Listening In: Dan Coats

J.C. DERRICK: Well, Senator, I’d like to start with just how you came to faith in Christ.

DAN COATS: Well, I grew up in a Christian family—Baptist denomination. Our family was grounded on faith. Back then, it was Sunday school, church, youth group in the afternoon at a certain age on Sundays, and then Sunday evening service. Prayer service on Wednesday evening. It was very much part of my growing up.

I’m grateful for that, but yet there comes a point in time when, obviously, you have to think for yourself and say, “OK, this is what I’ve been taught to believe. Do I really believe it?” That point came when I was fairly young—on the basis of what I knew at that particular point in time—but I do think there have been other incidents in my life which have brought me to the affirmation of my belief in that God is the God of Creation, of all life, and that what we owe Him is yielding our lives to Him. And I’ve gone through several iterations of that at different times in my life—each time reaffirming what I think I was taught and learned as a child growing up in the Christian faith.

DERRICK: And you mentioned growing up Baptist, and just in the interest of full disclosure here, you and I had never met before today, but we did go to the same church for several years—McLean Presbyterian Church, right outside of Washington, D.C.

COATS: How did I get to be a Presbyterian? 

DERRICK: Well, that was my next question. I’m curious about your spiritual formation. How did that happen?

COATS: Well, when Marsha and I first came to Washington we went to Columbia Baptist Church, but our children and where we were living were much closer to their friends in school and the main church there was McLean Presbyterian Church. The kids wanted to be with their friends and be part of the youth group and so forth and so we switched over for that purpose so that we were supporting them and all going to the same church at the same time. 

DERRICK: And this is back in the 1980s?

COATS: This is back in the early 1980s. I was first elected to office in 1980, started in 1981 in the House of Representatives. Our children were young but growing, moving into their teen years. And so after a couple of wonderful years at Columbia Baptist, we made that switch.

Now, I know from a denominational standpoint, there are some differences there. We weren’t trying to cover ourselves with two different thoughts in that regard, but we found a sweet spot at McLean Presbyterian Church. It’s PCA, conservative Presbyterian church, and we feel very comfortable there, even though—and they accept us, the fact that we still have a little Baptist theology in our genes, and we’re not compromising on that. We’re letting God settle that [issue]. 

DERRICK: Right, right. Well, and then I also wanted to ask you about—you went to Wheaton College. So—

COATS: I did. That’s where I met my wife and lifetime friends. I ended up being one of the trustees at Wheaton, which I had to step down from when I re-ran for the Senate in 2010. I regretted that I had to do that, but, yes, we met at Wheaton, and I received a very, very good education there. Most importantly, I met the love of my life and we’re now over 50 years of marriage. 

DERRICK: Congratulations.

COATS: Thank you.

DERRICK: So, from there, what was your pathway into politics? 

COATS: Politics was never on my radar screen growing up or even in school. It was only through something that came totally out of the blue when the president of the insurance company that I was working for as a lawyer happened to be the finance chairman for a then young aspiring politician by the name of Dan Quayle.

And the chairman approached me and said, “I was just at a celebration dinner last evening with our new congressman, and he came to me and he said, ‘I’m looking for someone that can be my principal aid and be my representative here in this congressional district and here’s my criteria: I’d like to have somebody with a law degree, someone of faith, someone that you think could be very helpful to me. Do you have anyone like that at your office?’” And he said, “I have one young man that I’d like you to meet.”

And to make a long story short, I ended up being that representative, and that’s how I got into the political business.

DERRICK: And what led from being a staffer to then eventually running for office? 

COATS: Well, before what happened that I just described to you, I responded to an invitation to a mayor’s prayer breakfast to be held in Fort Wayne, Indiana—which is where we were living. And the guest speaker was going to be Chuck Colson. He had just been released from prison months before.

I arrived late. Couldn’t find a parking place. Finally entered the auditorium where he would be—the breakfast was served and he would be then speaking. He began to speak, and I was transfixed into what he was saying. I wasn’t transfixed into Chuck Colson, but the message that he was delivering and his conversion to Christianity and his commitment, committing his life to what turned out to be Prison Fellowship.

It was a remarkable leadership and life that he lived. It had a major impact on me and the impact was full dedication of your life to whichever direction, whichever path, God would want to take you.

That had been ingrained into me. If you had asked me growing up or asked me in college or whatever or even after law school, well, of course I believe that. This hit me in a way that, are you really, really, really willing to put your future in God’s hands? And when He provides the clarity of where He wants you to go or what he wants you to do that you say, “Yes, Lord,” and you will not sort of sort through your own, well, is this the best thing for me? Is this the best thing for our financial resources? Is this the best thing for our family? It is to be obedient [to God’s plan for your life].

And so I went home that evening, and I told my wife about that breakfast and how this impacted me. And we at that point standing in the dining room both of us made the commitment that, yes, we will yield to God’s leading, whatever that may be and wherever that would take us.

Every step that we have taken together, whether it was serving in the Congress, whether it was being ambassador to Germany, whether it was being director of national intelligence, and all the things that have happened in our life have been so clearly revealed to us by God as this is where He wants us to go and these were opportunities that were presented.

And each time we went back to that seminal moment when I came home from hearing Chuck Colson and saying: This door has opened. We didn’t open it. We believe God is asking us to step through not knowing where this is going to take us. We are amazed at how this has happened time after time after time. We take no credit for it by anything that we did to make this happen. We give all credit to God for leading us down the path that we’ve taken.

DERRICK: So, I did want to pivot now to 2016. You’re headed toward retirement. What was your thinking about your plans at the time, and what was the process that led to suddenly a new opportunity? 

COATS: My thinking at the time was that we would settle into a more predictable lifestyle and be on a more relaxed—be more in charge of our own schedule and looking forward to that. What happened was a dear friend and fellow colleague had been selected by the president—this is Mike Pence—to be his [vice presidential] nominee.

DERRICK: Fellow Hoosier. 

COATS: And when they won, the surprise win, in 2016, I got a call from the vice president saying, “I think there’s a role for you. And I said, Mike, look, you were just at my retirement party in Indiana basically thanking me for my years of public service. And I had no intention of going back into public service. “Oh, I understand. I understand. But would you give it some thought?”

A couple of weeks later he said, “Donald Trump asked me what it’s like in the United States Senate and is there somebody I could talk to to give him some insight into some of that, and would you be willing to do that?” I said, “Yes, but I’m not looking for a job.”

He said, “No, no, I know you’re not looking for a job. Just give him some information about the Senate and how it works and what’s the interaction between the presidency and the Senate and so on.”

DERRICK: Pretty sneaky.

COATS: Pretty sneaky is right. So, “Can you come up to New York and meet with Donald Trump at Trump Tower?”

I said, “OK, but I’m not looking for a job.”

And so I walk into his office and the president stands up, shakes my hand, and says, “So you’re looking for a job.” I said, “Sir, I’m not looking for a job.”

“No, I’m told that you ought to be part of the administration here and what would you like to do? Would you like to be ambassador?”

I said, “Well, I’ve already been ambassador. And I’ve done that once.”

He said, “Want to do it again?

I said, “No, sir, I don’t. I’m just here to tell you a little bit about interactions with the United States Senate.”

He said, “You were on the Intelligence Committee, right?

“Yes, sir, I was.”

And he said, “Well, we might have an opening there.”

One thing led to another, and when you’re asked by the President of the United States, even through the prompting of the vice president, to serve him, it’s hard—and so we made a hard decision that this was, once again, where God wanted to take us at this particular time. And so the answer was yes. 

DERRICK: It feels like that would be a pretty all-consuming job, the director of national intelligence. 

COATS: It is—absolutely an all-consuming job. 24/7, 365. No break.

DERRICK: More so than being a senator and ambassador? 

COATS: Much more so. Much more so. I mean, when you’re in the intelligence business and particularly the director of national intelligence that is coordinating with 16 different agencies in terms of intelligence that is being gathered and needs to be assessed and put into a piece that can be delivered to the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States, the policy leaders, national security adviser, and so forth and so on, it’s a never-ending job. We work on a 24-hour basis.

Obviously, everybody needs to get some sleep. And so there are shifts that go on. But for the director of national intelligence, it’s your responsibility. Of course we have wonderful, experienced people to work with you to help put all of this in place, but when you’re the top guy, you have to be aware that things are happening around the world all the time and you need to be aware of that. So it is a consuming job.

DERRICK: Amid all of that, I observed you almost every Sunday at church. And so I’m just wondering how difficult is it in that kind of job to maintain your spiritual disciplines, church attendance, Bible reading, etc. 

COATS: Well, without a foundation of faith, everything that I’ve talked to you about so far could not have been accomplished by myself. So, being faithful not just for church but being faithful to God on a 24/7 basis also was absolutely necessary, surrounding myself with good people that understood that to find this balance in my life, my faith and exercising my faith was a very important component of that. And they respected that. And so I felt that was all the more necessary for me to be more attuned to maintaining that foundation of faith, given all that was going on.

I mean, it’s a dark world out there and everything flowing in—all of our intelligence components and people engaging in this are not there to spread good news. They’re there to spread the bad news. They’re there to make sure that we know what the negative side of what is happening around the world, the dark side of what is happening around the world. And so—

DERRICK: Does it help in that moment to have a good sense of God’s sovereignty?

COATS: You have to have a sense of God’s sovereignty or I think you would go bonkers with all that’s happening and with all the threats and potential things that could happen. You do lie in bed at night thinking about what could go wrong, what could happen that would be a major threat to the United States. And it’s a never-ending thought process because dozens and dozens and dozens of different things could go wrong and you’re in a real difficult situation.

DERRICK: How many hours a day did you typically work—in a day and a week? 

COATS: Well, it was early morning because I had to consume a great deal of information in terms of what was happening around the world and then prepare to present all of this and make sure it’s been integrated and worked to the point where you could present this to the president.

The chief responsibility of the director of national intelligence is to be the principal adviser to the president. We have a team that works around the clock, but then we have a very small grouping of people that walk into the president’s office, and the ones that are necessary at that particular time, to provide some context to some of the information. But that was the principal duty we had and that was priority No. 1. 

Priority No. 2 was to oversee the 16 agencies and how they were working together and making sure they were integrated and working together, and we came up with one product that, even though might make some dissent on that, everyone had the opportunity to get their piece. It’s like putting a puzzle together. Every agency—all 16 of them—have pieces of that puzzle. CIA, of course, and NSA on the signals intelligence, military intelligence have big pieces of that puzzle. But even smaller agencies have pieces, and we were trying to put that picture or puzzle together every day so that our policy makers had the information to base their policy decisions on. So, that was the second responsibility. 

The third responsibility is to interact with all of our foreign partners and even some of our adversaries because our mission is to keep our people safe. Even sometimes countries that we don’t get along with still want to keep their people safe, and the sharing of that information and building some relationships means global travel and global travel, obviously, takes a great deal of time. It’s very interesting, but also very demanding.

DERRICK: So, do you have—in terms of how much you worked—do you have a rough estimate on hours per week? 

COATS: Well, I told my staff, frankly, for about the first three months or so, I just could not get my mind wrapped around all these responsibilities. And I told my staff, I’m not going to be able to have a long run here unless we can incorporate into my schedule three things: One, I needed to get a decent night’s sleep or I’m just going to burn out. 

DERRICK: Can you define that? 

COATS: Well, I mean, it’s up very, very early in the morning and sometimes well into the evening. But I told them, you know, we’re just going to have to make some adjustments so I can get at least a decent night’s sleep.

Secondly, I said, I need to have—I can’t just be throwing down a McDonald’s cheeseburger at 3 o’clock in the afternoon because I didn’t have time to [eat lunch]. I said I need to have a good diet and make sure that I’m eating the right foods so I can stay healthy.

And, No. 3, [I told my schedulers] you have to work into my schedule exercise. I don’t need more than, say, 45 minutes a day. Fortunately, we had a gym downstairs in the director’s building. And I said because physically that’s a stress reliever, No. 1, and I think it’s a healthy thing to do. And if we can incorporate those three things, I think I can hopefully balance that out.

Now, there’s a fourth thing.


COATS: And the fourth thing is that I had to rely on the strength and wisdom and understanding that God would grant me, and that was my first priority every day when I woke up, because I knew I could not get through the day without His help. And so dependence on that and just, frankly, asking Him: “Can you give me the strength that I need, the understanding that I need, the wisdom that I need, to accomplish the job this day and walk with me every step of the way?”

DERRICK: Can you think of a particular time when—a tangible way God answered that prayer [for help]? 

COATS: Well, we don’t have time to talk about all the times that prayer was answered continually throughout the day, throughout the week. There were times when under a lot of stress things need to be done and I said at a very—I remember when I took the oath ending with “so help me God,” that sort of turned into “so, God, please help me.” 

DERRICK: So, you saying that brings to mind one particular instance—when you say things that had to be done that you maybe didn’t want to do but you did anyway… In 2018, there was a very controversial press conference in Helsinki with the president and Russian President [Vladimir] Putin. And, as I recall, you were the only senior member of the administration who contradicted your boss in a way and said, no, there was Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Is that one of those tough decisions that you’re talking about?

COATS: Well, I’m really not in a position at this time to go into specifics—what I can say is it was very clear to me that the mission through the oath of office and the mission and responsibilities of being leader of the intelligence community was to adhere to doing everything we could to seek the truth. It became my motto that I wanted all of our people to adhere to—to seek the truth and speak the truth.

And so seeking the truth requires a lot of effort because there’s a lot of contradicting things that are being said and done out there, and truth sometimes is defined as what people want to hear or think and not what it actually is.

And I had to keep reminding myself and reminding our intelligence community that our job is to make sure we do not politicize or massage or change or manage any kind of information that we had. It had to be the straight stuff. And we had to adhere to that or the whole system would collapse.

Right now we’re in a situation where people are defining—some people—are defining facts and defining truth as what they want to hear but not exactly to what it is. And we see that coming, sometimes, from both sides on certain issues. But I think what’s interesting is that at the CIA, inscribed into the wall of the new headquarters that were put in place decades ago, is a quote from the Gospel of John, “You shall [know] the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

DERRICK: Really? That’s on the wall? 

COATS: That’s inscribed into the wall. So if you walk into the lobby of CIA and you look to your right, you see stars there for those who sacrificed their life in terms of their duty—unnamed because it was all undercover—and then if you look at the wall on your left, you see “And ye shall know the truth,” from the Gospel of John 8:32, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

And that was my motto. I love music. I love to listen to music. One of my most favorite hymns Bach wrote “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” There’s a phrase in there that says, “Striving still to truth unknown.” I think that defined my role and the role of the intelligence community and I kept reminding them, we are still striving to find the real truth and we strive every day. And we have to do everything we can to discern what that truth is. And then be not afraid to speak that truth regardless of what the consequences might be.

But if we could do that, it does provide a freedom—a freedom of thought, a freedom of belief, a freedom that you’re doing the job you were asked to do.

DERRICK: Well, and relative to the intelligence community—we often hear about these gray areas in intelligence world, and so I’m just wondering, did you encounter some of those, and did this seeking hard after the truth—did that help you navigate some of those things? 

COATS: Well, you know, people look at our business of intelligence as perhaps lying or managing a situation that isn’t necessarily what it should be. But what I have found is that our units, our agencies, all those engaged are very conscious of this and very conscious of the fact that ultimately we have to, in defense of our country, find the truth and make sure it’s exposed.

The methods that are used to find the truth—there have to be ethical limitations on that. And that’s when we take an oath of office when we join and we are always reminded of the fact that there are standards which we as Americans need to uphold ourselves to, necessarily practice around the world or with some of our adversaries. But ultimately, for the protection of the American people, we needed to glean information, but yet there still is a boundary in terms of where we can’t go.

That compromises us in some ways. It perhaps makes it more difficult for us to gather this information, but we have to do it legally, and we have to do it the way that upholds the values that we all adhere to. 

DERRICK: In line with what you just said, was there a time, a story you could tell, that your faith compelled you to do or not do some particular thing? 

COATS: Well, without getting to a specific time, because it engages in areas where I just can’t make public, but obviously there were times when I knew that the consequences of presenting what we had deemed to be the consensus that the intelligence community has derived through all of our means of gathering information and working it through so that we were all together on the same page—we knew that delivering that would raise some concerns about people who didn’t want to hear that. But, yet, our obligation was to present that.

That was part of our mission and, obviously, there were many, many times that people had wished it had been different or would want to hear it differently. But, nevertheless, our job was to make sure that we had not in any way done anything to tilt it one way or another, if it wasn’t backed up by the truthful information that we had gathered.

DERRICK: So, I’m thinking of several strikes against you in terms of your longevity. You had information people might not appreciate; you had your health and your concern that you might not be in this job for very long; you never sought it in the first place; and President Trump has had a documented tumultuous relationship with the intelligence community. And yet you are one of the longest lasting of his original appointees. To what do you attribute that? 

COATS: Well, I felt I was put in this place to do the best I could to support our country, to support our government, and to provide our policymakers with the best we could do. And I believe that I had to keep my eyes on the goal and my commitment to my oath of office and let the consequences fall where they may. Sometimes that was very challenging. Sometimes it was very difficult. Things were said that people didn’t want to hear, but I felt it was important and necessary. And, fortunately, I had the opportunity to serve for a significant amount of time in that position.

DERRICK: Final question: May God give you many more years, but I think we can assume your race is more than halfway done. How do you want to be remembered? 

COATS: Well, I would like to be remembered as someone who is deeply grateful to have been born in the United States of America, gifted with all the rights and privileges that we have that our Founding Fathers left for us in the genius of their writing the Constitution, and grateful for all the sacrifices that have been made by so many to make America free and make it what it is, for the faith of leadership in leaders through the years that has guided our country. And I would like to be remembered as someone that joined in that effort during a period of time to serve my country, be faithful to its foundational values, and be thankful to God for granting me this gift and all Americans the gift of America. In all the travel I’ve done around the world, there’s no place, still, like home. 

DERRICK: Senator Dan Coats, thank you so much.

COATS: Thank you.

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File) In this Feb. 13, 2018, file photo, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats speaks at a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on worldwide threats in Washington. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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