President Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as the director of national intelligence on Tuesday criticized the release of war on terror prisoners from the Guantánamo Bay detention center and suggested that lawmakers might want to modify a blanket ban on the torture of prisoners.
Dan Coats, a longtime legislator who is one of three Trump nominees still unconfirmed by the Senate, made the remarks in response to questions at his confirmation hearing.
“Are they running Starbucks in Yemen or have they rejoined the fight?” Coats said when asked about former Guantánamo detainees. “A significant number of them have rejoined the fight.”
“Simply sending everybody back home I don’t think is the solution to the problem,” Coats added.
Guantánamo Bay currently has 41 war on terror prisoners, and nearly 800 prisoners have passed through the facilities. A group of Republican senators has applauded Trump for his plans to reverse the trend and fill Guantánamo with “some bad dudes.” Only last week, a former Guantánamo detainee attacked a military base in Iraq as a suicide bomber.
Both Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee offered a warm welcome to Coats, who once sat on the committee, praising his congenial manner. But several questioned whether that same “Mister Rogers” amiability would leave him sidelined by the White House, unable to push back against sharper elbows in the West Wing.
“I really want the (director of national intelligence) to be tough when it’s time to be tough,” said Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma.
I want somebody who’s crusty and tough and mean.
Sen. Angus King, independent from Maine
“You’re one of the most likable, affable, easygoing people I’ve ever met,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats. “I want somebody who’s crusty and tough and mean.”
Several former colleagues of Coats, who served 10 years in the House of Representatives and 16 in the Senate, asked him to explain an executive order that Trump signed in late January that would have removed the intelligence director from a permanent position on the National Security Council’s principals committee while elevating Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief political strategist, to a seat on the body.
Coats said the language for the executive order had been lifted from a previous document dating prior to the existence of the DNI position, which was created in 2004. Its omission was a hurried oversight, he said.
“I’ve been assured that I have the authority to be on that committee and to be at every one of its meetings,” Coats said, adding that Trump had told him that “over and over and over” and that he now had “100 percent confidence” that he would be part of the principals’ committee.
My concern is about the environment that you are walking into.
Sen. Kamala Harris, Democrat from California
“My concern isn’t about your qualifications,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat. “My concern is about the environment that you are walking into.”
Such questions underscored uncertainty over how much Coats, who would oversee some 2,000 employees at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as well as coordinate the activities of 16 other intelligence agencies or departments, would have the ear of Trump.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, quizzed Coats about news reports that Trump has considered tapping a Wall Street friend, Stephen A. Feinberg, founder of Cerberus Capital Management, to oversee a review of all federal intelligence operations.
If approved for the post, Coats said, he would not want “armchair quarterbacking” over how to reformulate the intelligence apparatus by an outsider with little experience.
“I made that clear to the president and his advisers,” Coats said.
Coats said he would respect a 2016 law barring the torture of war on terror prisoners.
“I have no other mission than to follow the law,” Coats said. But he added that a blanket ban on torture in the case of an alarm over an imminent terrorist attack should be debated further.
“We might have to go outside that. I don’t have the prescription for that. I don’t advocate for that,” Coats said.
The intelligence community has had a rocky relationship with Trump, who has accused it of bungling information leading to the 2003 war in Iraq and, more recently, providing “fake” intelligence about Russian hacking of the U.S. election campaign last fall.
The president has also voiced anger at what he said were politically motivated leaks from the FBI and intelligence agencies in the case around retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign as Trump’s national security adviser over his potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington. Flynn served only 24 days in the job.