The roughly $2.3 trillion spending package that Congress unveiled Monday would require U.S. intelligence leaders to testify before the public annually about global threats — something they have pushed to avoid under President Donald Trump.
A compromise version of the annual intelligence authorization bill — which POLITICO first reported was hitched to the nearly 5,600-page year-end package — contains House Intelligence Committee language requiring the director of national intelligence to submit an annual Worldwide Threats Assessment and then appear, with others, for a public session. The House hasn't held such a hearing since 2016.
The Worldwide Threats hearing that traditionally takes place in the House and Senate is one of a handful of opportunities for Americans to hear directly from intelligence agency chiefs on issues such as the dangers posed by countries like Russia, China and North Korea. But it has been a source of tension all year between Congress and the security agencies after an earlier version of the hearing drew public rebukes from Trump for contradicting his positions on Iran.
POLITICO first reported in January that intelligence officials were pushing for the hearing, which features both public and classified sessions, to be moved entirely behind closed doors over fears their bosses might provoke Trump’s ire.
Pinning down Ratcliffe: The impasse persisted as Trump fired one acting spy chief, Joseph Maguire; tapped Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, as a temporary replacement; and then finally nominated, for the second time, House Intelligence Committee member John Ratcliffe to lead the 17-agency clandestine community
Acting Senate Intelligence Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) pushed Ratcliffe to publicly testify about global threats before Congress’ monthlong summer recess and ahead of the final leg of the 2020 campaign.
Ratcliffe later offered to appear in August but wanted to limit his remarks to an opening statement before moving the session behind closed doors. That would ensure he wouldn’t have to answer questions from senators that could be turned into cable news clips if he contradicted Trump’s public statements, something that happened last year when then-intelligence chief Dan Coats and the leaders of agencies such as the CIA and NSA testified.
Acrimony between the two camps escalated when Ratcliffe significantly scaled back, then reversed, in-person election security briefings for lawmakers as Democrats pressed the Trump administration for additional disclosures on foreign threats to the 2020 election.
Eventually time ran out, with senators from both parties agreeing it would be improper to hold a session too close to Election Day and risk the session being turned into fodder for the campaign trail.
The fight isn't over: In a statement Monday, House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the "final bill is the product of extensive negotiations." That was a nod to objections from California Rep. Devin Nunes, the panel's top Republican, who had held up the measure because he believed that provisions on election security and protecting whistleblowers and inspectors general amounted to partisan attacks on the White House.
"Regrettably," Schiff said, those provisions were cut from the compromise bill.
"We will continue to press for those necessary reforms, and others, in the next Congress through the [Intelligence Authorization Act] and other legislative vehicles," the California Democrat said.
Schiff said it is "especially notable in light of the recent cyber breach of government agencies and private sector companies" that the bill features "several provisions" meant to strengthen digital defenses, better protect supply chains and provide additional resources and capabilities for responding to cyberattacks.
"Many of the most important elements of the bill are contained within the classified annex that governs the necessarily secret elements of the IC’s work," he said.