Russia probe looms over Coats’ bid to become national intelligence director

Democratic senators gave high marks Tuesday to former colleague Dan Coats in his bid to become the next director of national intelligence. But they made clear their confirmation votes hinge on the Indiana Republican’s commitment to help them in ongoing Russia probes.

“We have known each other for many years, and I believe the president has made an excellent choice,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the panel holding the confirmation hearings.

“One of the first challenges I would ask you to take head-on is to support our efforts to understand Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election … We take this matter seriously.”

Coats, who was a U.S. ambassador to Germany and served roughly 24 years in the House and Senate before retiring in January, like other Trump nominees has built-in support for confirmation. Republicans have the majority on the committee and hold 52 seats in the full Senate.

But bipartisan calls to learn the extent to which Russia meddled in the White House race and if any members of President Trump’s campaign team were in direct contact with Kremlin officials loom large over Coats’ confirmation.

Trump insists there were no high-level connections, and House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday the intelligence community so far has found “no evidence of collusion.”

If confirmed, the 73-year old Coats would be the president’s top intelligence official and lead the country’s 17-agency intelligence community, which includes the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency.

The position of director of national intelligence was created several years after the 9/11 attacks as an attempt to improve the lack of information-sharing among the agencies.

Among other bipartisan concerns raised Tuesday was whether Coats would support efforts to renew the NSA’s authority to collect information on Americans’ phone calls to prevent more attacks, under what is known as Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.

Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden suggested his support would depend on whether Coats would provide information about how many Americans have their call information collected under the nine-year-old law. He essentially demanded Coats, if confirmed, provide Congress with a monthly report.

“Will you commit now to getting us a number every 30 days on the number of innocent Americans being swept up? You’re a friend. I need to know the answers,” he said. “You had me at hello for going after foreign threats, but I’m not there on innocent Americans.”

Coat, throughout the roughly one-hour, open hearing, repeatedly vowed to provide Congress with the information needed to conduct investigations and assured senators that his largely political background would not be a problem.

“I will provide the most accurate, objective, apolitical intelligence as possible,” he said. “You will have access to the information you need to conduct oversight responsibilities. … I will follow the rule of law in every aspect, regardless of what my personal beliefs are.”

Still, panel members raised questions about whether Coats would be able to stand up to the strong-willed president and sought assurance that he would be included in highest-level intelligence talks, following a memo that appeared to diminish the intelligence director’s clout.

“You are one of the most likable, affable people I’ve ever met,” said Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent. “But I don’t know if I want a likable person. … Can you assure me … you’re going to be hard?”

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