WASHINGTON >> President-elect Donald Trump has selected former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a role that would thrust him into the center of the intelligence community that Trump has publicly challenged, a person with knowledge of the decision said Thursday.
Coats served as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee before retiring from Congress last year. If confirmed by the Senate, he would oversee the umbrella office created after 9/11 to improve coordination of U.S. spy and law enforcement agencies.
The person with knowledge of Trump’s decision was not authorized to discuss the pick publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Since winning the election, Trump has repeatedly questioned intelligence officials’ assessments that Russia interfered with the election on his behalf. On Friday, senior intelligence officials will brief Trump on the findings of a full report into the Russian hacking of Democratic groups. The report was ordered by President Barack Obama, who was briefed on the conclusions Thursday.
Against that backdrop, Trump has been considering ways to restructure intelligence agencies to streamline operations and improve efficiency. Transition officials have been looking at changes at both ODNI and the CIA, but those plans are said not to be aimed at gutting the intelligence agencies or hampering their capabilities.
The person said the discussions reflect the views of intelligence officials who have told Trump’s team that there is room for streamlining within the multi-agency intelligence community.
The Wall Street Journal first reported Wednesday night that Trump was considering changes at the intelligence agencies. Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer disputed the report Thursday morning.
“There is no truth to this idea of restructuring the intelligence community infrastructure. It is 100 percent false,” Spicer said.
The CIA declined to comment on the potential changes. Outgoing National Intelligence Director James Clapper told a Senate panel Thursday that his office has not been engaged in such discussions with the Trump transition team. He noted that lawmakers created his office.
“Congress, I think, gets a vote here,” said Clapper, who was testifying on Russia’s election interference.
Trump’s administration wouldn’t be the first to initiate reforms in the intelligence community.
A few years ago, CIA Director John Brennan ordered sweeping changes to the CIA to make its leaders more accountable and close intelligence gaps amid concern about the agency’s limited insights into a series of major global developments. The aim was to break down barriers between the CIA’s operations and analytical arms.
Coats’ nomination is likely to soothe those who fear Trump will significantly overhaul the intelligence community. The 73-year-old is a Capitol Hill veteran who served eight years in the House before moving to the Senate in 1989 to take Dan Quayle’s place when he became vice president. He stayed in the Senate until 1998, then left to become a lobbyist.
After a stint as ambassador to Germany under President George W. Bush, Coats joined the high-powered Washington firm of King & Spalding. He helped lead the company’s government affairs division and lobbied for pharmaceutical, defense and energy companies.
Coats, who earned $600,000 in his final 13 months at King & Spalding, downplayed his lobbying work when he returned to Indiana for a successful Senate comeback bid in 2010. He served one term and did not seek re-election last year.
Coats was a harsh critic of Russia and pushed the Obama administration to harshly punish Moscow for its annexation of Crimea in 2014. When the White House levied sanctions, the Kremlin responded by banning several lawmakers, including Coats, from traveling to Russia.
Trump has called for improving the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, and has also spoken favorably about Russian President Vladimir Putin. His refusal thus far to accept the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia was meddling in the 2016 election has sparked concern among lawmakers in both parties.
Intelligence agencies have concluded that there is no question that Russia was behind hacking of political computer systems — something they say could only have occurred with the approval of top Kremlin officials. That conclusion is detailed in the classified report Obama ordered up on Russia and other foreign influence in U.S. elections dating back to 2008.