Director of National Intelligence proposes holding limited worldwide threat hearing in August

Washington — Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has proposed appearing before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees for a partially open hearing on worldwide threats in early August. But he suggested that the majority of the hearings, including a traditional question and answer session, take place behind closed doors.

In a pair of letters sent Tuesday and Wednesday to the leadership of the two committees, Ratcliffe offered to, alongside other intelligence community leaders, deliver a public, prepared statement, but to subsequently take questions from senators in a closed session during the week of August 3rd. In Tuesday's letter to the Senate panel, he cited the intelligence community's "collective concern about the exchange of information that is inherently classified" as grounds for the arrangement.  

"During the open session," Ratcliffe wrote, "the IC could provide an unclassified Statement for the Record to provide transparency. Each panel member could also provide individual opening remarks on global threats to more fully meet the public interest."

Following those remarks, the letter said, "a closed session with a thorough exchange of classified questions and answers between the panel and Committee members could be conducted to ensure members receive the threat information they need."

Ratcliffe proposed he be accompanied by the directors of the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, who have previously testified as part of the hearing. Tuesday's letter to the Senate was first reported by Fox News. 

In his letter to the House Intelligence Committee, delivered Wednesday, Ratcliffe wrote, "During my nomination hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) in May, I indicated that, if confirmed, I would appear as the Director of National Intelligence at a worldwide threat hearing. Although I made no such representations to the House Permanent Select Committee (HPSCI), I would like to extend the same offer to appear to your committee." 

He then outlined the same parameters he offered to SSCI — a prepared statement delivered by agency heads in open session, followed by a Q&A in closed session. If the suggested timing was incompatible with the House's schedule, Ratcliffe said, "the IC would be prepared to support a briefing as described later this year." 

A House Intelligence Committee spokesman declined to comment on Ratcliffe's offer.

A spokesman for Acting Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio said Tuesday that Rubio and Vice Chairman Mark Warner "spoke today about the Committee holding a hearing on worldwide threats. They will continue to work with DNI Ratcliffe and are hopeful that the Committee will hold a hearing on this important topic soon."

Ratcliffe's offer — if accepted — would be a departure from the way the annual hearing has traditionally been conducted. In years past, the Worldwide Threats Hearing has taken place in two parts: A public, open session with intelligence community leaders providing opening statements and engaging in a question-and-answer period, followed by a session where classified matters are discussed behind closed doors. 

The hearing serves as a rare opportunity for the leaders of largely clandestine organizations to publicly elaborate their major areas of concern. It also allows lawmakers to pose questions to senior intelligence leaders about how policymakers may have characterized their agencies' assessments.

At his confirmation hearing in May, Ratcliffe was pressed by senators of both parties to commit to appearing before the committee for a worldwide threats hearing within 60 days of being confirmed. "I look forward, if confirmed, to appearing as DNI in the Worldwide Threats Hearing," Ratcliffe responded. "I agree that it is important, and I will work to make that happen as expeditiously as possible."

Representative John Ratcliffe testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill on May 5, 2020.  Gabriella Demczuk / Pool / AFP via Getty

 Republican Senator Susan Collins also asked Ratcliffe what he would do if he were asked to provide an unclassified assessment as part of the hearing that he knew the president "vehemently disagrees with." Ratcliffe said neither the president's nor any policymaker's views would "impact" the intelligence he would deliver.  

Both the Senate and House Intelligence Committees have been pushing the leadership of the intelligence community to commit to appearing publicly for the annual hearing, which has typically taken place during the first half of the year.

CBS News previously reported that staff-level conversations between both committees and the intelligence agencies had taken place amid concerns that public testimony could expose intelligence chiefs to politicized inquiries from lawmakers and criticism from the president. 

The discussions were prompted in part by President Trump's reaction to elements of last year's hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, after which Mr. Trump criticized the assessments presented by top intelligence officials on the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea as "naïve" and "passive," and suggested in a tweet that "Intelligence should go back to school!" 

After summoning CIA Director Gina Haspel and then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to the Oval Office, Mr. Trump ultimately said he and they were "very much in agreement" on national security issues and the media had mischaracterized the directors' public statements.  

Former intelligence officials have acknowledged that preparing for the hearing can be unpleasant, and the scrutiny that accompanies it can be unwelcome. An official close to the situation pointed out that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote a letter in 2013 to the Senate Intelligence Committee urging it to "refrain from having open global threat assessment hearings" because public discussion of national security matters "can and often does lead to confusion and misunderstandings about intelligence matters."

Still, Clapper participated in open hearings, including the Worldwide Threats Hearing, regularly throughout his tenure as DNI. Other intelligence community leaders have also appeared, in part out of a recognition that the American public should hear directly from the heads of organizations that conduct most of their operations in secret, former officials familiar with the exercise told CBS News.    

The House Intelligence Committee, which has not held a Worldwide Threats Hearing since 2016, formally requested then-DNI Joseph Maguire appear for a public and closed-door hearing in February, but never came to an agreement before Maguire was replaced.

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