President Donald Trump’s pick for Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said on Tuesday that the U.S. needs to look at Russian actions “with eyes wide open and a healthy degree of skepticism” as he vowed that, if confirmed, he has “no intention” of holding back any information from the Senate Intelligence Committee as it conducts its investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election.
The former senator faced a largely friendly reception from the committee he once served on as he tackled questions about the DNI’s role, the threats facing the country, and the administration’s current handling of the National Security Council. If confirmed as DNI, Coats would head up the Intelligence Community (IC) in a role meant to serve as the principal advisor to Trump and the NSC on intelligence issues.
The former senator told the committee that the most challenging issues facing the U.S. are cybersecurity, China, North Korea, Russia and the “threat of radical Islamic terrorism.” He also noted that Iran, Syria, Afghanistan “and other hot spots around the world” are other key concerns.
The Office of the DNI has, since its formation, sought to coordinate efforts among the 17 agencies and offices that make up the Intelligence Community. It was created in the wake of 9/11, in response to the failure of the IC to share information that might have connected the dots and prevented the terrorist attacks. There have been a number of issues over the years with the office, from criticism that it is a bloated bureaucracy to tension between the DNI and CIA, whose director prior to the DNI’s creation served as the coordinator of the overall IC.
The ODNI “brings together talent from across the community to integrate intelligence” and it “does its best to connect the dots,” Coats said. The former senator said he would be hanging up his “policy hat” if confirmed, and understands that in the IC “our job is not to formulate policy, our job is not to influence intelligence in any way for political reasons.”
“I will not tolerate anything that falls short of that standard,” he said.
As for the Presidential Memorandum removing the DNI from a full seat on the NSC principals committee — the DNI “shall attend where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed,” according to the language — Coats told senators that he was informed by Trump and his staff that it was never the intention to nix the DNI from it.
“I have been reassured time and time and time again from the President to his advisors that I’m welcome and needed and expected to be a part of the principles committee,” Coats said, later acknowledging that the directive has not been modified to officially put the DNI back in a permanent role in the principals committee.
As for the size of the ODNI, Coats told the committee that “recent commentary on the size of the ODNI doesn’t mesh with what I’ve seen firsthand.”
“I believe every government agency must constantly review its operations, and I’ll be taking a look at not only the office of the ODNI but the entire IC and try to learn how we can do things more efficiently and effectively. We don’t have a choice,” he said.
Coats also addressed news reports that Trump has asked Stephen Feinberg, a co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management, to lead a broad overview of the IC. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) noted that “to have this additional review, particularly from an individual who does not appear to have the requisite background, appears to be a textbook definition of waste and duplication.”
“My concern is that an outside review by an individual without experience can result in recommendations that are essentially armchair quarterbacking of the leadership of the intelligence committee. Do you view it as your job to review the operations of the intelligence committee?” she asked.
“I do and I’ve made that clear to the President and to his advisors, that that is where I stand,” Coats responded. If there is such a review of the IC, I think that needs to be under my authority, and I’ve made that very, very clear and I believe that’s what the case will be,” he said.
Feinberg is a “patriot, he wants to serve his country,” Coats added, but “I do not think that translates into reporting to the White House and not being under the control of the” DNI.
Several senators also questioned Coats on how he would approach the committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the election.
“Do you promise to fully and completely cooperate with the committee’s investigation of the Russian election hacking, including by turning over all requested I.C. cables, intelligence products and other materials to the committee as promptly as possible?” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia), the ranking member, asked Coats.
“I think it’s our responsibility to provide you access to all that you mentioned,” Coats responded.
He also told the committee that “Russia’s assertiveness in global affairs is something I look upon with great concern, which we need to address with eyes wide open and a healthy degree of skepticism.”
The hearing also briefly touched on the President’s criticism of the IC. Trump repeatedly questioned U.S. intelligence information both during and after the election, and Warner noted that Coats will “have the unique challenge of working for a President” who has criticized the work of the IC.
If confirmed, Coats will “have a very incredibly important role to make sure that the brave men and women who serve us often in anonymity, that you’ll have their back and that you will make sure that the moral of these brave men and women is increased and is respected,” Warner said.
“I intend to be a champion for the hardworking men and women of the IC — be there for them the way they are here for all of us,” Coats told the committee.
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.