On Wednesday April 14, the Senate Intelligence Committee resumed a dubious annual tradition canceled by President Trump: unclassified hearings where the heads of U.S. intelligence agencies give testimony on global security threats. These hearings, which also include closed classified sessions, are held after the release of the annual Worldwide Threat Report which is issued in classified and unclassified versions. The House Intelligence Committee will hold its Worldwide Threat hearing today, April 15.
President Trump discontinued these hearings in 2019 because they had become a political circus.
Members of Congress–especially House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and other committee Democrats–used the hearings as an opportunity to attack Trump’s foreign policy and to advance false claims of Trump-Russia collaboration in 2016.
Once an opportunity to leave politics at the water’s edge, the hearings became a chance to politicize U.S. intelligence on camera.
To avoid this problem, in 2020, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe offered to testify in a closed-door classified hearing on worldwide threats. Congressional Democrats, never turning down a chance to bash President Trump, refused Ratcliffe’s offer.
The extreme politicization of congressional oversight of U.S. intelligence during the Trump years more than justified cancelling the unclassified, on-camera worldwide threat briefings.
However, there are two more significant reasons why these unclassified intelligence hearings should be permanently discontinued.
The most important reason is that no matter how hard intelligence officials try to make their hearing testimony unclassified, America’s enemies, adversaries and competitors gain invaluable insights into U.S. intelligence priorities and capabilities from them and the annual threat reports.
It is not difficult for our enemies to deduce from these hearings the thinking of intelligence analysts on major threats facing our nation and where intelligence agencies are spending their money.
It is worth noting here that America’s enemies are not stupid enough to hold open hearings to broadcast their intelligence priorities and thinking to the world.
For example, although it was not a surprise when intelligence officials testified today that China is seen by the U.S. Intelligence Community as America’s top security threat, what was the point of also admitting that the U.S. will lose important intelligence collection capabilities by withdrawing from Afghanistan or discussing U.S. cyber "blind spots?"
Many members of Congress defend these hearings by arguing they hold U.S. intelligence agencies accountable to the American people. The truth is that Congress can conduct thorough oversight in closed hearings that do not damage U.S. security.
The second reason to end the unclassified worldwide threat briefings is because these televised sessions and the unclassified threat reports draw U.S. intelligence agencies into U.S. domestic politics.
For years, intelligence committee members have used the unclassified threat hearings as a platform for policy debates even though America’s intelligence agencies are obligated to stay out of policymaking.
Many members of Congress cannot resist the opportunity to use these hearings to grandstand and promote policy views for or against a sitting president.
This is what happened in January 2019 during a Senate Intelligence Committee Worldwide Threat hearing when Democratic members pressed intelligence officials to agree with their assertions that Trump’s policies on Iran and North Korea were wrong.
A related problem is that public worldwide threat hearings often lead intelligence agencies to slant and politicize their analysis to support administration policy.
This is a serious problem since Democratic and Republican administrations routinely edit the worldwide threat reports and prepared testimony to ensure they are in synch with their national security policies and assumptions.
As a result, Congress and the American people usually get carefully coordinated policy statements at these hearings and not objective intelligence assessments.
This was apparent in the 2021 Worldwide Threat Report which deliberately omitted any mention of the Abraham Accords, the successful Trump administration Middle East peace process that Biden officials are trying to airbrush from history.
Instead, the report reflected the Biden administration’s wrong-headed Iran-based Middle East policy by referring to "the iterative violence between Israel and Iran," a reference that falsely suggested a moral equivalence between Iranian and Israeli actions and foreign policies.
Naturally, the 2021 threat report treats climate change as a principal intelligence challenge in need of "a robust intelligence response."
Does this mean U.S. intelligence officials want to devote scarce intelligence resources to monitor polar bears and hurricanes? How is climate change an intelligence issue?
Congress and administration officials need to recognize that agencies that do secret work to defend our national security against growing and dangerous foreign threats should not be discussing their work publicly.
They also need to acknowledge that unclassified worldwide threat briefings done before the media undermine the objectivity and trustworthiness of our intelligence agencies because they inevitably cause administration officials and members of Congress to exploit these hearings for political gain.
President Trump was right about the annual unclassified worldwide threat briefings. To protect our national security and the integrity of U.S. intelligence agencies, they should be banned permanently.
Fred Fleitz is President of the Center for Security Policy. He previously served as National Security Council Chief of staff, CIA analyst and as a member of the House Intelligence Committee staff. Read more reports from Fred Fleitz — Click Here Now.
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