Marc A. Thiessen
Marc A. Thiessen
Opinion Writer

A bogus defense of Obama’s intelligence briefing record

Marc A. Thiessen

A fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, Thiessen writes a weekly column for The Post.

Archive

The facts

After hearing from sources in the intelligence community that President Obama was not attending his daily intelligence meeting on a daily basis, I asked researchers at the Government Accountability Institute, a nonpartisan research group headed by Peter Schweizer (who is also my business partner in a speechwriting firm, Oval Office Writers) to examine at Obama’s official schedule. We found during his first 1,225 days in office, Obama had attended his daily meeting to discuss the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) just 536 times — or 43.8 percent of the time. During 2011 and the first half of 2012, his attendance became even less frequent — falling to just over 38 percent. By contrast, Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, almost never missed his daily intelligence meeting.

After Islamist radicals stormed our embassy in Cairo and terrorists killed our ambassador to Libya on Sept. 11, I further reported that Obama also skipped his daily intelligence meeting every day in the week leading up to the attacks. The day after the attack, he scheduled but then canceled his daily intelligence meeting, while finding time to go to Las Vegas for a campaign rally.

These facts are not in dispute. Indeed, before publishing both of my columns, I specifically asked National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor if there were instances where the president had, in fact, held his daily meeting on the PDB that did not appear on the official public calendar. He offered no examples, and not once did he challenge the numbers I presented. Neither has any White House official challenged them in the weeks since this controversy erupted. So, as a factual matter, Kessler offers no evidence that the information I presented on Obama’s PDB meeting attendance is wrong.

What Kessler and the Obama White House do argue is a matter not of fact but of opinion — that it does not matter if Obama attends a daily intelligence meeting because he reads his PDB every day. Kessler compares Obama to former presidents going back to Reagan and Nixon and finds that “many did not have an oral briefing” — and that this means Obama has simply “chosen to receive his information in a different manner than his predecessor.” There are several problems with this.

First, Kessler ignores one giant difference between then and now: Sept. 11, 2001.

Comparing lax presidential briefing habits before and after 9/11 is like comparing lax presidential security habits before and after the Kennedy assassination. After terrorists killed 3,000 people in our midst, everything changed — and the president’s daily intelligence meeting took on dramatically increased importance. President Bush made it a priority to sit down with his senior intelligence advisers every day to discuss overnight intelligence on threats to the country. President Obama has not.

Kessler notes that Bill Clinton’s CIA director could not get a meeting with him, and that Clinton was known to comment that his morning papers were better than the intelligence brief. This is more an indictment of Clinton than a defense of Obama. On Clinton’s watch, terrorists attacked us repeatedly without cost or consequence — from the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, to the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, to the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, to the USS Cole in 2000.

As for Nixon and Reagan, comparing Obama’s briefing habits to those of presidents who served 30 to 40 years ago — in an era when advanced technology consisted of electric typewriters — is irrelevant in an age of 21st-century surveillance and collection capabilities. The volume, speed and complexity of intelligence has changed dramatically in the intervening decades — and with it the need for interactive briefings.

Without criticizing Obama, former CIA director Mike Hayden recently explained the value of the in-person meeting: “With President Bush, I really saw the value of the personal interaction that we had on an almost daily basis. There was rich give-and-take, so that not only did the president get the advantage of knowing the analysts’ innermost thoughts, but they also were able to leave the room understanding what the president believed he needed in order to make the kind of decisions he had to make.”

In addition to the PDB, Hayden said, Bush also received two longer, magazine-length pieces each week, and additional in-person briefings were held on each of these. On Thursdays, Hayden also briefed Bush for a half-hour on sensitive collection programs and covert action.

The Pinocchio test

Perhaps Obama does not feel he needs such daily interaction. But the fact that he has not been having it is indisputable. (Though, interestingly, since my columns appeared, Obama attended his PDB meeting seven days in a row for the first time in seven months. If live briefings are no better than paper briefings, why has Obama suddenly begun receiving briefings in-person?)

It is a fact that for eight years before Obama took office, there was a daily meeting to discuss the PDB. And it is a fact that, on taking office, Obama stopped holding the daily intelligence meeting on a daily basis. Kessler may not think that is important, and he is entitled to his own opinion — but not his own facts.

I give Four Pinocchios to the Fact Checker.

Marc A. Thiessen, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, writes a weekly online column for The Post.

 
Read what others are saying