President-elect Donald Trump — who openly admires Russian President Vladimir Putin and who has been publicly feuding with the US intelligence community over its assessment that Russia tried to influence the US election — just picked a man who was once banned from Russia to be the nation’s spy chief.
Former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats is Trump’s pick to be the director of national intelligence — the person who oversees all 16 of the nation’s intelligence agencies, from the CIA to the NSA. In 2014, Coats and several other members of Congress were banned from Russia in retaliation for the sanctions the US had slapped on Moscow because of its invasion of Ukraine.
“While I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to go on vacation with my family in Siberia this summer,” Coats joked at the time, “I am honored to be on this list.”
Coats, a conservative Republican who spent more than a decade in the Senate and served four terms in the House of Representatives, was also ambassador to Germany during the George W. Bush administration. As a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Coats was a vocal Russia hawk, pushing for even tougher action against Putin for his “aggression” in Ukraine and Crimea.
“Putin’s recent aggression is unacceptable, and America must join with our European allies to isolate and punish Russia,” he said after learning he’d been banned from Russia. “I will continue to lead efforts on Capitol Hill to bring Putin to his senses."
He even jokingly blamed Russia a month later for an embarrassing scheduling gaffe that found Coats sitting in the completely wrong Senate subcommittee hearing complimenting the completely wrong witness:
I think the Russians have been messing with my schedule. But I never miss a chance to tout IN’s talented workforce http://t.co/uV0h5nnZXI— Senator Dan Coats (@SenDanCoats) April 3, 2014
That Trump picked someone with such a strong anti-Russia stance to be the director of national intelligence is striking — and confusing.
Over the past several days, Trump has taken to Twitter to publicly smear the integrity and legitimacy of the US intelligence community — including current Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — over its assessment that Russia tried to influence the US election, ostensibly to ensure Trump’s victory.
Trump has consistently disputed the conclusion — which is based on actual forensic evidence, some of which is publicly available — preferring instead to promote the claims of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that Russia had nothing to do with the email hacks. Trump’s reliance on Assange is curious, given that Assange is an avowed anti-American activist with close ties to Putin.
On Thursday, the country’s top intelligence officials fired back at Trump’s criticism. In a fiery Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on foreign cyber threats to the United States, the country’s top spies — along with several senators from both parties — lambasted what Clapper described as Trump’s "disparagement" of the intelligence community.
So the fact that Trump just tapped a staunch Russia hawk to head the entire intelligence community is a tad odd, to say the least.
The Wall Street Journal also reported on Thursday that Trump was planning to restructure the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, believing it had become “bloated and politicized,” according to unnamed sources quoted by the Journal.
The ODNI was established in 2004 in response to the 9/11 attacks in an attempt to improve communication and coordination among the country’s myriad intelligence agencies.
Many lawmakers and intelligence experts have also pushed for eliminating or restructuring the ODNI, believing it adds an additional level of bureaucracy to what is already a large and sprawling US intelligence apparatus. Critics also note that it has no real power, given that the DNI doesn’t have any control over the budgets of the CIA and other individual spy organizations.
The Trump transition team later denied the Wall Street Journal report. And Trump’s pick of Coats to head the DNI suggests that, at least for now, the position will remain.
What is less clear is how the man who was once banned from Russia over his efforts to punish Russian aggression will fit into an administration that is decidedly less interesting in punishing Russia for just about anything.