The Senate Intelligence Committee may hold confirmation hearings next week for Congressman John Ratcliffe to become the next director of national intelligence. Details of the potential hearing are still in flux as the committee grapples with how to hold a public hearing safely amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The confirmation hearing, which typically involves a pair of sessions — one unclassified and public, and a second held behind closed doors — comes at a fraught time for any potential representative of the intelligence community. Ratcliffe will be expected to field questions related to the origins and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the U.S.' approach to adversaries like North Korea, Iran and Russia.
Democratic senators will also be keen to exact promises from Ratcliffe to keep the intelligence community free of partisan pressure and to maintain a level of transparency that, in recent months, has lagged. There has been no Worldwide Threats hearing — a typically annual tradition in which intelligence community leadership speaks publicly about top global challenges — scheduled before either intelligence committee to date.
Last week, committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post laying out concerns that the intelligence community was already showing signs of politicization. "Senior intelligence officials are increasingly reluctant to engage in otherwise routine, nonpartisan communication with the congressional committees that oversee the intelligence agencies, for fear that something they say in a hearing or briefing will anger the president," Warner wrote.
He also noted that ODNI did not have a single Senate-confirmed official within its leadership — there are normally at least half a dozen among senior-most ranks.
The Senate is set tonext week, despite concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued that senators should be considered essential workers and should return to work on the next coronavirus relief legislation. However, Democrats say that McConnell simply wants to return to the Capitol to ram through judicial nominees.
The House will not be reconvening next week, on the recommendation of the Capitol's attending physician. It is unclear when Congress will next vote on a coronavirus relief package.
Ratcliffe wasby Mr. Trump to be the next DNI in February. But he withdrew his candidacy when he was first nominated last summer after questions arose about his national security expertise. His fierce defense of Mr. Trump during the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller and subsequent impeachment inquiry also raised concerns among congressional and intelligence community officials alike about his suitability for the role, which has been traditionally apolitical.
U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, an outspoken Trump ally, has been concurrently serving as acting DNI -- he replaced former acting director Joseph Maguire in late February. Leaders of the congressional intelligence committees have clashed in recent weeks with Grenell, under whose purview several senior intelligence community officials have been replaced with little explanation.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina and Vice Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia sent a joint letter to Grenell insisting that Congress be consulted about potential changes to both structure and leadership at ODNI and that personnel changes be put on hold until a director is confirmed. Their letter, which included committee-sensitive information and has not been publicly released, received perfunctory acknowledgement from Grenell, according to a committee aide.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff has also sparred publicly with Grenell. Earlier this month, Schiff sent a four-page letter expressing concern about leadership turnover — including the ouster of intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson — and requesting more information about a recent election security briefing. Grenell's response was characteristically pugnacious, and attacked Schiff for questioning — rather than praising — the appointment of several career officials.