Dan Coats served as Director of National Intelligence from 2017 to 2019. He was appointed to this position by President Donald Trump. A former Republican member of Congress, Coats represented Indiana in the United States Senate from 1989 to 1999 and again from 2011 to 2017. Previously, he served in the United States House of Representatives from 1981 to 1989, and as US Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany from 2001 to 2005. Coats is a graduate of Wheaton College and holds a JD from Indiana University School of Law.
Sam Kolitch: You spent nearly four decades in public service. What do you say to young people who are weighing the pride of serving one’s country against the rewards of working in the private sector?
Dan Coats: When you’re in government, you’re not going to get rich, but the reward is that you get to serve your country. There are a lot of people who have a lot of talent that could make three, four times the salary that they would make in the private sector, but they want to be in public service.
Let me give you an example. My former chief of staff, who is a brilliant, brilliant guy—any Fortune 500 company would hire him in a minute—just keeps going on in public service. He says, “I love being in the Senate and in the mix.” He feels that this is so rewarding. Now, he’s the chief of staff to another senator. He comes from a family of immigrants from India, and they see that their son is in a top position in the Senate and they get great pride from that.
Rex Tillerson, who was the chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, had an amazing career. In his later years, he became Secretary of State, though he was only in that position for a year and half. He had a mix-up with Donald Trump and unfortunately was let go, but he was a terrific guy. I was in the Cabinet with him and I said, “Really, I miss you, and I’m sorry it had to end this way.” He said, “No, don’t be sorry. All my life, I was wrapped up with a company, a terrific job, and made it all the way to the top. But I always had this nagging thought that I was doing everything for me, and I always thought that I owed my country something and wished that I had done some service. And so the opportunity [to become Secretary of State] came to me late in life and was very rewarding.”
I guess what I’m saying is: Give public service a shot. You won’t regret it. You will learn a lot of things. It could be a stepping stone to something later on that maybe you never even thought of, or you might want to stay with it as a career because you enjoy it that much.
You have a unique vantage point on the evolution of the Senate, having served in the 1990s and later in the 2010s. Is the Senate broken beyond fixing?
I certainly hope it’s not, but we are so divided right now. My concern is that it is going to take some kind of catastrophic effort to reunite this country from a political standpoint, like we did after 9/11. But I don’t want some crisis to be the thing that makes us do that.
I was in two Senates. The first one, we were working together, accepting the fact that we weren’t always going to get what we wanted. But we would come to some conclusion about what was best for the country. That was under very, very great leadership. And then the second time I was in the Senate, it was a whole different Congress. It was just a power play to see who was leading the House and leading the Senate. It’s not just the members of the Congress [who are to blame], but it’s also the public. They’re the ones who elect the people to send there. A lot of states are sending people to Congress without the necessary qualities or capabilities. They’re just trying to make a power play.
Serving in both the House and Senate, you sought out the limelight to promote the issues you cared about and to win elections. Was it challenging, as a career politician, to become America’s chief spymaster and serve as the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), a job that is decidedly out of the public eye?
No. I think my time in Congress prepared me for the DNI role because I had served on the Intelligence Committee and the Armed Services Committee in the Senate. I had also been an ambassador to Germany and dealt with foreign policy issues and interacted with our allies, and even some of our adversaries. So, everything that I did previous to becoming DNI helped and built a foundation of information, contacts, and so forth that made the job easier.
Having had access to the most highly-classified intelligence, is there a specific issue that keeps you up at night—besides the Chicago Cubs having another losing season next year?
(Laughs.) When you’re DNI, and even senator, there are a lot of things that keep you up at night. This is a very uncertain world we’re living in right now. Democracies are at risk. We have had a relatively settled world after the fall of the [Berlin] Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War. But we’re back into something that’s not cold anymore—it’s hot. And there are a number of issues that could turn into something that we really don’t want to get into.
There’s a lot of conflict going on around the world, a lot of uncertainty, but countries are not looking to the United States for guidance and leadership in the way that they would’ve before. They’re raising questions about our democracy and our inability to unite. We’re divided. It is very concerning.
Historically, there has been significant infighting between the various agencies that make up the intelligence community. How did you navigate and lead in the face of these tensions?
I was fully aware of the tensions within the intelligence community. There was a lot of competition with eighteen agencies working together to make recommendations to the president and policymakers. I realized that my job as DNI was to unite us as a team: We win together. We lose together. We don’t point fingers at each other.
My main responsibility was to pull it all together, to put the directors of these agencies together, and to build a team of trust for the sake of getting the right information to the right people at the right time, and to the best of our ability. We had, I believe, some very good success in doing that.
For example, technology changed the way we did things, the way we collected. Everything is not just agents on the ground. There are satellites in the air and a whole number of ways that we bring in tons of information that has to be integrated to get the right conclusions to the president and policymakers. So one of the major things we knew had to be done was to coordinate the capabilities of the government with the capabilities of the private sector. We needed to work with all of the big tech companies and the education sector to stay on top of this.
So being DNI was a 365-days-a-year, seven-days-a-week, 24-hour-a-day job, but I fully enjoyed it. I think we are in a much better place now with our intelligence community. Our biggest problem was we didn’t get the support from the president that I thought we needed, and that was a major challenge.
On the topic of the former president, one of the most high-profile moments of your leadership as DNI was the 2018 Helsinki summit, where President Trump seemingly sided with Vladimir Putin over the US intelligence community—
Helsinki was the beginning of the end of my leadership. I was concerned that the president didn’t have the confidence in the intelligence community that he should have had. And what was said and done at Helsinki really made it difficult for us to get the information we thought we needed to get to him. My job was to basically keep up the morale of the community, to stay out of politics, to just do our job to the best of our capabilities. But in the end, under President Trump, we weren’t able to accomplish what I hoped we could have accomplished.
In the years since, are you any closer to understanding why President Trump might have done that closed-door, one-on-one meeting with Putin—and what was said?
Oh, I got lots of thoughts on that, but I’m not going to get into anything.
Worth a try. To bring our conversation full circle, what is your message to aspiring public servants who are disillusioned with American democracy?
Throughout our history, there’ve been some bumps and issues and problems along the way, but we have to keep being the United States of America—not just America, but the United States of America. This world needs us. But now they’ve got a lot of doubts: “Does the US have it anymore?”
We need our leadership to step up and say, “Enough of this political war for power.” It’s hurting our country, and we need to work together. People have to realize the privilege they have of being born and raised in the United States of America. I’ve been to 70 countries, and I haven’t found one where people would not say, “If I had a chance, I would want to go to America.” This is the land of opportunity, and that is why American leadership in the world is so important. But it’s at risk. So it’s very important what you’re doing here, and maybe you’ll inspire some of your peers to give public service a thought.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.