Former Indiana Sen. Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race Cyber preparedness could save America's 'unsinkable aircraft carrier' MORE (R) on Tuesday sought to reassure lawmakers that he will be empowered to lead the intelligence community despite conflicting signals from the Trump administration about the office he is nominated to lead.
In a genial confirmation hearing for one of the Senate’s more genial former members, the only major concern Senate Intelligence Committee members repeatedly raised was that Coats might be too nice for the job as director of national intelligence (DNI).
Several said they fear he would be hamstrung by a limited role in President Trump’s national security apparatus.
“My concern at this point is not about your qualifications. My concern is about what environment you’re walking into,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said.
Coats, a former member of the panel, is well-liked by his colleagues and expected to sail through confirmation. But the hearing comes at a moment of intense scrutiny of the Trump administration’s handling of national security and the intelligence community.
In an executive memorandum last month, Trump reshuffled the so-called Principal’s Committee of the National Security Council, elevating his controversial political adviser Stephen Bannon and apparently de-emphasizing the role of the DNI, who under that order will only attend meetings when issues pertinent to his responsibilities are discussed.
The move stoked fears that Bannon, as a political operative, will eclipse Coats and other national security professionals in the administration.
Coats downplayed worries that he could be cut out of the president’s national security decisionmaking process despite being the nominal head of the 17 agencies that make up the intelligence community.
“I have been reassured time and time and time again by the president and his advisors that I am welcome and needed and expected to be part of the Principal’s Committee,” Coats said. He told lawmakers that the administration had told him that demoting DNI was never the “intent” of the order, and that they had merely copied language from a similar Bush-era memorandum.
“You shouldn’t be welcome at these meetings, you should be part of these meetings,” Sen. Angus KingAngus KingSenate appears poised to advance first Native American to lead National Park Service Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act GOP tries to take filibuster pressure off Manchin, Sinema MORE (I-Maine) said.
Coats also sought to reassure lawmakers that he would speak truth to power if confirmed, amid ongoing concerns about politicization of intelligence within the administration.
“In this new role, it will be my responsibility to present the president, senior policymakers and the Congress with the best and most objective, nonpolitical and timely intelligence,” Coats said during his opening statement, placing the emphasis on the word “nonpolitical.”
“The president and I have discussed my potential role as his principal intelligence advisor, and we both recognize that this position is frequently the bearer of unpleasant news.”
The former senator pledged to work with the committee in its investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election, affirming that it is “our responsibility to provide you access” to raw intelligence.
Both Senate and House intelligence committees — as well as reportedly the FBI — are conducting contentious investigations into Russian interference in the U.S. election, including any contact between Trump campaign officials and Moscow.
Scrutiny on Trump associates has been stoked by a series of media leaks, apparently from members of the intelligence community, that Trump has decried as political attacks by holdover Obama officials.
Coats appeared to suggest that he would resist any pressure from the White House to publicly rebut media stories. CIA Director Mike Pompeo earlier this month issued a statement refuting a Wall Street Journal story and the FBI last week refused to do the same regarding a separate New York Times story.
Democrats have fiercely decried the White House request to the FBI to refute the story as an affront to the independence of the intelligence community.
“I don’t envision myself as going on CNN every night and saying, here’s what we’ve done,” Coats said Tuesday.
He also told lawmakers that he wanted to work with National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers to establish an estimate for the number of Americans caught up in the agency’s foreign surveillance dragnet.
In his initial questioning, Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrDemocratic incumbents bolster fundraising advantage in key Senate races McConnell gets GOP wake-up call Senate approves short-term debt ceiling increase MORE (R-N.C.) let Coats dispatch with perhaps the most contentious part of his record on the outset — a 2015 vote against the so-called McCain amendment that outlawed the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques.
Trump’s national security officials have been fiercely questioned on the issue of torture during their confirmation hearings in light of the president’s avowal of waterboarding and his repeated insistence that “torture works.”
Coats gave a brief explanation of his rationale at the time — he believed that “we should have a discussion” about whether the U.S. should be able to use more intense interrogation techniques in the event of an imminent attack — but assured lawmakers that he is “no longer engaged in [the policymaking] process.”
“I follow the law that’s there and I ensure that the IC follows the law,” Coats said.
“I don’t have a prescription for that, I’m not going to advocate for that — I’m simply trying to define what was going through my mind.”