US intelligence officials have quietly asked the Senate and House Intelligence committees not to hold public hearings on this year’s Worldwide Threat Assessment after testimony from agency chiefs last year prompted an angry response from President Donald Trump, according to a source familiar with the talks.
Officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence broached the topic during informal preliminary discussions with committee staff, the source said.
While these officials made it clear that they don’t want top intelligence officials to testify publicly, they haven’t formally refused to do so, the source added. The request is unlikely to be granted, multiple sources told CNN.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, sent a letter to acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire on Wednesday inviting him to testify publicly at the worldwide threats hearing scheduled for February 12, according to a copy of the document obtained by CNN.
ODNI has received the letter, a spokesperson confirmed to CNN Thursday, but it remains unclear whether Maguire will accept Schiff’s invitation.
“We continue discussions with the committees about the timing and format of the Worldwide Threat Assessment hearings this year,” the spokesperson told CNN.
The annual threats report itself is also still expected to be released publicly and there have not been any discussions between intelligence officials and Capitol Hill staff about a scenario where it won’t be, the source familiar with the situation said.
Politico was first to report the push from intelligence agencies.
“This would be a particularly unfortunate time to cancel the worldwide threats hearing, with the American people more focused than at any time in recent memory on a key set of intelligence questions: what was the Iranian threat that Trump has said justified the Soleimani killing, did Trump characterize that threat accurately in his public explanations, and has that threat been reduced by the killing?” said Joshua Geltzer, executive director and visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.
“I get the intelligence community’s understandable reluctance to avoid a confrontation with the same President who undercut testimony provided at this exact hearing last year, but it’s precisely because we have a President who seems to play fast and loose with the actual intelligence that this rare public hearing is so vital right now,” he told CNN
While the ODNI spokesperson would not provide details related to preliminary discussions between intelligence officials and committee staff, they did provide some additional context related to last year’s planning process.
“I can also share regarding last year’s Worldwide Threat Assessment that the ODNI issued its unclassified statement for the record and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held an open hearing in January. While we did not reach a mutual agreement for public testimony with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last year, the director of national intelligence and many other IC leaders conducted classified roundtables sessions with the committee,” the spokesperson told CNN.
When pressed by Senate lawmakers during last year’s hearing, Trump’s intelligence chiefs, including then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA director Gina Haspel, appeared to contradict several claims made by the President to justify core tenets of his foreign policy.
Trump chastised his top intelligence officials the next day for being soft on Iran, citing their testimony that there is no indication Tehran is currently attempting to develop a nuclear weapon and remained in compliance with the nuclear agreement despite the US withdrawal.
“The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!” Trump tweeted at the time. “When I became President Iran was making trouble all over the Middle East, and beyond. Since ending the terrible Iran Nuclear Deal, they are MUCH different, but a source of potential danger and conflict. They are testing Rockets (last week) and more, and are coming very close to the edge. There economy is now crashing, which is the only thing holding them back. Be careful of Iran. Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
CNN reported last January that Trump had seethed as he watched the highlights of his intelligence chiefs testifying on Capitol Hill and singled out Coats by name during a rant the day after the hearing.
The President was furious as he watched television headlines blare that the officials had contradicted him. The snippets of Coats saying that North Korea had “halted its provocative behavior related to its WMD program” but was unlikely to “completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities” angered him, CNN learned.
Coats stepped down from his post last August and has been replaced by Maguire, who serves in an acting capacity.