The last time the top three intelligence officials testified in front of Congress, they were publicly criticized by the President, who lashed out at them in a series of tweets calling them passive and naive and saying that they should “go back to school.”
The incident in January 2019 epitomized the antagonistic relationship between then-President Donald Trump and the US intelligence community and showed the degree to which intelligence leaders were marginalized under Trump. It also put a temporary halt to what had been since 2006 an annual ritual of the heads of the CIA and the FBI and the director of national intelligence going before Congress to speak openly about the biggest threats facing the US.
That drought will come to an end Wednesday with the resumption of the so-called World Wide Threats hearings before the Senate and House Intelligence committees, the mere occurrence of which demonstrates how the professional intelligence community is reasserting itself under President Joe Biden.
While Trump was in the White House, multiple sources tell CNN, the intelligence community was forced to walk a political tightrope, calibrating its assessments – or sometimes withholding them altogether – to avoid the wrath of a mercurial president who was prone to bristling and ignoring politically inconvenient information. This was particularly true whenever the assessment related to Russian interference in US elections, a topic that officials learned to avoid raising with Trump.
In speaking to CNN, many of these same career intelligence officials said the difference is like night and day, describing what largely amounts to a much-appreciated return to business as usual during Biden’s first few months in office. White House officials are engaging with the substance of intelligence briefs, heeding assessments from experienced analysts and operators, and, at least for now, largely sticking by an early pledge to listen even when those assessments might contradict the White House’s political agenda.
That doesn’t mean that Biden follows every recommendation. Case in point, he is moving forward with a withdrawal from Afghanistan despite intelligence showing that the Taliban have not stayed faithful to the deal they inked under Trump in early 2020, which was intended to lay the groundwork for a complete American withdrawal.
A US intelligence community assessment released Tuesday also warned that the Taliban were likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the CIA in particular has argued in favor of a continuing presence there, a source familiar with internal Biden administration discussions previously told CNN.
A clear appetite for intelligence
An early test case is how Biden and his core national security advisers approach the President’s Daily Brief – a highly classified summary of the nation’s secrets that is the intelligence community’s premier product, two intelligence officials said. After reviewing the PDB, Biden officials, in contrast with their Trump administration predecessors, often have follow-up questions or ask for an additional briefing on a certain topic.
“There are more questions related to specific substance, rather than someone tapping their foot and waiting for the briefer to finish and get out of the office, or challenging what is presented,” said one intelligence official. “There is simply a clear appetite and interest in what the IC is providing.”
During the Trump administration, some career officials in the intelligence community felt their work was manipulated and underutilized.
“If you could give them the answer they wanted, they were interested,” the official said. “If it was not the answer they wanted, they often ignored it or aggressively questioned it.”
The twin hearings before the Senate and House Intelligence committees – the House will have its hearing on Thursday – also offer the possibility of a reset in relations between the intelligence community and Capitol Hill. Trump’s erstwhile acting DNI, Richard Grenell – a staunch political ally of the then-president with little experience in intelligence – took a notoriously combative approach to the Democratic-led oversight panels. The failure of senior leaders to testify publicly before the panels in 2020 under confirmed DNI John Ratcliffe further fractured the relationship and led lawmakers to enshrine the public appearances into law as a requirement in last year’s spending package.
On a staff level, two congressional sources said, the day-to-day workings of providing oversight of the intelligence community continued as usual under Trump. Congressional intelligence committee staff are uniquely embedded in the secretive corridors of government that they are tasked with overseeing, and those relationships with career officials continued even amid strife at the leadership level and in public.
Perhaps most unusually, committee lawmakers normally tasked with policing the intelligence community transformed into its defenders amid Trump’s virulent attacks. That pendulum may now shift back toward more typical adversarial oversight, those officials said.
“A lot of members on both HPSCI and SSCI viewed their role as providing block and tackle for the career men and women of the IC for the last four years, and getting back to regular oversight and regular engagements is hopefully going to be a very positive output – but that still remains to seen,” said one congressional official.
A hearing that went missing
In 2020, intelligence officials had once again found themselves in the middle of a political fight over foreign election interference, with the World Wide Threats hearing in the crossfire. Facing pressure from Democrats to address misleading claims from Trump and his allies about Russia’s influence operations – and remembering the tongue-lashing they received on Twitter in 2019 – US intelligence officials quietly asked both committees not to hold the hearings, according to a source familiar with the talks.
Discussions about holding the hearings continued through the summer of 2020 under Ratcliffe – also known as a fierce loyalist to Trump with little formal experience in intelligence – but the planning process ultimately stalled in the months leading up to November’s presidential election, multiple sources told CNN at the time.
By that time, career officials were relieved, according to one current intelligence official, believing that no matter what was released, it would be politicized.
“Privately, we did not have huge problems at the career level,” said a Senate committee aide. “In general, the day to day was somewhat unimpeded. But the most significant concern was over the politicization of intelligence, and there were very real concerns about that.”
Senior intelligence officials by their very nature are rarely eager to testify publicly, but multiple sources said that feeling was compounded by Trump’s attacks against them and his generally combative disposition toward issues like Russian election interference and the rise of domestic extremism. At the CIA, then-Director Gina Haspel spent much of her last year in office with the specter of abrupt dismissal hanging over her head – as did FBI Director Chris Wray, who is serving a 10-year term and is still in office.
“It was well-known among Cabinet members not to bring up election interference,” one former Trump national security official told CNN, noting that the same was true for anything related to Russia or domestic extremism. If those issues were mentioned, “Trump had this tendency to just veer off and not even pay attention to what the briefing was about,” the former official said.
“Top officials were effectively trying to manage around the president on some of these really difficult issues, because it just was not worth anybody’s time to bring them up because you wouldn’t get anywhere with them. You couldn’t actually educate him about what the problem was, present options, get his guidance on how to address those, because he would just go off whatever he was upset about,” the former official added.
Biden and current Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines have both made clear that the new administration seeks to repair the damaged relationship between the White House and the intelligence community. Haines vowed during her confirmation hearing that “the DNI must never shy away from speaking truth to power – even, especially, when doing so may be inconvenient or difficult.”
But the current political climate could still prove challenging when she appears alongside CIA Director William Burns, Wray and the heads of the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“Biden’s not going to be out there railing against the deep state,” a former senior intelligence official who served under Trump told CNN. “But it doesn’t change that this moment in history is hyper-partisan and hyper-political.”