The Senate Intelligence Committee should have questions for Coats

By Daniel DePetris

President-Elect Donald Trump has settled on retiring Senator Dan Coats (R-IN) as his pick for the Director of National Intelligence, statutorily the most powerful intelligence position in the entire federal bureaucracy. Coats will need to be confirmed by the Senate in order to officially hold his post, but there doesn’t appear to be any major opposition to his nomination.  He is commonly referred to as the “Mr. Rogers” of U.S. Senators, and he has respect across the aisle despite his fiscally conservative ways. Coats was a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and understands how the apparatus works, recognizes the integrity of the vast majority of the intelligence rank-and-file, and knows where the CIA is operating.

Democrats don’t have a chance in obstructing Coats’ confirmation, and Republicans will defer to their former colleague. But here are several questions that the Intelligence Committee should ask Coats when he sits down for his confirmation:

1. Will you speak truth to power?: Coats is the exact opposite of Donald Trump on Russia and Ukraine.  Whereas Trump is amicable towards Putin, doesn’t trust the intelligence community’s judgment on Russian cyber operations, and once questioned why Washington doesn’t simply recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, Coats is the bonafide Russia hawk. He has sponsored numerous pieces of legislation against the Kremlin; one that urged the Obama administration to downgrade diplomatic relations with Moscow after its stealth operation in Crimea and another that would make it official U.S. policy to not recognize Russia’s annexation of the territory and prohibit U.S. government investments in Crimea if it involved the Russian Government or Russian-connected businesses. He’s also co-sponsored a bill that would authorize U.S. defense assistance to Ukraine and authorize $350 million across three years for the delivery of lethal equipment.

There will inevitably come a time when President-elect Trump disagrees with the Russia assessments of the intelligence community. The president and his national security team will question the evidence, push back on the assessments and estimates that the intel officers and analysts produce, and in the most extreme cases ask the IC to review its own work and mine the data again. Trump certainty won't be the first Commander-in-Chief to look upon the intelligence apparatus in a skeptical light; the major difference this time is that the gap between the incoming administration and the intel community is rising to the adversarial level.  DNI-designate Dan Coats, on top of producing impartial analysis for the president, will need to find a way to bridge that divide.  Will Coats be able to both stand his ground on the intelligence that is produced - even if the administration finds its conclusions inconvenient - while at the same time gaining the president's trust?

2. How will you balance privacy and security?: This age-old question remains vital at a time when the National Security Agency has accumulated incredible power. Coats is an unapologetic intelligence hawk and a bombastic supporter of the now expired Section 215 provision that the NSA interpreted as a green-light to collect and store the metadata of Americans’ phone calls. He’s written in numerous publications that the NSA’s metadata collection program is instrumental in keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks, and that watering down that authority would slow down the process of analyzing communications and unveiling connections among suspected terrorists within the United States. During the 2015 debate over the USA Freedom Act, Coats took to the Senate floor to accuse privacy advocates of politicizing the national security debate; "I think people like Sen. Paul,” Coats said to the Hill, "need to understand that we are living in a world of real threats to the American people, and his description of the program is simply false.”

Ultimately, Coats voted “nay” on the USA Freedom Act, which provided a little more transparency on the rulings that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court makes, while passing the responsibility of storing telephone metadata from the government to private companies.  The Director of National Intelligence-designate must be asked by those on the Intelligence Committee who care about privacy why he voted the way he did, why he believes that additional transparency on surveillance is inappropriate, what factors justify a continuing surveillance program that the president’s own review panel concluded hasn’t materially contributed to U.S. security, and whether he will use his position as Director of National Intelligence to lobby for even more surveillance authority.

3. Will you work with Congress?: The relationship between Congress and the intelligence community will never be completely symbiotic. Overseers have a tendency to ask difficult questions and demand more information than intelligence officials would care to hand over. Personalities also clash; many members of Congress like to play to the cameras during open hearings, use question time to raise their profiles in the national media, and cast blame and aspersions on the intelligence community whenever an event seems to trip up the United States. The release of the CIA torture report in 2014 of course didn’t help relations either.  

But the CIA, NSA, and DIA — like all other agencies of the federal government — are subjected to the same rules and procedures as other agencies and departments in the executive branch.  Congressional oversight is a hallmark of the separation of powers under the U.S. Constitution, and these sorts of checks-and-balances are often the only thing keeping the American public informed about whether a program is going haywire or whether taxpayer money is being wasted.  Coats will make it much easier on himself if he pledges to not just work with Congress as other executive branch officials have promised to do in the past, but to actively seek their input before a major national security program is authorized or implemented.

As the former senator from Indiana will soon find out, representing America's vast intelligence apparatus will involve juggling multiple balls at the same time.  Better for senators to get all of this out in the open and let the confirmation process work its will.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities. 

This piece was originally published by The Hill on March 1, 2017. Read more HERE.