Conservative media is dubiously claiming that the rise of the Islamic State is due in part to President Obama skipping scheduled daily intelligence briefings. The basis of this claim is a misleading interpretation of how intelligence briefings are received by the White House that was debunked two years ago.
Every day, the president receives a Presidential Daily Brief (PDB), a highly secret intelligence document. The right-wing criticisms are citing a four-page report from the conservative Government Accountability Institute (GAI), which alleges that Obama has only attended a daily briefing on the PDB on 41.26 percent of the days from the start of his second term (January 20, 2013) through September 29, 2014. Conservatives are claiming that this shows that Obama has “missed” nearly 60 percent of his briefings and that is why he was not sufficiently aware of the spread of the Islamic State.
This is not the first time GAI's reports on this topic have been used to mislead. In 2012, Karl Rove's American Crossroads group cited GAI to make the same allegation about President Obama and his briefings in his first term. The right-wing media also picked up the attack.
But as the Washington Post reported then, Obama structured his White House operation so that he reads his PDB every day “but he does not always require an in-person briefing every day,” so “it is specious to say he has 'skipped' a meeting that was not actually scheduled.” The Post also revealed that Obama sometimes meets with intelligence briefers but that those meetings are not listed in his official schedule as a PDB, compromising the data set upon which GAI relies.
Thomas S. Blanton, director of George Washington University's National Security Archive, told the Post that there have been “lots of variation” in the patterns of how presidents have received their briefings, varying from an oral report for George W. Bush to a written memo for Richard Nixon and a one-on-one meeting between Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser.
Notably, a CIA history of the PDB notes that Ronald Reagan almost never received oral briefings on the PDB with CIA personnel and that “unlike Carter, Reagan almost never wrote comments or question on the PDB.” The Post concluded that under the standards of the GAI report, “Ronald Reagan skipped his intelligence briefings 99 percent of the time.”
That this criticism was debunked two years ago hasn't prevented the right-wing media from reviving it. Fox & Friends hyped the report in a September 30 segment where the purported 42 percent attendance rate was labeled a “failing grade.” Co-host Steve Doocy said Obama “missed” reports on ISIS because he attended “less than half” of his daily intelligence briefings, adding, “maybe he missed ISIS because he missed the briefings.” Elisabeth Hasselbeck, his co-host, went on to ask, “Is that good enough for the globe that your national security interests are in the low 40s?”
In a later segment, Hasselbeck stated that “even ISIS is surprised at their own success perhaps because the president missed nearly half of his daily intelligence briefings.” Guest Laura Ingraham said the supposed missed briefings were evidence Obama is “never all that into” foreign policy. Doocy said that to make sure Obama received his briefings he should be given them “on a golf cart.”
Rush Limbaugh used the GAI statistics on his radio show, alleging that “nobody even knows” if Obama is reading the written PDBs and that he has “intentionally eliminated the opportunity to discuss the intelligence findings with the experts.” Limbaugh also falsely claimed that President Reagan met daily with his “national security guy” for intelligence briefings.