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Former National Intelligence Director Discusses Dan Coats' Current Situation

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been a dizzying week for the United States intelligence community. It began with President Trump doubting the findings of the U.S. intelligence agencies about Russian interference in the 2016 election, statements he later walked back. And as the week came to a close, the man responsible for coordinating all U.S. intelligence agencies got some surprising news. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats learned the president was planning a Washington summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin only after NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell informed him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREA MITCHELL: We have some breaking news. The White House has announced on Twitter that Vladimir Putin is coming to the White House in the fall.

DAN COATS: Say that again.

(LAUGHTER)

MITCHELL: You - Vladimir Putin coming to the...

COATS: Did I hear you - did I hear you...

MITCHELL: Yeah. Yeah.

COATS: OK.

MITCHELL: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

COATS: That's going to be special.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: All right, so to put all of this into context we're joined by Ambassador John Negroponte, the first director of national intelligence. Welcome, Ambassador.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Thank you very much.

CHANG: So how unusual is it for the DNI to learn about something like that from a reporter?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I think it's pretty unusual because usually in the run-up to an announcement like that there would have been I suppose at least a National Security Council meeting. And the director of national intelligence is a member of that council, so...

CHANG: Right.

NEGROPONTE: ...He would have learned about it beforehand.

CHANG: You know, this week, not only did Andrea Mitchell have to be the one to inform Director Coats that there was this upcoming summit at the White House between Trump and Putin, but there were other pieces of information it seemed the White House did not give to Coats like what Trump and Putin talked about in Helsinki, whether any agreements were made between the two of them. How does that affect the ability of the DNI to lead all the intelligence agencies in the country when the White House doesn't seem to be giving that person important pieces of information?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I think Mr. Coats was probably not the only high-ranking national security official to be kept in the dark. And I think that's more a commentary on the way the president is conducting his presidency than it is a reflection on the DNI himself. Secondly, I think we got to make a distinction between information on the one hand and policy decisions on the other.

And Mr. Coats I don't think is in any way impeded from continuing to collect and analyze information that is important for our nation's leaders. But the president, he's kind of neglected the National Security Council process as we have understood it in the past. It's episodes like this that demonstrate the shortcomings of such an approach because it's making some of his key advisers look as if they're in the dark.

CHANG: A lot of people have suggested that Coats should resign not only because of yesterday but because of statements the president made about Russian interference earlier in the week. Where would you come down on that question if you were in his shoes?

NEGROPONTE: I hope he doesn't resign, first of all. I think he's performing a very useful service to our nation. And when congressmen and senators comment about the qualities desired of a director of national intelligence or a head of an intelligence agency, they talk about the willingness to speak truth to power. I think Mr. Coats is embodying that virtue in the way he has behaved. And I think frankly, it would be a great pity if he were to leave. I think he should stick with it and keep doing his job.

CHANG: But you think that Coats can remain effective in this position even if the president chooses not to tell him some important pieces of information once in a while and even if the public perceives that, that Coats is sometimes left out of the loop by the White House.

NEGROPONTE: Look; any more than the secretary of state when he's not necessarily in the loop or the secretary of defense, his responsibility is to coordinate the intelligence community and make sure that it works in the most effective way possible.

CHANG: Can he do that?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I think he's got as good an ability as anybody else to do it. I think if there's a shortcoming, it's on the president's side, not on Mr. Coats' side.

CHANG: Ambassador John Negroponte was the first director of national intelligence. Thank you very much.

NEGROPONTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.