DNI nominee puts cyberwarfare at top of threat list

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President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the nation’s top spy chief, former GOP Sen. Dan Coats, said cyberwar will be one of the top threats facing the U.S. in the years to come, along with terrorism.

During a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 28, Coats said he’s strong enough to stand up to any political interference from those seeking intelligence to back national security policy decisions, as well as a president who won’t always want to hear what his intelligence officials have to say.

“Given the situation that we are facing worldwide … we don’t have time just to be the nice guy,” Coats said.

Coats said the most challenging issues facing the U.S. include the rise in cyberwarfare and the threat from Islamic extremists from across the world. He said the intelligence community needs to be “laser-focused” on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, China’s pursuit of greater territory in the East and South China seas and Russian aggression that the U.S. needs to view with a “healthy degree of skepticism.”

The previous director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has made similar statements in the past, going so far as to say cyber issues are a bigger threat to national security than terrorism.

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, asked Coats to take head-on the issue of Russia’s interference in the election and investigations into any individuals from U.S. political parties who had inappropriate contact with Russian officials. Warner has criticized White House efforts to enlist senior intelligence officials and the GOP chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees to push back on news reports about Trump advisers’ contacts with Russians.

Warner warned that he would not tolerate any political interference from the White House. Coats pledged to share intelligence with the committee as it pursues its investigation into the president’s possible ties to Russia, ties that Trump has said do not exist.

If confirmed, Coats would sit squarely between the nation’s intelligence workers and Trump, who has disparaged them for past failures and their assessment that the Kremlin interfered in the election in the president’s favor. The Senate intelligence committee’s investigation into Russian activities, however, did not take center stage at Tuesday’s confirmation hearing.

While some senators asked Coats to pledge to provide intelligence to the panel so it can investigate, others asked about harsh interrogation techniques, government surveillance and whether he thinks his voice will be heard at the White House.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he backs Coats, but said he worries that his likable and affable personality might hamper his ability to run the 2,000-employee Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees 16 other U.S. intelligence agencies.

“I want someone who is crusty and mean and tough because you’re riding herd on 17 intelligence agencies that always want to be going in different directions and you’re going to be reporting to a president who may or may not want to hear what you have to say,” King said.

Coats said he and Trump have discussed his potential role as principal intelligence adviser — one who often has to share unpleasant news with the commander in chief. If confirmed, Coats said he would provide Trump with the most accurate and objective intelligence possible.

The intelligence community is not supposed to make policy, Coats said. “Our job is not to influence intelligence in any way for political reasons. Our job is to present the truth to those who make policy decisions about where we go. I will not tolerate anything that falls short of that standard.”

Lawmakers also asked Coats if he would follow the law banning harsh interrogation techniques, including a practice called waterboarding that simulates drowning, which the CIA used on detainees after 9/11.

Coats said he did not support a Senate amendment shepherded by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that made it unlawful for any government agency to use interrogation methods not prescribed in the Army Field Manual. But he said he would follow the law and not try to get it changed.

He said he has wondered what would happen in the case of a terror suspect who held critical information about an eminent threat to the U.S. that would need to be extracted quickly to save lives. In such a case, he believed a discussion about the use of harsh interrogation techniques should be possible, he said.

Coats, 73, would be the fifth director of national intelligence. He has swung back and forth between government service and lobbying, the type of Washington career that Trump has mocked. Since the early 1980s, Coats either has served in government or earned money as a lobbyist and board director. His most recently available Senate financial disclosure, from 2014, shows he had a net worth of more than $12 million.