Obama officials made some dubious claims over the summer that the White House was caught off guard by the rise of the terrorist army of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) because U.S. intelligence agencies underestimated the ISIS threat. Many have disputed this, including Congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI), the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who said in June that the Iraq crisis is a policy and not an intelligence failure. Others pointed out there has been press on ISIS activities for almost a year and that Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee last February that ISIS “will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the group’s ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria.”
It now looks like the real intelligence failure has been President Obama’s decision to ignore critical U.S. intelligence analysis and warnings.
Fox News correspondent Catherine Herridge reported today that according to a former Pentagon official, “detailed and specific intelligence about the rise of ISIS was included in the PDB, or the President’s Daily Brief, for at least a year before the group took large swaths of territory beginning in June.” The source also described this intelligence as “strong” and “granular” in detail.
The PDB is a highly classified daily intelligence report prepared for the President and a handful of other high level officials by U.S. intelligence agencies. The former Pentagon official told Herridge that unlike his predecessors, President Obama reads the PDB and does not receive a PDB briefing. The source also said U.S. intelligence agencies rarely receive follow-up questions from Mr. Obama on the PDB.
Herridge’s story tracks with a September 12, 2012 Washington Post op-ed by Marc Thiessen that despite White House bragging about President Obama receiving a daily PDB briefing, Thiessen found the president had skipped more than half of them.
The president’s supporters in the news media went after Thiessen over this op-ed. For example, in a September 24, 2012 column, The bogus claim that Obama ‘skips’ his intelligence briefings, Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler gave Thiessen’s piece three “Pinocchios” for being inaccurate and said in an update it may have deserved a fourth. According to Kessler, Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton also did not receive daily PDB briefings.
While Kessler is right that presidents have had different styles in dealing with intelligence and the PDB, the real issue is whether the information in the PDB reaches the president. President Carter and both Presidents Bush often sent comments and feedback after reading the PDB. Presidents Ford and Reagan sent also sent feedback but less than these presidents. (Kessler also claimed President Reagan almost never wrote questions or comments about the PDB. I dispute this since I once received a comment from President Reagan written on a PDB I authored when I was a CIA analyst. Several of my CIA colleagues occasionally received comments and questions on the PDB from President Reagan.)
President Bill Clinton had a very different approach to the PDB and his morning intelligence. It was well known at CIA that Clinton rarely read the PDB. Clinton skipped so many PDB briefings that CIA management stopped sending daily read-outs of them to analysts after someone at CIA leaked word about Clinton’s skipped PDB briefings to the press. I believe Clinton’s ignorance of U.S. intelligence analysis contributed to his underestimation of the threat from al-Qaeda and his timid responses to the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks which occurred on his watch.
Some will interpret Herridge’s report as an explanation for President Obama’s claims that he did not know about the ISIS threat as well as the much-criticized comment he made last week that his administration has “no strategy yet” to deal with ISIS.
I don’t buy such an explanation. Consider that National Security Adviser Rice, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel also are PDB recipients. I’m sure most if not all of them receive daily PDB briefings and read the PDB. If this is the case, why didn’t any of them tell the president about the growing ISIS threat that U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly were warning about?
The answer is that the president did know about these warnings and was told about them by his senior officials but chose to ignore this information because he is still in denial about the threat from radical Islam. This was obvious by the way Obama officials misled the American people about the 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. It is now clear Mr Obama did not learn from this mistake.
The most worrisome conclusion I draw from Herridge’s report is not that President Obama ignored or played down information about the ISIS threat and radical Islam. I’m more concerned that Mr Obama’s reported refusal to do PDB briefings or send feedback on the PDB suggests he may be ignoring intelligence across the board just like President Clinton did. This raises the question whether there are other urgent threat warnings by American intelligence agencies that Mr Obama is aware of but has chosen to ignore.