Report

Spy Chief, a Frequent Guest at the White House, is MIA at Headquarters

Dan Coats is often close to Donald Trump, but what is he doing for the intelligence community?

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 07:  Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill  June 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. The intelligence and security officials testified about re-authorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is the law the NSA uses to track emails and phone calls of non-US citizens.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 07: Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill June 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. The intelligence and security officials testified about re-authorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is the law the NSA uses to track emails and phone calls of non-US citizens. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The top spy in Washington, Dan Coats, has been spending a lot of time in and around the White House lately — so much so that current employees and veterans of the intelligence community are wondering whether the former Indiana senator is being kept on a tight leash by the administration.

Twelve weeks into the job, Coats, the director of national intelligence, is rarely seen at the office’s so-called Liberty Crossing headquarters in McLean, Virginia. Instead, Coats typically works out of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where he has an office and frequently attends meetings with the president and his top advisors, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

For Coats, the time spent at the White House has come as a surprise. “I think [CIA] Director [Mike] Pompeo and I can certify the fact that we have spent far more hours in the Oval Office than we anticipated,” Coats said during Senate testimony in May. “The president is a voracious consumer of information.”

But tied up at the White House, Coats risks alienating his office’s approximately 2,000 employees, many of whom are ill at ease with a president who has leveled repeated attacks on the intelligence community. So far, Coats hasn’t won their loyalty and seems unsure how to steer the more than $50 billion enterprise of American espionage. 

Amid a sprawling FBI investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and steady drip of intelligence leaks, Coats occupies what is perhaps the least desirable job in Washington. As the nominal head of America’s 17 spy agencies, Coats serves as President Donald Trump’s principal intelligence advisor and as his intermediary with an intelligence community that views its commander in chief with skepticism, if not outright hostility.

The task facing Coats is huge, to borrow a favorite expression of his volatile boss. Coats must provide the president with honest analysis from the intelligence community, parts of which are engaged in a war of leaks with the administration. He’s also tasked with representing a workforce that Trump advisors would like to reduce.

But in his inaugural hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Coats appeared out of his depth at times with some of the issues at hand. Addressing the day’s most pressing topic — how states such as Russia are using digital tools to meddle in elections — Coats offered a halting answer. “[T]he ability they have to — to use the interconnectedness and — and all the — all that that provides, that didn’t provide before I — they literally upped their game to the point where it’s having a significant impact,” he told the panel, in a performance that drew groans but also sympathy.

While Coats previously sat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and served as ambassador to Germany for four years, he lacks the hands-on experience of some of his predecessors, such as James Clapper, who started his career as a signals intelligence officer in the Vietnam War and rose through the ranks.

“He’s not of this world in a lot of ways,” said one former top official, who requested anonymity to discuss Coats’s early job performance candidly. “It’s a tough job if you don’t have an intelligence community background. He’s certainly drinking from a fire hose.”

According to the Washington Post, Coats told colleagues in March he’d been pressured by President Trump to intervene on the Russia investigation, particularly to stifle the counterintelligence work being done by then-FBI Director James Comey exploring links between Trump associates and Moscow. But Coats has denied feeling any undue pressure from the president in public testimony.

Spending the lion’s share of his days at the White House carries with it risks and opportunities for Coats. On the one hand, it guarantees him face-time with the president and an influential seat at the decision-making table. A former senior intelligence official in the Obama administration interprets Coats’s frequent presence at the White House as an indication that the bureaucracy “is active” and that the “president is getting his daily brief.”

Coats told Senate lawmakers this month that what he “thought would be a one or two time a week, 10 to 15 minute quick brief,” referring to the President’s Daily Brief, “has turned into an everyday” affair “sometimes exceeding 45 minutes to an hour.”

One of the sources familiar with Coats’s activities at the White House says he spends a lot of time up close and personal with “the inner circle of the West Wing,” though “most insiders see it as a good thing” that he maintains that proximity.

A spokesman for Coats wrote in a statement emailed to Foreign Policy that the intelligence chief has been “fully engaged” since taking office in March, “briefing President Trump and Principal Committee meetings at the NSC on an almost daily basis” as well as meeting with agency heads and other foreign and domestic officials. “These types of interactions have afforded him the opportunity to share his vision as DNI, to listen to concerns, and to familiarize him with the evolving challenges facing the community,” he wrote.

Twelve weeks into the job, Coats has held town halls with his staff, and has made his way to some of the various satellite offices to meet with workers. He returns to the Liberty Crossing headquarters when he can, but he spends a large chunk of time working with senior level intelligence officials to prepare for the president’s daily intelligence briefings. “When he’s not traveling overseas meeting foreign partners and U.S. officials, he spends the majority of his time at ODNI,” his spokesman wrote.

Coats’s absence from headquarters stems in part from his lack of a deputy to stand in for him in meetings. The awkwardly long acronym for that job — the principal deputy director of national intelligence, or PDDNI — has led employees to dub the position “P-Diddy,” according to David Priess, a former White House CIA briefer and the author of The President’s Book of Secrets.

A nomination for the position is said to be imminent. Those under consideration include Susan Gordon, currently second in command at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; Betty Sapp, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office; and Ted Gistaro, the chief of transnational threats at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, according to sources familiar with the matter. Representatives from those agencies declined to comment on a possible selection.

“A fully staffed DNI is a good thing,” Robert Cardillo, the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency told FP. Though Cardillo, who previously worked at Office of the Director of National Intelligence, expressed support for potential efforts to reform the office that might serve taxpayers.

How much time an intelligence chief should spend in the White House has long been up for discussion. When George H.W. Bush took over as CIA director in 1976, four senior officers sent him a memo titled “Where You Should Sit,” urging him not to spend too much time at or near the White House, Priess told FP. CIA leadership felt his proximity to the West Wing could “crush agency morale,” advice that Bush took seriously.

At other times in history, the head of the American intelligence community has had no choice but to spend long hours in the executive office building, as former CIA Director George Tenet did after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In 2005, the newly created Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a body set up in the aftermath of 9/11, replaced the CIA head as the leader of America’s intelligence bureaucracy. The Trump transition team, however, considered abolishing the intelligence chief’s office, a move that would have required congressional approval.

Coats now says he aims to “streamline” the office, not abolish it, but its future role remains unclear. “I believe every government agency must constantly review its operations and I’ll be taking a look at not only the office of the ODNI but the entire IC and try to learn how we can do things more efficiently and effectively,” Coats said during his February confirmation hearing. We don’t have a choice.”

Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images

Jenna McLaughlin is Foreign Policy's intelligence reporter. You can reach her on Signal at 203-537-3949. @JennaMC_Laugh

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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