You can tell that Republicans are frustrated that they don’t enjoy their usual advantage on national security issues in this election. They’ve been churlish about President Obama’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s leadership and they’ve glommed onto Mitt Romney’s false accusation that Obama “apologized for America.” And yet it hasn’t worked. Obama remains more trusted to keep the country safe, as his record warrants.
This week saw the roll-out of two bogus smears of Obama on national security. One—Romney’s untrue claim that the Obama administration apologized to Islamists for the documentary that inspired anti-American protests in Egypt, Libya and Yemen—has been incisively tracked and debunked by The Nation’s George Zornick and Robert Dreyfuss. The other, however, is equally ludicrous.
Marc Thiessen, a former foreign policy speechwriter for President George W. Bush, devoted his most recent Washington Post column to claiming that Obama is asleep at the switch on national security because he often reads his presidential daily briefing instead of receiving it in person. Thiessen writes:
The Government Accountability Institute, a new conservative investigative research organization, 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….
When Obama forgoes this daily intelligence meeting, he is consciously placing other priorities ahead of national security.
This quickly made the rounds of the conservative spin machine. Fox News hyped the story and had Thiessen on for a softball interview with Megyn Kelly. The Daily Caller got a quote from Dick Cheney: “If President Obama were participating in his intelligence briefings on a regular basis then perhaps he would understand why people are so offended at his efforts to take sole credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden.” Cheney did not provide a quote from Obama to substantiate his premise that Obama tries to claim sole credit for bin Laden’s execution. The Daily Caller did not provide such context either. That’s because there is none. But the Daily Caller did not mention that Cheney was lying about Obama.
Erick Erickson, who runs the RedState blog, attached this new meme to a complaint that the media should have been harder on Obama and softer on Romney in the wake of the Middle Eastern protests and attacks on America’s embassies. Erickson believes that it was wrong for Obama to attend a fundraiser in Las Vegas the next day, and that the media would have criticized a Republican for such a decision. “The President, close to 60% of the time, has opted for printed intelligence briefings, which this White House thinks are as useful as an intelligence officer in the room who the President can probe, prod, challenge, and question,” wrote Erickson. “But the media wanted to focus on Mitt Romney.”
The idea that Obama is somehow failing to monitor American security by reading PDBs, instead of receiving them orally, is totally inane. As White House spokesman Tommy Vietor pointed out to the Post’s Jonathan Capehart, Obama has many other briefings and conversations on national security. He receives the PDB in person when he is in the White House. And contrary to Erickson’s suggestion, it is actually possible these days to ask a follow up question about a written document—by e-mail, say, or fax, or over the telephone—and Obama sometimes does so when he gets a written PDB.
But the more important point, by far, is that what matters about a president’s PDB is whether he makes good use of the information contained therein, not whether he listens to it or reads it. “By contrast, Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush almost never missed his daily intelligence meeting,” writes Thiessen. Ah yes, I seem to remember something about Bush and his daily intelligence briefing. That’s because Bush received a PDB on August 6, 2001 titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in US.” This was not the only such warning Bush received. As Kurt Eichenwald reported this week in the New York Times:
The administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before it. The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible. But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat.
This demonstrates that the incompetent neoconservatives in the Bush administration did not take the warnings seriously because they were blinded by ideology. Meanwhile, Bush—their notoriously ignorant, incurious boss—failed to respond. The result? The attacks of September 11, 2001, and thousands of dead Americans. Information about the threats we face do not only come to the president in the form of intelligence briefings.
More shocking is that after the attacks the Bush administration continued to believe that Al Qaeda and Iraq were conspiring and to prioritize disarming Iraq over defeating Al Qaeda. The result? The Iraq invasion and thousands of dead Americans and Iraqis. Ignoring the information in an intelligence briefing is bad enough. Ignoring the information contained in the actual attacks of September 11—that Al Qaeda and not Iraq was the most pressing threat to American security—is even worse.
It’s remarkable that Bush administration veterans such as Thiessen and Cheney would have the gall to now criticize Obama for paying insufficient attention to national security intelligence.