The Obama Watch

Obama’s Daily Intelligence Brief… Who Cares?

Our president should have studied Ronald Reagan more closely.

By 9.14.12

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The last week has generated many shocking moments, not a few of which involve our commander-in-chief. Conservatives are certainly taking their shots at President Obama. Some of these are justified; others perhaps less so. I say this sympathetically as someone who studies the Middle East, and realize what a damned mess it presents for any policymaker, let alone a president.

That said, the news that President Obama has been absent from so many of his daily intelligence briefings is a stunner. There's simply no good excuse for it. It comes on the heels of reports from Bob Woodward that Obama doesn't regularly attend "security briefings."

According to a study by the Government Accountability Institute, based on the publicly available White House calendar, Obama failed to attend a single Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) in the week leading up to 9/11 and the chaos that erupted in the Arab world. The mere fact that we were approaching 9/11 was itself a crucial reason for attending not one but all of the briefings. Obama attended none.

Worse, this is apparently nothing new. Obama attended only 43.8 percent of his Presidential Daily Briefs in the first 1,225 days of his administration; that's less than a majority.

Again, this is shocking, and there's no excuse for it.

Marc Thiessen, who worked for President George W. Bush, pressed NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor for an explanation. Thiessen reported:

Vietor did not dispute the numbers, but said the fact that the president, during a time of war, does not attend his daily intelligence meeting on a daily basis is "not particularly interesting or useful." He says that the president reads his PDB every day, and he disagreed with the suggestion that there is any difference whatsoever between simply reading the briefing book and having an interactive discussion of its contents with top national security and intelligence officials where the president can probe assumptions and ask questions. "I actually don't agree at all," Vietor told me in an e-mail. "The president gets the information he needs from the intelligence community each day."

Thiessen continued: "Vietor also directed me to a [Washington] Post story written this year in which Obama officials discuss the importance of the intelligence meeting and extol how brilliantly the president runs it. 'Obama reads the PDB ahead of time and comes to the morning meeting with questions,' The Post reported. '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.'"

Yeah, right. More nonsense from a scandalously biased media that refuses to do real reporting on Barack Obama.

Likewise disputing the PDB report is White House spokesman Jay Carney, who dismissed the charge as "hilarious." No, no, said Carney, the president "gets it every day." By "it," Carney was apparently talking about the briefing papers, not the actual meetings.

Naturally, "journalists" happily accepted Carney's explanation. CNN helped out by posting Carney's comments under a photo of a pensive Obama sitting at (allegedly) an intelligence briefing.

Ah, yes. There you go.

All of this is crazy. Simply crazy. Only the most unquestioning dupes and sycophants in Obama's base (and media) could accept these defenses.

To my knowledge, as a presidential historian, this is extremely unusual -- probably unprecedented for a president. Has there ever been a president, certainly in the post-WWII period (when the CIA was established), who has blithely missed so many intelligence briefings? I don't think so. George W. Bush didn't. He attended the PDB six times per week, as Thiessen notes.

Personally, I can speak with authority on the case of Ronald Reagan, who liberals, ironically, portrayed as an uninformed idiot who didn't pay attention in meetings or read anything.

Reagan, in fact, attended the daily intelligence briefing. I could lay this out at great length, but here I'll offer just two Reagan sources, both still living, who can speak to this:

One source is Herb Meyer, special assistant to CIA director Bill Casey and vice chair of the National Intelligence Council in the 1980s. Meyer was Casey's right-hand man. I emailed Meyer. He wrote back: "Of course Reagan attended all those daily briefings. And after the briefers returned to CIA headquarters, Bill [Casey] would meet with them just to be sure the President (and Haig & Weinberger) got answers to whatever questions they may have had. In short, it was a very -- very -- serious business."

Another source is Bill Clark. Clark was Ronald Reagan's right-hand man in foreign policy, the head of the National Security Council during a pivotal time. No adviser was more closely involved in helping Reagan take down the Soviet Union. Clark and Reagan saw Poland in particular as vital to a strategic plan to collapse the Soviet empire and bring freedom and democracy into the communist world. I know Clark very well. I'm his biographer. Clark is 80 years old and lives in California. Clark told me this about Reagan and the PDB:

Bill Casey would, by courier, send the President's Daily Brief each morning at about 5:00 a.m. to our war room downstairs in our [National] Security Council. It was a very limited edition, five colors showing the activity across the globe for the preceding 24 hours. It would be delivered to the president in his residence before he came over [by 7:00 a.m.]. His first question for a long period of time was usually, "What is happening in Poland this morning?" He'd write questions all over the margins about things that weren't clear in the briefing. And, of course, the agency [CIA] would come down with further explanations.

Clark recalls how Reagan craved that regular morning update. He would read it and then they would meet. Reagan ate up these briefings. He didn't skip them. He asked questions of his advisers. He probed for ideas. There was give-and-take. Reagan attended the briefings and used them as presidents should and always have -- until now, apparently. That's presidential decision-making.

When Reagan finished his presidency, after two terms, genuine freedom and democracy were surging all over the communist world, beginning in Poland.

As for Obama, if he's in the process of finishing his presidency, after one term, he's facing a surge of radical Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, and the dashing of hope for freedom and democracy. Can any of that be blamed on Obama's failure to attend these routine briefings? Maybe, maybe not. It certainly can't help. But do enough Americans even care? 

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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.