Why is Obama skipping more than half of his daily intelligence meetings?

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama walks with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in the West Wing of the White House, July 11, 2012.

President Obama is touting his foreign policy experience on the campaign trail, but startling new statistics suggest that national security has not necessarily been the personal priority the president makes it out to be. It turns out that more than half the time, the commander in chief does not attend his daily intelligence meeting.

The Government Accountability Institute examined President Obama’s schedule from the day he took office until mid-June 2012, to see how often he attended his Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) — the meeting at which he is briefed on the most critical intelligence threats to the country. During his first 1,225 days in office, Obama attended his PDB just 536 times — or 43.8 percent of the time. During 2011 and the first half of 2012, his attendance became even less frequent — falling to just over 38 percent. By contrast, Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush almost never missed his daily intelligence meeting.

I asked National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor about the findings, and whether there were any instances where the president attended the intelligence meeting that were not on his public schedule. 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 read 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.”

Yet Vietor also directed me to a 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. Intelligence briefers are there to answer those questions, expand on a point or raise a new issue,” 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.”

Not so consistently, it seems. Since Obama officials have actively promoted the way the president runs his daily intelligence meeting as evidence of his national security leadership (even releasing a photo of him receiving the briefing on an iPad), it is fair to ask why he skips the daily meeting so often.

According to former officials who have detailed knowledge of the PDB process, having the daily meeting — and not just reading the briefing book — is enormously important both for the president and those who prepare the brief. For the president, the meeting is an opportunity to ask questions of the briefers, probe assumptions and request additional information. For those preparing the brief, meeting with the president on a daily basis gives them vital, direct feedback from the commander in chief about what is on his mind, how they can be more responsive to his needs, and what information he may have to feed back into the intelligence process. This process cannot be replicated on paper.

While the Bush records are not yet available electronically for analysis, officials tell me the former president held his intelligence meeting six days a week, no exceptions — usually with the vice president, the White House chief of staff, the national security adviser, the director of National Intelligence, or their deputies, and CIA briefers in attendance. Once a week, he held an expanded Homeland Security briefing that included the Homeland Security adviser, the FBI director and other homeland security officials. Bush also did more than 100 hour-long “deep dives” in which he invited intelligence analysts into the Oval Office to get their unvarnished and sometimes differing views. Such meetings deepened the president’s understanding of the issues and helped analysts better understand the problems with which he was wrestling.

When Obama forgoes this daily intelligence meeting, he is consciously placing other priorities ahead of national security. As The Post story that the Obama White House sent me put it, “Process tells you something about an administration. How a president structures his regular morning meeting on intelligence and national security is one way to measure his personal approach to foreign policy.”

Indeed it is. So is how often he holds it. With President Obama, it seems, the regular morning meeting on intelligence is not so regular.

Marc A. Thiessen, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, writes a weekly online column for The Washington Post.

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