“A president who skips half of his intelligence briefings but finds time to play more than 100 rounds of golf…Mr. President, it is time to show up for work.”
— anti-Obama ad by American Crossroads
This is a hard-hitting ad by the right-leaning group American Crossroads, suggesting President Obama is shirking his duties by concentrating on campaigning, golf and celebrity appearances. We’re going to concentrate on the first allegation — that Obama has skipped half of his intelligence briefings — since that raises interesting questions about presidential style and management.
(There is no dispute that Obama plays much more golf than, say, George W. Bush — who stopped playing seven months into the Iraq war. But we also have noted that Bush took significantly more vacation days than Obama has taken.)
The notion that Obama has skipped his intelligence briefings was promoted by a right-leaning research group called the Government Accountability Institute, which published a report detailing that the president’s daily calendar shows Obama receiving an in-person briefing on the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) 43.8 percent of his time in office. (The percentage dropped from a high of 48.8 percent in 2010 to 38.2 percent through May of 2012.)
Marc Thiessen, a former Bush speechwriter who writes an opinion column for The Washington Post, then drew attention to what he called the “startling new statistics” in the report. His column on the subject is cited as the source in the American Crossroads ad.
That column also includes the White House’s response — that Obama reads his PDB every day, but he does not always require an in-person briefing every day. The White House argument is that this is how Obama structured his White House operation, so it is specious to say he has “skipped” a meeting that was not actually scheduled.
The PDB is a highly secret document seen only by the president and a handful of other advisers. Only a few have ever been declassified — mainly from the Lyndon Johnson era — though the famous Aug. 6, 2001, PDB warning “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” was also declassified as part of the investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Our colleague Walter Pincus earlier this year examined how Obama has handled his morning foreign-policy discussions:
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. [National Intelligence Director James] 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.
When Pincus refers to the “morning meeting,” he is describing a regular national security meeting that is held every day at 9:30 a.m. with the president’s top advisers. In his article, he cites a meeting that took place on Jan. 13, 2012, that included discussion of the PDB with one of Clapper’s deputies. Yet the White House public schedule for that day lists no such meeting — and no PDB meeting. So the entire controversy appears based on a semantic distinction — or perhaps inaccurate White House schedules.
Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, says that there have been “lots of variation in the briefing patterns” among presidents, with different consequences.
George W. Bush “wanted personal and oral, and that matched CIA’s institutional interest in face to face with the president, much better for their bureaucratic politics, but unclear how good it was for presidential decision making,” he said. “On Iraq WMD [weapons of mass destruction], the direct brief was clearly pernicious; reading might have pointed to the dissents, but the briefers did not.”
In contrast, Bill “Clinton the reader was known to comment that his morning papers were better than the intel brief, and better written — to the point that the CIA director James Woolsey joked that when that Cessna crashed into the White House, that was him seeking an audience with the president.”
Richard Nixon also had few, if any, oral briefings and instead received his intelligence from the morning memo of his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.
According to a CIA history of the PDB written by John L. Helgerson:
Throughout the Nixon presidency, the PDB was delivered by courier to Kissinger’s office. Each day Kissinger delivered to the President a package of material that included the PDB along with material from the State Department, the White House Situation Room, the Joint Chiefs, and others. Nixon would keep the material on his desk, reading it at his convenience throughout the day. Feedback to the Agency typically was provided by Kissinger directly to the DCI.
Interestingly, the history says that Gerald Ford, who became president when Nixon resigned, decided to add an oral briefing from a CIA official as his first meeting of the morning so he would be better prepared for foreign-policy discussions with Kissinger, who had become Secretary of State.
Jimmy Carter scrapped the oral briefing and instead relied on a one-on-one meeting with his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. But he wrote frequent comments on the PDB, so that “the CIA received considerably more feedback from Carter than it had from Ford,” the history said.
Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, also almost never received oral briefings or had meetings with CIA personnel. Here is how the CIA history puts it:
Agency officers who provided daily intelligence support to the White House during the Reagan administration remember that his several national security advisers varied markedly in the time and attention they devoted to the PDB. In all cases, however, they received the Agency’s briefer every day, read the PDB, and ensured that it was forwarded to the President.
Thinking back over the eight years of the two Reagan administrations, the Agency’s briefing officer remembered only one or two occasions when the National Security Adviser took him into the Oval Office to brief the President directly. Unlike Carter, Reagan almost never wrote comments or questions on the PDB.
Then, George H.W. Bush, who had once served as CIA director, reinstituted an oral briefing, read the PDB closely and even examined raw intelligence reports. “CIA’s relationship with Bush was undoubtedly the most productive it had enjoyed with any of the nine presidents it served since the Agency’s founding in 1947,” concluded the history, which was written in 1996.
The Pinocchio Test
Clearly, different presidents have structured their daily briefing from the CIA to fit their unique personal styles. Many did not have an oral briefing, while three — two of whom are named Bush — preferred to deal directly with a CIA official. Obama appears to have opted for a melding of the two approaches, in which he receives oral briefings, but not as frequently as his predecessor.
Ultimately, what matters is what a president does with the information he receives from the CIA. Republican critics may find fault with Obama’s handling of foreign policy. But this attack ad turns a question of process — how does the president handle his intelligence brief? — into a misguided attack because Obama has chosen to receive his information in a different manner than his predecessor.
As it turns out, no president does it the exact same way. Under the standards of this ad, Republican icon Ronald Reagan skipped his intelligence briefings 99 percent of the time.
UPDATE: Marc Thiessen has posted a response to this column, in which he argues that practices before the September 11 attacks should not be considered. It is an interesting, if not very factual argument. (Reagan, for instance, suffered the loss of 241 servicemen in Beirut as a result of a terror act.) We also find it curious that he now discloses the study was done at his request, by his business partner, and that he now describes the Government Accountability Institute as “nonpartisan” whereas in his earlier column he had called it a “conservative investigative research organization.”
Upon reflection, we now realize that the GAI report has a bit of an inconsistency problem. Thiessen had earlier claimed Bush had oral intel briefings six days a week--though no actual schedule is available to confirm that--so at the very least GAI should have subtracted one a day week from Obama’s numbers to make a valid comparison. (The White House schedule does not list briefings on weekends but Peter Schweizer, president of GAI and Thiessen’s business partner, says the study also relied on Politico’s White House calendar, which does list some weekend meetings. Schweizer says the report is “about Obama and his scehdule.”)
We had nearly given this data Four Pinocchios and in retrospect we were perhaps too generous with Three.
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