A Further Perspective

Obama’s Intelligence Negligence

Obama's defenders insist he has a Nixonian command of foreign policy.

By 9.28.12

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I commented here recently on a startling fact of presidential incompetence, provided courtesy of the investigative work of an excellent new group called the Government Accountability Institute. The group reported a jaw-dropper: President Barack Obama didn't attend a single daily intelligence briefing in the week leading up to the anniversary of 9/11. In fact, he has attended a minority of daily briefings (44%) since becoming president, and a little better than a third over the last year. While skipping intelligence briefings, the president has enthusiastically campaigned and met with TV personalities. Obama has done so in this dangerous post-9/11 world, and as one who in his re-election speech at the Democratic convention flagrantly mocked his opponent's foreign-policy credentials.

And then, of course, all hell broke loose in the Middle East -- on the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001.

Consider the timeline:

The chaos started at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, with scenes looking eerily like a replay outside the U.S. embassy in Tehran 33 years ago under Jimmy Carter. Mere hours later in Libya, we learned of the murder of the first U.S. ambassador killed since the Carter years. By the end of the 9/11 week, the Middle East was in turmoil, with protests against America in over 20 cities, including Iraq, and with Afghanistan suddenly witnessing a surge in violence against U.S. troops, some of which were killed.

In a remarkable display that made those "Osama is Dead" signs at the Democratic convention look haughty and overconfident, Middle East demonstrators hoisted pro-Osama signs and chanted "Obama, we are all Osama!"

Things were looking bad for President Obama. But they got worse.

In one of his campaign interviews amid the Middle East madness, the president stated that Egypt is not a U.S. ally, prompting a public correction by no less than Jimmy Carter. Even worse, Obama and his administration were unwilling to call the Middle East attacks premeditated or even terrorism, and continually (and ludicrously) sought to blame an anti-Mohammed video for the whole sorry mess. On the Sunday talk shows, the president's U.N. ambassador claimed the action in Libya was "not a premeditated" attack. She was quickly repudiated by the Libyan president, who stated categorically that there was "no doubt that this was pre-planned, determined." And CNN and others reported that U.S. diplomats in Libya had been warned about the rapidly deteriorating situation three days before it occurred.

Now, we have also learned that al Qaeda appears to have been involved in Libya, as even Mrs. Clinton seems to finally concede, and a released Gitmo detainee was involved as well.

President Obama, bear in mind, did not attend a single daily intelligence briefing leading up to this explosion.

Do you think that this presidential negligence mattered?

Obama's defenders, naturally, are arguing to the contrary. In moments like this, they know what to do: investigate not Obama, but those who dare to investigate Obama.

One of them is Glenn Kessler, fact-checker at the Washington Post. Kessler has weighed in on this battle over the brief -- that is, Obama's habitual absence from his daily intel briefings. Kessler is arguing, contrary to the likes of myself, the Government Accountability Institute, and Marc Thiessen of the Post op-ed page, that Obama's absence at these meetings doesn't matter. Kessler uses historical comparisons from previous presidents to make his case, and sometimes makes a defensible to decent case -- while other times not.

For instance, Kessler notes of President Richard Nixon: "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." Kessler cites a CIA history of the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB), which says of Nixon: "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."

So, Nixon apparently didn't meet every day with his intel briefers, though he did meet with Henry Kissinger, his chief foreign-policy and national-security adviser.

Of course, Richard Nixon also entered the presidency with far more foreign-policy experience than Barack Obama. For eight years from 1953-61, Nixon travelled the world as the most active vice president in foreign policy in history (up to that time). He further burnished those credentials throughout the 1960s as a private citizen thinking and writing (extensively) about the world.

Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, wasn't nearly as steeped in foreign policy. And so, as Kessler notes, Ford did indeed maintain a daily intel meeting: "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, on the other hand, scrapped the briefing. Kessler writes: "Jimmy Carter scrapped the oral briefing and instead relied on a one-on-one meeting with his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski."

Kessler next deals with Reagan, who he dismisses with the standard, mistaken liberal caricature of Reagan from 30 years ago, which, frankly, I had thought we finally dispatched to the ash-heap of history. Not in some quarters, I guess. (Kessler clearly doesn't read my books on Reagan.)

Kessler's general point, however, is well taken. He contends that much of this controversy may be a matter of semantics, based on whether the president is getting an "intel" briefing from intel officials or from national-security officials. He adds, "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."

Obama reportedly more often reads his daily intel brief (on paper) than he actually meets with intel officials.

Note that Kessler is assuming -- as is the Obama White House -- that President Obama carefully reads his paper briefings and fully understands them, with no need for follow-up or dialogue with the experts. They're banking on a foreign-policy brilliance bordering on omniscience from Obama, which, given his complete lack of experience in foreign affairs, is completely unjustified.

Most importantly, what Kessler and other Obama defenders are missing is the crucial dynamic that is the post-9/11 world. Consider: it's really inexcusable that Barack Obama would miss so many intel briefings not only over the past four years, but especially the most recent year and, most shockingly, in the literal week prior to 9/11 -- while he was campaigning, cavorting with celebrities, and as the Middle East exploded in some of the worst images since the protests in Iran in 1979. And now we continue to learn how little Obama and his team understood about the roots of the recent conflagration, particularly in Libya.

If Kessler and President Obama's defenders think I'm wrong about this, then I ask them to consider a basic question: What if the president we're talking about here wasn't Barack Obama, but George W. Bush? What would they be saying then? Think about that one, liberals.

Oh, and as Marc Thiessen and the Government Accountability Institute now note, Obama is suddenly attending his daily intel briefings. Hmmm. Sure, that's no doubt a response to political criticism. But do you think -- on the heels of Libya, Egypt, and all else -- that maybe Obama feels like he might have been missing something?

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.