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Dan Coats will be in charge of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. How will he tackle the job?
Dan Coats, a former Indiana senator, has been likened to Mister Rogers, is a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin, and will soon be in charge of an intelligence community at odds with President Donald Trump.
If confirmed as Trump’s nominee to become director of national intelligence (DNI), Coats will be responsible for giving Trump his daily intelligence briefings, testifying before Congress on intelligence matters, and directing the collection of information by the nation’s 16 spy agencies.
Few will envy Coats for his new role. Trump has insisted he doesn’t need daily intelligence briefings—and when he does get them, he requires that they be as short and to-the-point as possible. Trump has also reshuffled the National Security Council (NSC) to no longer require the DNI’s mandatory presence at the White House’s highly influential Principal’s Committee meetings—a move former NSC staffer Kelly Magsamen called “bizarre.” This means that Coats will be shut out of many discussions by the National Security Council, which will include White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.
Coats has dismissed concerns raised by others and insisted that he will have a seat at the table. “I have been reassured time and time and time again from the president to his advisers that I’m welcome and needed and expected to be a part of the Principals Committee,” Coats said during his confirmation hearing.
Outside of Trump, the DNI position has come under criticism in recent years as lacking adequate authority to oversee an extensive network of 16 individual spy agencies. The DNI position was created by President George W. Bush in December 2004 despite a lack of consensus over what the DNI’s authorities would actually entail. Former Obama administration DNI Dennis C. Blair was fired just 16 months into the job after failing to crack relatively unsophisticated terrorist plots, according to the Washington Post. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)—who currently serves on the Senate intelligence panel—called for the DNI’s powers to be strengthened following Blair’s resignation. But the House Intelligence Committee hopes to dial back the DNI’s authority.
Collins told the New York Times that the DNI “is an extraordinarily difficult job, particularly in the current environment,” but she stressed that she felt Coats was the right man for the job.
Coats will also become the public face of an intelligence community that is regularly accused of political bias or incompetency by the Republican Party, the American public, not to mention the White House itself. He will oversee intelligence agencies that are investigating potential ties between Trump campaign operatives and Moscow as well as Russia’s role in intervening in the U.S. presidential election. As investigations pick up steam, Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo will likely make regular appearances before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
But Coats vowed during confirmation hearings to cooperate fully with investigations by Congress into Russia.
“I think it’s our responsibility to provide you access to all that you need,” Coats told senators.
Here’s what you need to know about the man set to run America’s surveillance apparatus, for better or worse.
1) Coats has experience with politically charged Senate investigations
Coats was a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee as it conducted a controversial investigation into the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” methods following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
However, Coats along with other Republican lawmakers on the Committee withdrew their participation from the Senate investigation into CIA’s practices and disputed the report’s findings in a memo of dissenting views. Coats also voted against publishing the Senate torture report issued by Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and other Democrats on the panel.
The Indiana lawmaker, speaking on the Senate floor in 2014, called the roughly 500-page Senate torture report “an unconstructive, partisan account of the last decade’s counterterrorism efforts.”
2) Coats has vowed to comply with laws banning torture—with a caveat
Coats assured senators at his confirmation hearing that he would not support a return to waterboarding or any of the enhanced interrogation methods—some of them categorized as torture—practiced by the CIA under the Bush administration unveiled by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s classified torture report.
Also during his confirmation hearing, Coats said he would not advocate for any changes under the law but later implied changes may be needed to the existing ban on torture in the event of an emergency.
“But I do think that it’s at least worth discussion relative to the situation that might occur, where we might have to—hopefully with some special authority—might have to go outside that,” said Coats.
3) Coats will play a role in the future of major privacy laws
In light of recent revelations of CIA practices by WikiLeaks, the power of U.S. spy agencies appear to be greater and more unchecked than previously believed. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on non-U.S. persons overseas, is expected to come up for re-authorization in 2017. The law currently bans reverse-targeting, or intentionally targeting a U.S. person outside the United States for the purposes of surveillance under Section 702.
In response to questions by the Senate intelligence panel, Coats stated he will review Section 702 to see if changes need to be made to ensure reverse-targeting does not occur.
“If confirmed,” said Coats, “I plan to review how Section 702 is being implemented to determine whether any changes should be made to further strengthen compliance and oversight, including with respect to the reverse targeting prohibition.”
4) Coats was a former lobbyist for Sprint and helped gain them immunity under FISA reforms
Near the end of the Bush administration, civil rights groups targeted phone companies that cooperated with sweeping surveillance requests by the NSA. Coats at that time served as a lobbyist for Sprint, as the Bush administration moved to dial back the FISA law. His efforts helped the company gain immunity from lawsuits related to government surveillance, the Associated Press reported. The AP found that Coats spoke with members of Congress and government officials about bills to reform FISA and specific provisions that would apply to telecommunications companies.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) noted that Coats voted against the 2015 NSA reform bill known as the USA Freedom Act. While Coats has vowed to uphold the law, he has signaled that he may fight for rolling back changes to the NSA’s controversial phone records program if he notices “deficiencies.”
“Privacy advocates fought hard to keep phone record retention requirements out of the USA FREEDOM Act, and we stand ready to fight if Coats or anyone else tries to put them in place in the future,” wrote the EFF on its website.
5) Coats is currently banned from Russia
Coats was one of six senators that Russia banned from entering the country in 2014 in retaliation for backing U.S. sanctions. Then a senator, Coats even called for harsher sanctions on Moscow than those imposed by the Obama administration and stressed the importance of standing up to Russia’s “bully” tactics.
Coats served as U.S. ambassador to Germany from 2001 to 2005 and has stressed the importance of Europe standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He co-authored a resolution in 2014 that would require the Obama administration to take specific steps against Russia.
“Putin’s recent aggression is unacceptable, and America must join with our European allies to isolate and punish Russia,” Coats told IndyStar in March 2014. “I will continue to lead efforts on Capitol Hill to bring Putin to his senses.”
Coats even warned that U.S. indifference to Russia’s continued aggression would likely lead to another world war or Cold War-style scenario unfolding in Europe.
“Europe does not have to be so dependent on Russian energy. And, therefore, ought to have a little more freedom to stand up and tell Putin that this is not something that’s acceptable and they’re not simply going to kowtow because it affects their economy,” Coats told CNN’s Jake Tapper in 2014. “We want to avoid anything translating into something much larger which we’ve seen historically happen in Europe. Protect both the United States and the world from that kind of occurrence.”
Amrita Khalid is a technology and politics reporter who specializes in breaking down complex issues into practical, useful terms. A former contributor to CQ, a Congressional news and analysis site, she's currently a master's candidate in international relations at the University of Leeds.