At first blush, Marc Thiessen’s column asks a relevant question. Why is President Obama skipping more than half of his daily intelligence meetings? Like many, I thought these in-person briefings were a mandatory part of the job. While the president reads the daily catalogue of national security information every day (known as the President’s Daily Brief), he isn’t required to meet with his national security team to discuss. But insistence on face-to-face gatherings ignores two important facts. First, different presidents take in information in different ways. Second, the information being imparted is useless if the long series of dots are not connected.
The Post’s Walter Pincus explored the differences between President Obama and his predecessors in a piece back in January.
Each president has had his own style of dealing with the PDB.
Jimmy Carter read it after listening to highlights and other information from his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Carter then sent notes on the PDB to Brzezinski.
Ronald Reagan let his national security advisers brief him on it, then asked questions; Bill Clinton read it ahead of time, but early in his career he canceled the briefing when he believed that the PDB taught him nothing new and that he had more important budgetary matters to handle. George H.W. Bush was briefed on it and, as a former CIA director, often stretched the meeting to discuss how information had been obtained. George W. Bush read the PDB as he was being briefed, asking questions along the way.
The weakness in Thiessen’s question, which comes from data gathered by a conservative research organization, is that it relies on Obama’s public schedule. The president reads the daily intelligence briefing every day. That he doesn’t meet with his national security staff to discuss it isn’t earth shattering when you know that many of the president’s national security meetings are never put on his public schedule.
“I’d note that these are hardly the only national security meetings he has each week that include an intelligence briefing,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told me via e-mail this morning. When I asked him if he were able to tell me exactly how many national security meetings Obama has during the week, Vietor unsurprisingly replied, “I’m not.”
But all this meeting scorekeeping means nothing if the commander in chief and his most senior national security aides receiving the most sensitive information in the world ignore or fail to connect the very clear dots on what they are being told. We learned the perils of this after the tragic events that befell this country 11 years ago today.
During the 2004 hearings of the Sept. 11 Commission, we were shocked to learn that the title of the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) of Aug. 6, 2001 was “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” But as Kurt Eichenwald writes in a New York Times op-ed today — “The Deafness before the Storm” — that PDB for then-President George W. Bush was nothing compared to those that preceded it.
The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.
But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster.. . .
In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.
“The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden,” the daily brief of June 29 read, using the government’s transliteration of Bin Laden’s first name. Going on for more than a page, the document recited much of the evidence, including an interview that month with a Middle Eastern journalist in which Bin Laden aides warned of a coming attack, as well as competitive pressures that the terrorist leader was feeling, given the number of Islamists being recruited for the separatist Russian region of Chechnya.
“[T]he president is among the most sophisticated consumers of intelligence on the planet,” Vietor told me. “He receives and reads his PDB every day, and most days when he’s at the White House receives a briefing in person. When necessary he probes the arguments, requests more information or seeks alternate analysis. Sometimes that’s via a written assessment and other times it’s in person.”
Lauding the previous occupant of the Oval Office, Thiessen wrote, “By contrast, Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush almost never missed his daily intelligence meeting.” Given the attacks of Sept. 11 and the misguided war in Iraq that followed, this is a meaningless assertion. Meanwhile, the man Thiessen basically brands a national-security slacker somehow was able to give the order that took out bin Laden. What a president knows is important. What he does with that knowledge is essential to the safety and security of the nation.