With all the news during the first week of March about Trump Administration contacts with Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak and what the Intelligence Community did or did not know, it is easy to understand why the confirmation hearing for former Senator Dan Coats to be Director of National Intelligence (DNI) on February 28 drew such little notice. Given President Trump’s Tweeter claims on March 4th that the Obama Administrations tapped his communications during the campaign and FBI Director Jim Comey along with former DNI Jim Clapper’s denials on 5 March that the Trump campaign was not targeted for surveillance, I think the immediate question is “why would Dan Coats still want to be DNI?”
If you watched or read the transcript of Dan Coats’ SSCI Confirmation Hearing it is hard to see it as anything but a friendly, non-controversial “home coming.” For the most part the Senators thanked their former colleague for being willing to serve as DNI while lobbing softball questions with little push back or follow up to his talking point responses. Two things former Senator Coats kept coming back to in responses to various questions was his commitment to follow the law in all situations and to be as transparent as possible. https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/hearings/open-hearing-nomination-daniel-coats-be-director-national-intelligence
Nonetheless a few things stood out to me about this confirmation hearing:
- Coats’ flawed description of the DNI as an NFL Coach working with his coordinators and assistant coaches (IC agency heads) to produce a winning result. Senator Coats did not mention that unlike an NFL Coach the DNI does not have hire/fire authority over his “coordinators” and “assistant coaches” At least Senator Manchin made a polite and passing reference to this critical difference in authorities between the DNI and every NFL Coach.
- Coats defended the size of the ODNI noting it has less staff then there are musicians in DoD to do its important work of overseeing the intelligence community. Former Senator Coats did agree that after 12 years a review of IRTPA is probably something worth considering and said he would start with the Robb-Silverman Commission Recommendations for where the law might be improved
- Coats did not share the concerns of several senators that the National Security Council Executive Order has not been modified to clarify that the DNI is a member of the Principals Committee. He said the White House has assured him he will be invited to all Principal Committee meetings and he takes them at their word.
- Coats said nothing about the line reporting relationship between the DNI and the Director of CIA and all of the SSCI members were polite enough not to ask about it.
- Coats did not say nor was he asked about his position on government backdoor encryption access.
- Based on Coats’ opening statement and the Q&A, the open animosity between President Elect Trump and the Intel Community of just a month ago must have been “fake news” as it did not come up.
- In response to questions, Coats assured the SSCI he would support investigations into Russian involvement in trying to influence our past election as well as personal links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. He also pledged to investigate/support other appropriate investigations into leaks associated with Russia. He assured the committee he would insure the Congress is kept fully informed regarding these investigations.
Despite all the concerns in the media about whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians for political advantage or whether the Obama Administration used Intelligence Community (IC) resources to monitor the Trump campaign for political advantage, the Coats hearing got me thinking about how the IC will be shaped (changed?) by the Trump Administration. Looking back at both recent history and what was said about the IC institutionally during the campaign I can foresee impacts for the IC across the following three broad areas:
Contracting and the Business Environment
Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) that have been occurring in the IC’s industrial base since 2015 will continue during the Trump administration, but at a slower rate. This slowdown in M&A activity will be the result of three forces: (1) the diminished number of attractive companies left that are available for M&A consideration; (2) the debt loading taken on by companies that have merged or acquired other companies; and (3) lack of clarity about what changes to expect in the corporate tax code.
Because the Trump administration is populated with business people who are concerned about business metrics, (e.g., how the money is spent, with an emphasis on cost, performance and schedule), any IC programs that are behind schedule and underperforming will be in jeopardy. With an emphasis on performance, schedule and cost metrics, the IC will be looking for solutions vice full time equivalents (FTE, aka people) and using more automation to reduce cost. This is already manifesting itself with a hiring freeze and will impact what the distribution should be between blue and green badgers in the IC. Budgetary pressures will also cause the IC to look hard at what should be in-sourced or out-sourced, with an eye towards more “XXX as a service” procurements. FY 17 is expected to be flat, but industry is looking forward to business growth with anticipated FY18 national security plus ups. Acquisition Reform seems unlikely, but “Other than Traditional Authorities (OTAs)” will be used more extensively to streamline and accelerate the acquisition process.
Organizational Change to the IC
Real change to the organization and processes of the IC requires Congressional legislation, which seems remote given the political capital this would take as well as the competition for scarce Congressional calendar days. Immigration, healthcare, and tax reform will not leave much energy or time for IC structural reform over the term of the 115th Congress. Because the Trump Transition team saw the ODNI staff providing an extra layer of bureaucratic management with little added value, this is an area I see the Trump Administration downsizing despite Dan Coats’ defense of the size of the ODNI staff in his opening statement at his confirmation hearing. An open question is which National Intelligence Centers does the Trump National Security Team see as worth preserving because of their independent ability as ODNI entities to integrate intelligence? Should they remain under the DNI? While I am sure Senator Coats’ trust is well placed, the reality is that the White House’s lack of interest in modifying the NSC EO to include the DNI as a member of the Principals Committee suggests to me that the authorities of the DNI are not all that important to this administration.
Restoring Trust and Confidence in the IC
Perhaps through no fault of its own the IC has been caught up in a highly charged partisan debate between President Trump himself and whether the IC is being used to undermine his creditability as Commander in Chief. Depending who you are listening to, allegations that the IC is withholding sensitive intelligence from the President, left a transparent trail of intelligence reports suggesting the Trump Campaign had ties to Russia, and tapped the phones in Trump Tower, these claims are either baseless or disturbing. I know I don’t know who or what to believe at this point. The question now is not if an investigation of these allegations will be conducted, but who will conduct the investigation(s) and with what authorities? What seems to be inevitable about any impending investigation is that the IC will looked at critically and depending on what is found (or not found) the IC could find itself on the threshold change as resulted from the Church Committee, the 9-11 Commission, and the Iraq WMD Commission.
There are too many known unkowns at least for me to even speculate what such an investigation will find, but my beltway common sense sensor tells me the IC has been too close to the partisan tumult for too long not to come out of this unbruised in some way. Until whatever investigation(s) are completed the best things the IC can to do bolster its confidence and trust with the President, the Congress, and the American people is adhere to the tried and true advice of many others, which is: stay off the front page, focus on competence, and eschew involvement with policy decisions. It is probably also worth remembering that a public battle with the President of the United States is more than likely a losing strategy for the IC because he is the only nationally elected figure in the government – – – – and he needs to be Customer # 1.
That’s what I think; what do you think?