Obama gets weekly tutorials in terrorism

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; A08

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.

Brennan and the National Security Council's senior director for counterterrorism, Nick Rasmussen, set the agenda a week or two ahead of time. Sometimes the discussions more fully explore threads that have emerged in prior sessions; other times, they focus on a specific case, such as that of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan native living in Colorado who was arrested as part of an alleged explosives plot last fall, the participants interviewed said.

Among the regular attendees are Mueller; Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center; CIA Director Leon Panetta; National Security Agency Director Keith B. Alexander; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Vice President Biden also attends, as do National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones, deputy NSC director Tom Donilon and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Numerous deputies sit against the wall in the Situation Room, the secure West Wing conference facility where most national security and war-related meetings are held.

That makes it a larger meeting than during the Bush years. And to a degree, the purpose has shifted in the past year: After his inauguration, Obama's top advisers wanted to quickly educate him. "In its original conceptualization, this meeting was an effort to get the president knowledgeable about various parts and pieces of our counterterrorism effort -- so it was, 'These are some FBI programs, these are some CIA programs, these are some DHS programs,' " one regular participant said.

After the Christmas Day incident, the participant said, the meetings "became much more focused on the specific details of counterterrorism operations." On Tuesday, the briefing focused largely on a single incident, as officials gave Obama an extended "walk-through" of the events of the previous 48 hours.

The sessions have included some "uncomfortable moments," one person said, "when an individual's unpreparedness or lack of ability to articulate exactly what their agency or department is doing becomes apparent." In those instances, Obama has been "sharp" in ordering changes, the person said.

Sometimes the participants conclude that it is Obama who needs to take action. This was the case recently when intelligence officials reported having problems gaining cooperation from Canada on potential cross-border terrorism threats. After the meeting, Obama called Canadian officials to demand greater information-sharing, participants said.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the administration hasn't publicized the sessions. Frances Fragos Townsend, the former Bush homeland security adviser, said they could serve a vital purpose substantively and politically, showing the public that the president is mindful of terrorist threats even when they are not imminent.

"If you're paying attention and something happens, the American people are pretty forgiving, even if the political environment is not," Townsend said. "They won't forgive if they think you took your eye off the ball."

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