Former senator Daniel Coats pledged on Tuesday that in his role as the nation’s next spy chief he would work with Congress to investigate allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections.
“It’s our responsibility to provide you access” to sources and raw intelligence, Coats told Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the Senate Intelligence Committee’s lead Democrat, during his confirmation hearing to become director of national intelligence.
The Indiana Republican noted that Russia has “a long history” of propaganda and trying to influence elections and that recent events suggest Kremlin officials “have stepped up their game.”
The Senate and House intelligence panels are probing charges leveled by the intelligence community that Russia intervened in the election to benefit Republican Donald Trump, who has frequently dismissed the idea that the allegations influenced the outcome of the contest in any way.
Coats said he would “follow the law” when it comes to interrogation tactics used to question suspected terrorists. President Trump has said he will defer to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on the issue of waterboarding, for instance (something the president said as a candidate that he believes “works”). Mattis opposes the practice.
But Coats said he thinks it is worth discussing what might happen in a situation where an attack is imminent and there is no time for the intelligence community to follow the process.
Congress legally ended the CIA’s use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques in 2015, through an amendment Coats — then a senator — voted against. He did so for one reason, he said on Tuesday — his concerns that in a pressing situation, such interrogation techniques might be the only way to learn information that could help prevent an imminent attack.
Coats’s audience before the Intelligence Committee offered a rare chance to see the dynamics of the panel — which conducts most of its processes in secret — on display. The last time the committee held an open hearing, it was to grill then-Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), Trump’s pick for CIA director.
A former Intelligence Committee member who was well liked by his colleagues, Coats is expected to easily win enough support to be confirmed by the committee. But his confirmation hearing came amid standoff between the White House and much of Congress.
Trump has questioned the intelligence community’s findings that Russia intervened in the election to aid his chances of victory, and he challenges inquiries about communications between his aides and the Kremlin. Lately, the Trump administration has even enlisted the help of lawmakers to make their case to the media, alarming some rank-and-file Republicans.
But on Tuesday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) became the latest senior Republican to rebut allegations that Trump team members may have had improper contacts with Russian officials.
“No one has ever showed us any evidence that any collusion had occurred between an American involved with the political system and the Russians,” Ryan said at a breakfast with television correspondents, according to NBC News.
The speaker’s comments echoed those of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who told reporters Monday that he had seen no evidence of communications between Trump aides and Russian officials and that intelligence community officials had led him to think that “there’s nothing there.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel, insisted later Monday that it was too soon to draw conclusions about what evidence might exist, because the committee had not yet received any documents or interviewed any witnesses.
The Senate’s process has been more bipartisan, with Democrats praising Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) for his commitment to the investigation. But that camaraderie was shattered over the weekend after Burr and Nunes called reporters at the White House’s request in an effort to debunk reports about ties between the Trump administration and Russian officials.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday that Burr was “on notice.” Over the weekend, Warner said he had “grave concerns” about Burr cooperating with the White House, stressing that he “will not accept any process that is undermined by political interference.”
Some Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee also objected, with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) stressing the importance of a bipartisan process and the need to “avoid any actions that might be perceived as compromising the integrity of our work.”
Collins was also one of several committee members expressing alarm that Coats might not have a permanent seat on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council, citing the president’s Jan. 28 executive order that appeared to downgrade the director of national intelligence to an as-needed status, while including White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon in all meetings.
Collins said she was “concerned” about how Coats would “fulfill the mandate to serve” as director if he is not afforded full access to all decisions made by the president’s inner circle.
Coats told senators that he had advised the White House “how to modify” the executive order to elevate the director’s position on the NSC but acknowledged that “it has not been addressed yet.”
In the meantime, he said, he has “been assured that I have the authority to be a member of that committee and be at that committee in every one of its meetings.”
Coats also sought to play down reports that Trump might seek to overhaul the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or at least downsize it significantly.
“Recent commentary on the size of the ODNI doesn’t mesh well with what I’ve seen firsthand,” Coats noted in his opening comments, adding that “I believe it does a disservice to this committee and your efforts to keep the size of the ODNI in check.”
But Coats — who was known as a senator for highlighting excess government spending in floor speeches about the “Waste of the Week” — said he is already eyeing ways to do things “more efficiently and effectively. We don’t have a choice.”
Coats would not commit to entreaties from Democrats to tell Congress how many Americans are under government surveillance for the content of their communications under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Lawmakers must reauthorize by the end of the year for it to continue.
Save for that point, the hearing was not contentious, with even Democrats noting that Coats was one of the more affable and likable senators they had served with.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) noted that Coats’s easygoing nature might be his one detriment, asking the former senator if he was prepared to be “mean and tough” enough to stand up to Trump when necessary.
Coats promised to provide the president and Congress with intelligence that was the “best,” “most objective,” “nonpolitical,” “timely” and “unvarnished.”