedman, counsel for the committee’s Democratic minority.
New doubts have been raised by Democrats about the ability of the intelligence panel’s chairman, Richard Burr, to be objective in the probe. Questions arose out of a Washington Post report Friday that Burr, a North Carolina Republican, called reporters at the behest of the White House to try to knock down stories about contacts between Russia and Trump associates.
The intelligence panel’s top Democrat, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, said he expressed "grave concern" to Burr that such actions may harm the independence of the investigation. "I will not accept any process that is undermined by political interference," Warner said.
Some Democrats, including Dick Durbin, the party’s No. 2 ranking senator, have said an independent commission is needed to take over the Russia inquiry from congressional committees and that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should name a special prosecutor to take over the Justice Department’s investigation because he’s so close to Trump.
“It has to reach a point where we have public sentiment strong enough that we launch an independent, transparent investigation of what the Russians did to us,” Durbin of Illinois said Monday in an interview with Bloomberg editors and reporters in New York. “Think 9/11.”
The president said “no” on Monday when asked if a special prosecutor was needed, and Sessions said he would recuse himself if necessary.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence was created after the Sept. 11 attacks to coordinate information-sharing among intelligence agencies that often operate in their separate silos. But it has limited authority over budgets and personnel for the agencies, according to Adam Klein, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
The director “does not have immense formal powers,” Klein said in an interview. “To some extent, that means that in any given DNI’s ability to succeed depends on his or her ability to manage by personality and manage by moral suasion rather than coercion.”
Like many of Trump’s top national security appointees, Coats is unlikely to share the president’s past optimism about cutting deals with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Coats was among several U.S. officials who landed on a Kremlin blacklist in 2014, banning them from entry into Russia, for opposing Russia’s seizure of Crimea.
Democrats may ask Coats about how he envisions his role as Trump’s most senior intelligence adviser. Under the previous two presidents, the DNI has often delivered the president’s daily intelligence briefing, but it’s unclear how Trump will handle that process once Coats is confirmed.
‘Straighten it out’
Billionaire Stephen Feinberg had been in talks with White House officials to lead a review of the sprawling intelligence community, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
Yet at a Feb. 16 news conference, Trump said Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and FBI Director James Comey are “in position, so I hope that we’ll be able to straighten that out without using anybody else,” Trump said. “I think that we are gonna be able to straighten it out very easily on its own.”
Coats is likely to face questions about what that scrutiny might look like.
“There’s a lot of concerns from the members: What is the administration’s plan?” Freedman said in an interview in Washington. Lawmakers will want to ask Coats how he sees his role in that process, Freedman said, and if he’s discussed it with the president, “What direction were you given?”
Coats may also have to convince his former colleagues that such a review is even worth undertaking. There’s already oversight of the intelligence community that includes Congress, inspectors general at federal agencies and the Government Accountability Office, said Hope Goins, staff director for Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee under Representative Bennie Thompson.
“We have those checks and balances there to provide us with what the agencies are doing and what they’re not doing,” Goins said at a conference in Washington, D.C.