Obama gets weekly tutorials in terrorism
Thursday, May 6, 2010
After a car bomb nearly detonated in Times Square on Saturday night, White House officials convened a series of impromptu briefings to keep President Obama updated as the suspect was identified, located and caught trying to flee the country.
But for the bigger questions on the global terrorist threat and how the administration can prevent an attack on U.S. soil, there is already a meeting on the books.
Call it the terrorism tutorial.
Almost every week, often on a Tuesday, Obama heads into the White House Situation Room for a meeting that explores terrorism-related subjects in depth. Rarely discussed in public, the hour-long briefings have become one of the most significant gatherings in the West Wing, bringing together Cabinet-level intelligence and security officials "to make sure everybody hears the same information and is updated on the threats," one participant said.
Several weeks ago, the terrorist-threat briefing was about al-Qaeda's bomb-making capabilities. Obama listened as FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III reviewed the forensics test results of an explosive used in an attempted airline attack on Christmas Day. Senior intelligence officials discussed the man in Yemen thought to have made the device, who is now a top target of U.S. surveillance, said four people who were present. Participants also talked about the "broader context," including "what we know about the explosives al-Qaeda uses and what we are doing to screen for them," one said.
Other weeks, the topics have been airport screening measures or specific al-Qaeda members being watched.
A three- or four-page briefing packet, stamped "Secret," is prepared for the president before each meeting. It includes background material on the day's topic as well as a list of the top U.S. terrorism hot spots around the globe, with photographs of suspected terrorists.
For Obama, the meetings are an opportunity not only to get updates on threats and the latest prevention tactics, several participants said, but also for discussing broader anti-terrorism strategies. The president often raises questions about what causes someone to become a terrorist. That topic was especially relevant this week, with the news that a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Pakistan, with no previous history of extremist tendencies, was implicated in the Times Square incident.
Even before this week, Obama had brought up the subject of radicalization on several occasions, regular participants in the meetings said, in part because it is a complex problem that falls under no single agency's jurisdiction. "We don't have a Department to Dry Up Pools of Candidates Who Want to Kill Themselves," one senior administration official said.
Eight administration officials who have attended the meetings agreed to describe them on the condition of anonymity.
Referred to by staff members during the Bush years as "Terror Tuesdays," the meetings began as an outgrowth of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Once a daily occurrence, they originally lasted 20 to 30 minutes and were added on at the end of the presidential daily briefing -- the security update that the president receives from the CIA each morning -- and focused largely on threats and incidents.
During the transition, outgoing Bush administration officials strongly urged the Obama team to retain the practice, current administration officials said. Today, they are led by John O. Brennan, the top terrorism adviser at the White House.