There are different views on the significance of the Senate’s conformation of Daniel Coats as Director of National Intelligence (DNI) on March 15. The DNI is charged with facilitating smoother information sharing between the 16 agencies comprising the US national intelligence community, coordinating and integrating intelligence and breaking down stove-pipes. Some believe the appointment is routine, others think it’s an event of great significance. It all depends on how serious the US president is about his pledge to reform the national intelligence community.
Daniel Coats, a traditional conservative from Indiana closely affiliated with the Tea Party, is going to turn 74 this May. He has the reputation of being liked and respected roundly on both sides of the political aisle. The new DNI is a Wheaton graduate and serious Christian. He is affiliated with the Fellowship, a US-based religious and political organization. It’s one of the most politically well-connected ministries in the country. Coats is married to Marsha Coats, Indiana’s female representative to the Republican National Committee. She supported Trump during the 2016 presidential race.
The new DNI has rich political experience having served 16 years as Senator, including the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, and four terms in the House of Representatives. He also served as US ambassador to Germany. Coats is the first DNI nominee not to come from the professional military, intelligence community or diplomatic service.
As a Senator in 2013, he defended the NSA after former contractor Edward Snowden revealed it was secretly collecting Americans' phone records en masse. Coats voted against a 2015 bill, the USA Freedom Act that constrained the mass surveillance.
The new DNI is a vocal Russia hawk though his stance may seem to be irrelevant as his job is to assess and distribute intelligence, not influence foreign policy decisions. In theory, it is supposed to be more of a technical job. As Coats told the president, «You need to fully understand my role. My role is to provide you the best intelligence to formulate policy, not formulate policy or be a spokesman for any political decisions that are made».
The very expediency of the position is questioned. Some believe it stifles competition among intelligence agencies. Actually, the DNI has too limited powers to adequately lead and the intelligence community because the Defense Department is in charge of the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). The CIA and the NSA are authorized to hold independent briefings.
Despite that, it’s the DNI who is best suited to initiate intelligence community reforms. Coats is known to possess the grit and the influence to carry out the mission.
Somehow scandals hitting the headlines eclipsed some important issues the president raised during the pre-election race. Daniel Coats’ assignment would thrust him into the center of the intelligence community the president has publicly challenged. Donald Trump bitterly criticized the intelligence agencies, accusing them of politicizing intelligence data and making critical errors in analysis and reporting. He was crafting plans to restructure at least two of the nation’s top intelligence agencies – the CIA and the office of the director of national intelligence.
The DNI has more responsibilities than authorities to prompt the increase of bureaucratic staff. The sheer amount of intelligence collection – especially digital collection – has begun to overwhelm the ability of the agencies to effectively analyze the material. The introduction of new technology has failed to address the problem. After the scandals related to Edward Snowden and Wikileaks, Coats faces the mission of rebuilding public trust in the intelligence community that is widely believed to be too intrusive.
The president believes that the DNI – the agency established in 2004 as a response to the 9/11 terror attacks – has become too bloated and politicized and needs to be slimmed down. The idea of removing the DNI position is on the agenda. The cabinet level office has budgetary control over the 16 agencies it oversees without hiring or firing authority at any individual agency, limiting its ability to actually control personnel decisions or effect operations. Trump also wants to reform the system of interaction between the agencies to make it more efficient.
Reforming intelligence community is a natural thing to do. New missions appear as time goes by. There is always a need to adapt to reality but today the DNI position is very influential. The Director is the person who has the president’s ear and he is the one to inform Congress about what’s going on in the US and the world.
True, no one is absolutely impartial and there is always a chance to twist the information a bit to make it look more what you want it to be. From point of view of Russia-US relations, it’s not so important that the new intelligence chief is not a friend of Russia. It’s his ability to do his job properly that matters.
It is ridiculous, that today, Russia is blamed for everything that goes wrong in the United States. Raising hue and cry is never backed by anything like solid evidence. Under the circumstance, professionalism and impartiality – the principles Dan Coats promised to abide by – would serve the interests of both countries. He has expressed openness to partnering with Russia against ISIS. Sharing intelligence is key for such cooperation. The efforts to do it efficiently have been futile so far. If Daniel Coats changes the tide, he‘ll do a great service to his country and all those who sincerely apply efforts the fight the common enemy international terrorism.