Dan Coats sought to tamp down tensions between President Donald Trump and U.S. intelligence agencies, assuring former Senate colleagues at his confirmation hearing that he would act independently as director of national intelligence.
The former Republican senator from Indiana told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that he was committed to cooperating with its inquiry into allegations of Russian hacking during the 2016 election, as well as possible contacts between Trump’s team and Russian officials, including providing raw intelligence and material as required.
Striking a significantly more hawkish tone toward Russia than Trump has, Coats said Russia has carried out similar operations elsewhere, including in Europe, and seems to have “stepped up their game.” The threat from Russia is a “grave concern” and needs to be addressed with “eyes wide open” and “healthy skepticism,” he added.
“This is something that needs to be investigated and addressed,” he told lawmakers. “Russia has a long history of propaganda. Now they’re using cyber and more advanced methods."
More broadly, the intelligence community’s job isn’t to formulate policy but to present the truth, Coats told the committee. “I will not tolerate anything that falls short of that standard,” he said, promising to present the president and senior policy makers “with the best and most objective, nonpolitical and timely intelligence.”
Coats also sought to reassure senators that he will support the workers at the 17 intelligence agencies he would supervise—from the CIA and FBI to the National Security Agency and the military’s intelligence operations—praising their “immense talent.” Trump has repeatedly questioned the judgment of the intelligence agencies, comparing them at one point to Nazi Germany for leaks damaging to him. He initially rejected their finding that Russia hacked into Democrats emails and leaked documents during last year’s campaign to help him win.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, called Coats “an excellent choice,” but pressed him to promise he would maintain his integrity “even in the face of political pressure” and remain free even from “interference from the White House.”
Warner also said he expects Coats cooperate fully with the committee’s Russia probe, including any “inappropriate” contacts that individuals associated with Trump may have had with the Russians.
The intelligence agencies and the FBI are looking into the extent of contacts that Trump’s associates may have had with Russian officials before and after the Nov. 8 election.
‘Crusty and mean’
Sen. Angus King described Coats as affable, cautioning that he would have to be “crusty and mean” and asking him to be “hard” in reporting to a president who may not always want to hear what he has to say. King of Maine, an independent, said the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam and the Iraq invasion were the biggest foreign policy blunders of his lifetime, with the common thread that intelligence was cooked to support policy making.
The job of DNI is “not be a spokesman for any political discussions that are made,” Coats said. “I cannot go outside the bounds of my authority.”
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. Asked if he supported that idea, Coats praised Feinberg’s experience, but said such a review “needs to be under my authority and I’ve made that very very clear” to the White House. He said he’d look at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as well as the “entire” intelligence community, to see how things can be done more efficiently.
After a two-hour open hearing, the committee adjourned for a closed session to discuss sensitive intelligence matters with Coats.