A Coats for all seasons: former ambassador, US senator tapped to oversee intelligence community

President-elect Trump has tapped Dan Coats, a former member of the US House of Representatives (R-IN 4th), former US Ambassador to Germany under President George W. Bush, and two-time US Senator (R-IN), to serve as Director of National Intelligence (DNI). In this role, Coats will oversee the 17 organizations that comprise the US Intelligence Community (IC), and he will be the chief advisor on intelligence matters related to national security to Trump, the National Security Council, and Homeland Security Council.

No stranger to Washington and its inner workings, Coats has also had successful stints as a lawyer-lobbyist at two prominent firms. The former member of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees enjoys strong relationships with Republican and Democratic senators alike.  Key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and in both chambers, have welcomed his selection, including Senate and House Intelligence Committee Chairmen Richard Burr (R-NC) and Devin Nunes (R-CA 22nd), Senate Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Mark Warner (D-VA), senior Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ).  Coats is expected to have a smooth confirmation process.

If – and more likely when – confirmed, he may take the reins of the IC amidst uncertainty regarding the nature and scope of the DNI role.  Trump transition team officials are said to be examining the prospect of IC reform, including a restructuring of the Office of the DNI.  Nevertheless, Coats is best described as an “intelligence hawk.” He has a legislative track record of supporting robust IC authorities in the face of staunch opposition from civil liberties and privacy advocates, including on contentious policy matters such as domestic surveillance and cyberthreat data-sharing between the government and private sector. Additionally, following the damaging leaks of classified information by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Coats became an outspoken proponent of increasing domestic counterintelligence powers to better identify insider threats and foreign spies in the US.

Unlike some of his potential future high-ranking colleagues in the Trump Administration (reportedly), and the president-elect himself, Coats is persona non grata in Moscow.  He is one of nine current and former Members of Congress, including McCain, on a list of lawmakers banned from entry into Russia. When the ban, in retaliation to US sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea, was announced by the Russian government in 2014, Coats dismissively stated: “While I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to go on vacation with my family in Siberia this summer, I am honored to be on this list.”  He soon followed up that response with a mocking list of “the top 10 things I won’t be able to do since Putin banned me from Russia.”

Needless to say, Coats is an intriguing pick for DNI by a president-elect perceived by many to be interested in a reset of the US-Russia relationship.  The choice is another “win” for GOP defense, intelligence, and national security establishment types.

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Chris Fetzer

About Chris Fetzer

Chris Fetzer is a partner in Dentons' Public Policy and Regulation practice and leads the Defense and Security Policy team. A native Washingtonian with an established track record of securing favorable outcomes to complex, high-stakes problems at the intersection of business, law, policy, and politics, he focuses on advocacy and strategy in the defense, trade, security, energy (including oil and gas), agriculture, technology, and foreign affairs arenas.

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