Wyden, Coats Clash Over Russia Probe, Government Surveillance

June 7, 2017

Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) exchanged sharp words with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats during a congressional hearing on Wednesday, clashing over the Russia investigation and government surveillance practices.

Coats appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee to give testimony as part of a panel that included Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers, and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.

When given the opportunity to question Coats, Wyden asked about a Washington Post article that reported President Donald Trump asked Coats to encourage former FBI Director James Comey to "back off" the probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

"Director Coats, on March 23rd, you testified to the Armed Services Committee that you are not aware of the president or White House personnel contacting anyone in the intelligence community with a request to drop the investigation into General Flynn," Wyden said.

"Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that you had been asked by the president to intervene with Director Comey to back off of the FBI's focus on General Flynn. Which one of those is accurate?" the senator asked.

Coats refused to comment, saying, "I am not going to get into any discussion on that in an open hearing."

Wyden then shifted the conversation to intelligence gathering practices, focusing on information collected under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). He reminded Coats that during his confirmation hearing, he had promised to provide a metric for how many American citizens are incidentally gathered by 702 surveillance.

"This morning you went back on that promise and you said that even putting together a sampling, a statistical estimate, would jeopardize national security. I think that is a very, very damaging position to stake out," Wyden said, alluding to Coats' earlier refusal to provide such a metric.

"What I pledged to you in my confirmation hearing is that I would make every effort to try to find out why we were not able to come to a specific number of collection on U.S. persons," Coats responded.

"I told you I would consult with Admiral Rogers. I told you I would go to the National Security Agency to try to determine whether or not I was able to do that," Coats continued. "I went out there, I talked to them, they went through the technical details. There were extensive efforts on the part of NSA to try to come to get you an appropriate answer. We were not able to do that."

Wyden responded that Coats had made an "inaccurate" statement.

"You told the American people that even a statistical sample would be jeopardizing America's national security. That is inaccurate, and I think detrimental to the cause of ensuring we have both security and liberty," he said.

The Oregon Democrat then had a final question about 702 searches.

"We are trying to sort out, who are the targets of a 702 investigation?" he asked.

According to Wyden, Comey said last month that 702 searches are confined to "counterterrorism, to espionage, and finally, he said, he didn't think a diplomat could be targeted."

Coats only respond that the targets are "non-U.S. persons, foreign individuals are the targets in terms—702 is directed and prohibited from directing targets on U.S. persons."

"Some of those targets are classified, highly classified," he added.

"Some of those targets, by revealing those names of those targets, release the methods that we use and then is turned against us and could cost ... lives," Coats said.

At one point during a tangent by Wyden, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) asked if the witness would be allowed to respond.

"Apparently not," Coats muttered.