- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

President Trump’s nominee to oversee the U.S. intelligence community said Tuesday an aggressive Russia is one of the top threats facing the country, promising lawmakers he would provide any information Congress seeks in its probe of Moscow’s suspected interference in last year’s presidential election.

“I think this is something that needs to be investigated and addressed,” former Republican Sen. Dan Coats told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is weighing his nomination to head the Office of Director of National Intelligence at a moment of rising tensions between President Trump and the intelligence community over the Russia meddling issue.

Mr. Coats, 73, who served on the intelligence panel himself for years prior to his retirement last year, appeared to win bipartisan backing with his answers Thursday, although it was not immediately clear when the committee or the full Senate may vote on his nomination.

The post of director of national intelligence (DNI) — created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — is meant to coordinate the intelligence community’s 16 different agencies, including the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA). James R. Clapper held the job from mid-2010 through the end of the Obama administration.

In his testimony, the former Indiana senator defended the NSA’s surveillance and secretive telephone data collection programs. He also handled smoothly a series of questions on torture — he was, in 2015, one of a handful of senators who opposed legislation that made the CIA’s use of so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques illegal.

When pressed on the issue Tuesday, Mr. Coats said: “I absolutely will follow the law in every aspect, regardless of what my personal thoughts may be.”

He also listed a range of national security challenges facing the United States, putting the “rising cyber threat” at the top, but adding that the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism,” China’s regional activism, North Korea’s nuclear programs and Russian meddling around the world are also on the front burner.

Mr. Coats said Russia’s recent assertiveness is “something I look upon with great concern,” calling it a problem that “we need to address with eyes wide open and a healthy degree of skepticism.” As a senator, Mr. Coats pushed aggressively for harsh economic sanctions against Moscow over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2013.

The pointed criticism of Russia comes as President Trump and his top aides have said they hope to forge a better relationship with Russia and have angrily denied charges that the Trump campaign and Russian officials colluded during the 2016 election. Mr. Trump has slammed the intelligence agencies for their handling of the investigation and for what he has said were damaging leaks from the probe.

The acrimony reached new heights last month when Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had to step down after revelations of his contacts with Russia’s Washington ambassador just as the Obama administration was leveling sanctions against Russian officials over the election meddling allegations.

While he would be the first DNI without a previous career as a military, intelligence or national security official, Mr. Coats, a former ambassador to Germany, has “the temperament and gravitas for the job,” one former high level intelligence official told The Washington Times Tuesday.

“All of my interactions with him have been positive,” said former CIA and NSA Director Michael V. Hayden, who added that Mr. Coats, if confirmed, can be expected to lower the level of tension between the White House and the intelligence community.

“Intelligence has been in the dock since Election Day with a whole host of accusations coming out of the transition team and the White House,” Mr. Hayden said. “Coats will be one more voice to push back on any politicization, marginalization or demonizing” of the intelligence community.

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