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Trump To Get Russian Cyber Briefing; May Announce Intelligence Chief

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As president-elect Donald Trump has assembled his team, one top post has remained open, the director of national intelligence. Well, now several news outlets are reporting the job will go to former Senator Dan Coats, Republican of Indiana. Now, today the current national intelligence director is scheduled to brief a very skeptical Donald Trump about alleged Russian hacking. NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly is here to talk about all of this with us. Mary Louise, good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Let's start with Dan Coats, who might be the new nation's intelligence chief if Donald Trump chooses him. What do we know about him?

KELLY: Well, we called him a former senator. And, in fact, his last term just ended last week. He has served in the Senate twice, first in the '90s and then again from 2011 to last week.

GREENE: So barely former senator.

KELLY: Barely former - and before that, he was in the House - four terms as an Indiana congressman.

GREENE: Uh-huh.

KELLY: He is known to be close to the incoming vice president, Mike Pence, of course, also of Indiana. He has - in between those two stints at the Senate, he has served as U.S. ambassador to Germany and also worked as a lobbyist on behalf of foreign governments, foreign clients. That's something that will surely come up in questioning at his confirmation hearing.

GREENE: So vast resume - varied.

KELLY: Vast resume - one thing you will not find on it is a lot of direct intelligence experience. Senator Coats did serve on the Intelligence Committee. But other than that, he's - he will be a newcomer to this world of the 17 U.S. spy agencies.

GREENE: Probably something else that would raise questions if he is indeed the choice.

KELLY: Indeed.

GREENE: Weren't there some questions about whether Donald Trump was going to have a director of national intelligence at all?

KELLY: Well, as this delay dragged on, and Trump did not name a director of national intelligence, people did start to wonder. Is he planning to, or is he just going to figure out a way not to do that?

GREENE: Could he reorganize everything?

KELLY: Well, the - there have been reports. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Trump wants to revamp the office of DNI, that he finds it bloated and too bureaucratic. I will say Trump's people have denied that. The spokesman for Trump, Sean Spicer, came out and called the Wall Street Journal story 100 percent false. But I will tell you - since that - since the day that that office opened - I mean, I remember covering this a dozen years ago, when they were standing up the DNI office. And from day one, it's been open to this criticism of bureaucratic bloat.

GREENE: Why?

KELLY: I think the concern is that it is a general divorced from his troops. I mean, the DNI does not send spies into the field. It does not have case officers working on the front lines in Iran or China or Russia or any of the other places that the U.S. is trying to spy on. It's supposed to hover above and coordinate the work of the agencies that do do that. So it is -

GREENE: Take the broad view - but not hands-on.

KELLY: Well, by definition, it is another layer of bureaucracy. Now, does Trump see that as a problem? We don't know. But given the degree to which he has criticized U.S. spy agencies, it's going to be awfully interesting to watch what kind of stamp he tries to put on them.

GREENE: Extraordinary that criticism of U.S. spy agencies this week - I mean, Donald Trump questioning intelligence agencies' work when it comes to the alleged Russian hack. Yesterday we heard the current director of national intelligence, James Clapper, push back against that criticism on the Hill. What exactly happened there? You were covering it.

KELLY: Right. This was a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. This was the first public hearing where U.S. spy chiefs have testified and been asked to weigh in publicly on all of these issues. And Clapper, responding to the criticism from Trump - he went out of his way to praise what he called the patriots working in U.S. intelligence. He talked about that image of the stars up on the wall at CIA headquarters, which - each one represents someone who has died while serving at CIA. Jim Clapper did not tell Trump to back off. But he walked right up to that line. Let me play you a little bit of what he actually said yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES CLAPPER: I think there is an important distinction here between healthy skepticism, which policymakers, to include policymaker number one, should always have for intelligence. But I think there's a difference between skepticism and disparagement.

KELLY: That's DNI Jim Clapper speaking yesterday in remarks clearly that he wants policymaker number one to hear. And yesterday Trump himself seemed to walk back some of his earlier criticism. He was tweeting about intelligence. But he said he's a big fan.

GREENE: He's saying he's a big fan of the intelligence community.

KELLY: That's what he says.

GREENE: OK. Well, I mean, so that is the context, as we have this meeting that is going to take place at Trump Tower today. Clapper, the current DNI, is going to be giving Donald Trump a top-secret briefing on Russia and those cyber activities. Set this up for us.

KELLY: Right. So this is the top-secret briefing laying out the Russia report, which is reviewing the evidence - what U.S. intelligence knows and how they know it. That was delivered to the White House yesterday. There is a public version forthcoming on Monday. It is, of course, already leaking. The Washington Post this morning is reporting that there were intercepted communications right after the November election. That is in Moscow. As they celebrated Trump's win, U.S. spy agencies were listening in. And the Post is -

GREENE: Russian officials were celebrating.

KELLY: The Post is quoting officials saying, this is one piece of the evidence that has led U.S. officials to believe Russia intervened. And the reason why was to try to swing the election.

GREENE: Though possible they might've been celebrating just because they liked that Donald Trump is...

KELLY: Without knowing exactly what was said, it's hard to say.

GREENE: Yeah.

KELLY: This is one piece of evidence that they're going to lay out. And you're right. It's an absolutely fascinating dynamic that will unfold at Trump Tower today. Also, in the room, we're going to have CIA Director John Brennan. I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago and asked him about what the relationship will be between U.S. spy agencies and Donald Trump. Without naming names, he talked about the importance of making sure the next administration appreciates how serious the Russia threat is. Let's hear a little bit of that.

JOHN BRENNAN: Some people who are going to be coming into the administration are unfamiliar with the extent of the threats - the nature of it, how diverse it is. And so we have a special responsibility and obligation to make sure that they are as informed, as enlightened, as knowledgeable as possible because they have the responsibility to protect this country's future.

KELLY: That's CIA Director John Brennan. And he will have his chance today to inform and enlighten the president-elect and to lay out in detail what exactly the classified intelligence is that supports the case that Russia interfered in the election.

GREENE: OK. Donald Trump getting that classified report today - and we'll get some sort of public version of it next week, we think. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, thanks as always.

KELLY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.