The recent attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have come on the heels of reports that President Obama has missed more than half of his daily intelligence briefing meetings. And, in the wake of the embassy attacks, The Independent, a British newspaper, is reporting that the the U.S. received warnings of attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates but did not respond to them. The Obama Administration flatly denies the latter report.
The Obama Administration doesn’t deny that the President has missed a lot of his daily intelligence briefings but argues that missing the meetings really isn’t that important because the President can get all the information he needs from briefing books. As the writer of the linked article points out, that position stands in contrast to earlier reports in which Administration sources contended that the daily meetings were important and were well handled by the President.
I don’t doubt that President Obama gets lots of information in writing and reads it carefully. In addition, some complicated concepts are better explained on paper. Still, I think face-to-face interaction must play an important role. Obviously, you can’t ask questions of a briefing book, but there are other important elements to in-person discussions. The act of preparing for such meetings — finishing the review of briefing books in advance, preparing questions, deciding where to focus — itself has value for the person leading the meeting. Attending such meetings shows that you attach importance to what the other participants do and thereby encourages them; attendance also permits give-and-take, brainstorming, and free-wheeling discussion that simply can’t be replicated by a written document or an email exchange. Finally, humans communicate a lot of information through facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, and other methods that can’t be translated to writing.
I’m not saying that President Obama could have waded through intelligence information and pieced together clues that would have alerted him to the impending attacks if he had regularly attended the daily intelligence briefings, as President Bush apparently did. What I am saying is that national security issues are a crucial part of the President’s job, and that attending meetings where the President participates, in person, in discussions about intelligence and threat issues is an important part of doing that job the right way. I don’t know why President Obama has missed so many of these meetings, and what other events took priority on his schedule. In view of this week’s events, however, I think he, and we, would be better served if he made it a point to make those meetings.