President Donald Trump’s nominee to become the U.S. spy chief said he would back a congressional probe into Russia’s meddling into the U.S. election, a sign he may show independence from an administration that has spent its first weeks in power feuding with the intelligence community.
The U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russia interfered in the recent U.S. election to tilt the outcome in favor of Trump, and the Kremlin campaign “is something that needs to be investigated and addressed,” former Republican Sen. Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. The panel is considering his nomination to be the Director of National Intelligence, a role in which Coats will serve as Trump’s chief intelligence advisor.
While Coates cautioned the effect of the Russian campaign is difficult to measure, he echoed recent comments by Vice President Michael Pence that there need to be “consequences” for undermining the American democratic system.
Trump has repeatedly denounced reports about connections between his lieutenants and the Kremlin as “fake news” and views such reports as a campaign to undermine the legitimacy of his election victory.
Coats’s remarks come as congressional probes into Russian interference in the U.S. election comes have become mired in partisan differences. On Friday, the Washington Post reported that the Trump White House had recruited Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and CIA Director Michael Pompeo to bat down news stories claiming that the Trump campaign had extensive contacts with Russian officials.
Burr has said his phone calls to reporters to dispute those reports came as part of his ordinary work as committee chairman and that they did not undermine his independence. But congressional Democrats sharply rebuked the Republicans over the report. They said it also raised questions about the independence of the intelligence community and its ability to provide unbiased and apolitical intelligence to the White House and carry out its own probe into the Russian campaign.
In Tuesday’s hearing, Coats sought to reassure panel Democrats that he would prioritize the intelligence community’s independence. He said he would speak “truth to power” and vowed to supply policymakers with intelligence free from political influence, in response to questions from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the panel’s ranking Democrat. “Our job is to do our job,” Coats said, adding that he would promptly provide materials to the Senate investigation examining the Russian influence campaign.
Warner had sharply criticized Burr’s contacts with reporters and said Tuesday that he would not tolerate political interference into his panel’s investigation of the Russia’s election meddling. Following the panel’s public session, Warner told Foreign Policy he was heartened by statements supporting the investigation’s independence from Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Asked whether he wanted the investigation into the Russian campaign to remain within the Intelligence Committee or be carried out by an independent commission, Warner demurred, saying it was vital that the American public learned the facts of Moscow’s interference.
A former Indiana senator and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Coats brings a relative lack of national-security experience to a job that in recent years has been held by career military and intelligence officers. The office was created in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001 to coordinate the work of America’s 17 spy agencies and and improve intelligence sharing.
An affable veteran of Washington politics, Coats, 73, is all but certain to win confirmation before the full Senate. The only real criticism of his nomination on Tuesday was a mild one: Sen. Angus King (I-ME) wondered if he might be too nice for the job. “You are going to be reporting to a president who may or may not want to hear what you have to say,” King warned.
On the campaign trail, Trump feuded with the intelligence community, questioned its conclusion that Russia intervened in the election on his behalf, and argued that the United States should revive the use of interrogation methods amounting to torture. Those interrogation methods have since been outlawed, and Coats pledged Tuesday that he would abide by the ban. But he added that there was at least a “discussion” about how the United States would treat a prisoner holding time-sensitive information to prevent a terror attack.
Coats’s testimony revealed detail on the dysfunction that has marred the early days of the Trump administration. A week after taking office, the Trump White House elevated the president’s chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, to a permanent role on the National Security Council and appeared to demote the director of national intelligence and CIA director.
Coats told lawmakers Tuesday that the Trump aides have provided verbal assurances that he will be able to attend its meetings and told him the earlier omission of the spy chief from the council had been an oversight. Coats is the first Trump administration official to confirm the snafu on the record.
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