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Mild-Mannered Spy Chief Dan Coats Gives Trump the Facts, Gently

6 minute read

Dan Coats is not exactly Central Casting’s version of a spymaster. Sitting down for an interview in his spacious office in suburban Virginia, the Director of National Intelligence is cheerful and earnest. His manner is the same brand of friendly Midwestern self-effacement for which he was known during 16 years as a Republican Senator from Indiana. “The technical capabilities of this [job] and the diversity of skills are high above my intellectual capacity,” he says. One veteran Washington intelligence observer uses the word guileless to describe his demeanor.

Which is definitely not in the job description for America’s top spy. As head of 17 intelligence agencies, including the CIA, NSA, FBI and multiple military intelligence arms, Coats, 75, oversees everything from domestic counterterrorism to foiling foreign espionage plots. Just as challenging: he controls the agencies’ $70 billion collective annual budget. Spies are no slouches when it comes to bureaucratic maneuvering; being the boss of all spy bosses requires not just authority but cunning. Even in normal times, the job is among the most thankless in government.

Yet Coats’ bashful exterior has helped him survive in the tumultuous Trump Administration. The President has declared war on Washington bureaucracy and came into office particularly hostile to the intelligence services for supporting the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling, which he calls a “witch hunt.” Coats nonetheless has managed to stay in President Trump’s good graces and briefs him and Vice President Mike Pence most mornings in the Oval Office. “There’s a tendency to underestimate him that he can turn to his advantage,” says Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists.

At the same time, the hawkish Coats has established a reputation in Washington as a straight shooter focused on America’s long-term national security, even among Democrats. That’s no small achievement in a hyperpartisan environment that has damaged the reputations of other intelligence players. “He’s a person of great personal integrity,” says California Democrat Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. “He has been nonideological and nonpolitical.”

In that sense, Coats embodies the efforts of many in the embattled U.S. intelligence community: hunkered down and determined to survive the current crisis. “My message to the entire intelligence community is, ‘Let’s keep our head down, stay here and be as objective a purveyor of collected intelligence as we can,'” he says.

But that alone doesn’t equal success in a job that carries responsibility for the lives of countless service members and civilians. Trump is shaking up U.S. foreign policy, sometimes without counsel from those who are charged with providing him the information he needs to avoid costly mistakes. It’s not clear Coats’ gentle presentation of the facts is influencing the President. And with a high-stakes summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un possibly on for June 12, Coats faces his biggest test yet.

Coats came to the job through Pence, a fellow Hoosier. As Trump’s transition team looked for national-security experts who weren’t “Never Trumpers,” Pence pointed to Coats’ time on the Senate Intelligence Committee and his service as ambassador to Germany in 2001–05, according to sources familiar with his selection. The Trump team also needed someone who would say yes to a tough job. Created after 9/11 to wrangle the hidebound agencies that had missed the al-Qaeda threat, the Director of National Intelligence is infamous for having much responsibility but little authority. Operational decisions are made below Coats’ level–he’s not charged with signing off on drone strikes or covert break-ins. His power comes from budget control, a seat at the table during National Security Council debates and his access to the President.

Coats’ biggest victory has come on Capitol Hill. Early this year, the controversial eavesdropping program known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) required reauthorization to avoid sunsetting. The program collects and stores more than 250 million phone, email and other electronic communications annually, according to one 2011 analysis, giving U.S. spies a vast database to search without a court warrant. As the deadline for reauthorization approached, Trump let loose an anti-FISA tweet the morning of a crucial House vote. Coats joined other intelligence chiefs in drafting a second Trump tweet backing reauthorization and later won final support from several Senators on the floor as the bill was held open, according to several Administration and congressional sources familiar with the events.

Coats has had less influence on other matters. He and his fellow intelligence chiefs joined lawmakers to call for a unified U.S. response to the ongoing threat of Russian election meddling. But Trump has declined to issue any new authorities for the effort, and Coats was left to brief state election officials on the growing threat. In February, Coats testified that Iran was abiding by the 2015 nuclear deal, which he said had constrained the program and increased international inspections. In regular briefings for Trump, Coats reported on Iran’s compliance. But on May 8, Trump walked away from the deal.

Coats’ most pressing challenge now is to provide intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear program and a read on Kim’s motives in the run-up to the planned summit in Singapore. “We are throwing every effort that we can into getting knowledge of what North Korea is doing and what their intentions are,” Coats says. But, he says, “it’s impossible to get a full picture of a country, particularly a country like North Korea, which is so dark and so isolated.”

Even if Coats can give Trump an edge at the summit, it’s not clear the President will listen. As Coats and other top advisers met with a South Korean delegation at the White House on March 8 to discuss Kim’s summit offer, Trump surprised everyone by accepting it without consultation. Winging it with Kim in Singapore could risk damaging U.S. influence in the region or even set the U.S. on a course to war, experts say. Senior advisers say Trump doesn’t feel he needs to prepare for the meeting. Coats’ defenders say he’s earned Trump’s trust. “Not only is the President receiving the best advice from Director Coats,” says Republican Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr, but “he values that advice when making policy decisions.”

Coats says he wants to build long-term credibility for the intelligence community and has ordered spy agencies to become more transparent, mandating faster declassification and disclosure of information about some classified programs, including the 702 eavesdropping program. But Trump has repeatedly attacked the integrity of the intelligence community over the Russia investigation. When asked whether Trump sought his counsel over how to end the probe, Coats demurs, but he has been questioned about the incident by federal investigators, sources familiar with the matter say. Coats says “a dark cloud [of partisanship] has settled over the process.” Which is just one reason it will take more than mild manners and transparency to protect and advance the credibility of America’s spies.

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