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Measuring a president’s approach on foreign policy

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About 9:30 a.m. on Friday, President Obama held his daily national security session in the Oval Office. He was joined by Vice President Biden, national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, Chief of Staff William M. Daley, deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism John O. Brennan, and a deputy representing Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James R. Clapper.

Also usually included in the sessions are deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough; Anthony Blinken, Biden’s national security adviser and one or more intelligence community briefers.

Process tells you something about an administration.

How a president structures his regular morning meeting on intelligence and national security is one way to measure his personal approach to foreign policy.

The Obama morning meeting involves two parts. The first deals with the latest important intelligence, with the president leading the questioning. The second part generally is an extensive policy discussion, which is led by Donilon and focuses on how to handle immediate national security issues that require the president’s attention.

This approach differs somewhat from those of Obama’s predecessors and illustrates his way of doing business: He holds regular, open discussions with top policy advisers based on current facts, designed to try to stay ahead of issues before they become problems.

One regular participant in the roughly 500 Oval Office sessions during Obama’s presidency said the meetings show a president consistently participating in an exploration of foreign policy and intelligence issues.

In contrast, a former senior adviser to former presidents said the system sounded more like a morning “seminar” where other stakeholders, such as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, are not present.

But a senior White House official said the morning meeting is not used to discuss presidential decisions, but rather for the White House staff to get departments to work on present or future issues.

It also is used to remind Obama about decisions that are needed and sometimes leads to a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, where the president will directly ask Clinton, Panetta and other members for their departments’ views on the subject.

Since the Kennedy years, one constant element of the White House meeting has been the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), the 20-to-25-page, highly classified, bound notebook compiled overnight — these days by DNI staff.

Using the most important new intelligence drawn from the CIA, along with State, Defense, the FBI and others, the PDB sometimes contains imagery or transcripts of intercepted conversations that — because of their “mind-boggling sensitivity,” according to one former White House official — should be shared with the president and only a handful of top officials.

PDB copies are delivered about 6:30 a.m. to the White House for the president and Donilon. They also go to Biden, Panetta and Clinton.

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 George W. Bush administration included a threat matrix in each morning’s session. Now, counterterrorism issues, when necessary, are included in the PDB materials, and Obama meets weekly with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and others specifically on the terrorism threat.

Obama reads the PDB ahead of time and comes to the morning meeting with questions. Intelligence briefers are there to answer those questions, expand on a point or raise a new issue. Clapper may be present once or twice a week, but most often one of his deputies is in attendance in case an intelligence community issue arises.

Questions for the intelligence community raised by the president and others are carried back to the individual agencies, primarily the CIA, and become priority items. Answers, when available, come back that day or are sometimes included in later PDBs.

Donilon uses the PDB as part of his preparations for the second part of the morning meeting. He goes over key issues with relevant NSC staff members.

Unlike in the Bush administration, where Vice President Richard B. Cheney had his own national security staff, Biden’s advisers are integrated into the regular NSC staff. That staff has grown to more than 200, including those handling homeland security.

The Donilon-led morning discussion can go in various ways: from getting presidential direction for work on issues raised by current events or the PDB to what one participant called “blue sky” thinking on policy development.

Friday’s meeting included a discussion on Turkey, whose prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had returned to office after an illness. One result was a 45-minute call later that day between Obama and Erdogan on subjects including Syria and Iran’s nuclear program.

There is no one in each morning’s 30-to-45-minute session who has spent a career living and breathing foreign affairs. Biden’s past service as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Brennan’s life in the CIA come close.

In today’s world, that may be enough.

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