For the first time in years, the U.S. public may not hear directly from top intelligence officials about the biggest and most pressing threats facing the nation.
U.S. intelligence officials declined Thursday to rule out the possibility that the country's intelligence chiefs would forgo the public portion of the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment hearings, which focus on dangers ranging from terrorism to nuclear weapons to climate change and cyberspace.
"We continue discussions with the [House and Senate Intelligence] committees about the timing and format of the Worldwide Threat Assessment hearings this year," a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) told VOA.
Word that U.S. intelligence agencies were seeking to avoid the public portion of the hearings was first reported by Politico, which cited three sources familiar with the negotiations as saying intelligence officials did not want to be seen on camera, clashing with views espoused by President Donald Trump.
A spokesperson for the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed Thursday that talks about the hearings were ongoing, noting that the "timing and format will be determined by the [committee] chairman."
But while a formal invitation has yet to be extended to U.S. intelligence officials, the spokesperson said the expectation was the Senate hearing "would keep with previous years," when the Senate Intelligence Committee heard from intelligence officials in an open, public hearing before discussing classified information behind closed doors.
A separate invitation for the intelligence chiefs to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, requesting both public and classified briefings on February 12, has already gone out. The ODNI spokesperson confirmed intelligence officials received the offer Thursday, reiterating that discussions about exactly when and how to hold the hearing were still under way.
"The intelligence community is committed to providing timely, accurate and useful information about the worldwide threats facing the nation to Congress and the American people," the ODNI spokesperson added.
"It is unsurprising but distressing," Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer, told VOA. "The unclassified version of the worldwide threat statement is the single most important public product the community has to offer, and it needs to continue and to be presented to Congress in a highly visible way.
"This affair speaks to how awful is Trump's relationship with the intelligence community," he added. "With the IC [Intelligence Community] request not to have public testimony, it is fair to say that Trump is successfully intimidating the community."
During last January's public Senate hearings, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel repeatedly contradicted Trump's statements, in particular on Russia, Iran, North Korea and the Islamic State terror group.
A day later, Trump blasted Coats and Haspel on Twitter, calling their assessment of Iran "extremely passive and naive," warning, "Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!"
More recently, Trump praised the intelligence community for the information it obtained during escalating hostilities with Iran following the U.S. airstrike that killed Iran Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
"We have the best intelligence in the world" per @POTUS "If Americans anywhere are threatened we have all of those targets already fully identified"— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) January 3, 2020
"I am ready & prepared to take whatever action is necessary" he adds, pointing to #Iran
But such praise belies a contentious relationship between Trump and the U.S. intelligence community dating back to the earliest days of his administration, with some former intelligence officials describing the president's animosity toward the intelligence agencies as "overriding" and "unheard of."
And there are concerns that after three years, U.S. intelligence agencies, who preach giving unvarnished intelligence to policymakers and "speaking truth to power," have been worn down.
"It's a worrisome sign if the intelligence community's leadership feels so battered by this president that they're asking to avoid this annual public hearing for fear of incurring his wrath," Joshua Geltzer, a former counterterrorism director for the National Security Council under former President Barack Obama, told VOA.
"This year in particular it seems quite important to allow the American people to hear whether the intelligence community is offering big-picture assessments of critical issues like the threats posed by ISIS, Iran and North Korea that are consistent with Trump's own characterizations or depart from them," said Geltzer, now with Georgetown University's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.