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Friday, September 14, 2012

After Libya Attacks, Questions About Presidential Briefing Habits


President Obama sat down with intelligence officials on Friday for his presidential daily briefing. That might not sound all that surprising, but despite its title, this does not actually happen daily.

The turmoil in the Middle East has provided fodder for critics about the way Mr. Obama reviews intelligence. While the president receives an intelligence briefing in writing every day, he does not sit down with intelligence officials for an in-person briefing every day. To Republican opponents, that has become a symbol of inattentiveness to a dangerous world.

“If President Obama were participating in his intelligence briefings on a regular basis then perhaps he would understand why people are so of fended at his efforts to take sole credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden,” former Vice President Dick Cheney said in an e-mail to the Daily Caller earlier this week. “The hubris of a president who believes he does not need to meet regularly with them is astounding,” Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, wrote in The Washington Post.

The White House has pushed back in recent days, arguing that the president receives plenty of oral briefings but does not believe he necessarily has to have someone read to him what he gets in writing each day. Aides note that he meets repeatedly throughout the day with his national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and others, and discusses with them issues raised in the intelligence reports.

Moreover, they argue, the issue is not how the intelligence is received but what a president does with it, asserting that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney did not act assertively enough on warning signs from intelligence agencies prior to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The president's record, when it comes to acting on â€" interpreting correctly and acting on intelligence in the interest of the security of the United States is one that we are happy to have examined,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday.

Pressed on the matter again on Friday, Mr. Carney said “the quarters from which that criticism comes are pretty clear” and noted that on Thursday alone the president was briefed repeatedly by Mr. Donilon and others, including one briefing as late as 10 p.m.

“This president is an absolutely responsible and voracious consumer of his presidential daily briefing and of the information provided to him by his national security team,” Mr. Carney said.

Different presidents have chosen to receive the Presidential Daily Briefing, or P.D.B., in different ways. President Bill Clinton preferred to read it and rarely met with the director of the C.I.A. Indeed, at one point when a small aircraft crashed on the South Lawn of the White House, some joked that it was R. James Woolsey, the C.I.A. director, trying to get an appointment.

Mr. Woolsey recalled those days during a panel discussion at George Mason University on Thursday. He said he never gave Mr. Clinton his intelligence briefing in person and had only one private meeting a year with the president. “We had very little access, frankly,” said Mr. Woolsey, who has become a leading critic of Mr. Clinton and other Democrats.

When Mr. Bush took over, he decided to receive briefings in person every day, whether he was in the White House, on the road or at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. While he read more than most critics gave him credit for, Mr. Bush also valued the give-and-take interaction with intelligence officials â€" and not just an assigned briefer. He made clear to George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. di rector held over from Mr. Clinton's time, that he wanted him to attend as well. That later fell to the director of national intelligence once that position was created, later in his presidency.

The briefer would usually “tee up the piece,” explaining each item in the briefing and then hand it to Mr. Bush to read, Mr. Tenet wrote in his memoir, “At the Center of the Storm.” Mr. Bush would read it and then vigorously ask questions. “Sometimes he would start tossing out questions before getting to the bottom line,” Mr. Tenet wrote.

Mr. Obama thought some of this was unnecessary, said aides, who uniformly describe him as an scrupulous reader of intelligence. Mr. Obama meets with intelligence briefers most days he is Washington and has telephone calls from the road, and some of his briefers have said he asks probing questions and often assigns homework in the form of follow-up questions. During his months-long review of Afghanistan policy in 2009, he fam ously had three dozen intelligence reports drafted for him. Starting earlier this year, some information began being provided to him via iPad.

But as the campaign season has intensified, he has been on the road a lot more and some intelligence officials have noticed that in-person briefings have grown fewer. A review of the president's public schedule shows that Mr. Obama received his briefing in person at the White House 13 times in April, the month before he formally kicked off his re-election drive. By August, he received it in person at the White House 10 times. By the time of the attack in Libya and protests in Egypt, he had gone a week without an in-person briefing, since Sept. 5. Still, he had other national security briefings over that week, including a separate briefing specifically on security for the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mr. Thiessen, who first raised the issue in his Post column, said reading does not always convey enough. “Truly s ophisticated consumers of intelligence don't see it as a sign of weakness to ‘be briefed' by the experts,” he wrote. “Most of us, if we subscribed to a daily report on, say, astrophysics, would probably need some help interpreting it. But when it comes to intelligence, Obama is apparently so brilliant he can absorb the most complicated topics by himself in his study.”

Democrats said that is making too much of a difference in the way people process information. Some are more suited to written information and others to oral presentations. It “entirely depends on how people learn and absorb,” said James B. Steinberg, who served as Mr. Clinton's deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama's deputy secretary of state. “P.D.B. writers need to adapt to” the president, he added, “not vice versa.”

Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.