Obama’s Big Fat Intel Scandal

The rise of the Islamic State* has engendered a full-blown foreign policy crisis in Washington, DC. After more than three years of an extended “Mission Accomplished” victory lap following the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011, the Obama White House has hit the wall with the sudden appearance of the decapitating jihadists of the Islamic State, who now control substantial chunks of both Syria and Iraq and a lot of oil to boot.

The September 2012 disaster at Benghazi ought to have been a wake-up call that Salafi jihadism was down but not out, and still bent on killing Americans, but wasn’t. Now the administration is confronted with a major problem that it’s not exactly been quick to deal with; I’ve explained how the Islamic State can be defeated, but the White House doesn’t seem to be in any big rush to do that. Moreover, Obama’s policy to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State is riddled with contradictions, thanks largely to the confusion-masquerading-as-strategy that has plagued Obama’s Middle East forays since the beginning of his presidency, and nowhere more than Syria.

Not surprisingly, Obama has played defense with the media and commentariat about all this, and that came to a head Sunday in a TV interview with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes. Kroft pitched Obama a lot of softballs, some of which the president handled better than others, but it was the Commander-in-Chief’s comments on the Intelligence Community (IC) that have garnered the most attention, especially this part:

Steve Kroft: How did [ISIL] end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?

President Obama: Well I think, our head of the Intelligence Community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.

Steve Kroft: I mean, he didn’t say that, just say that, we underestimated ISIL. He said, we overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.

President Obama: That’s true. That’s absolutely true.

To anyone even passingly acquainted with inside-Beltway politics, the president just blamed the IC for the ISIL debacle, make no mistake about it. A couple weeks back, Jim Clapper gave an interview to David Ignatius, the doyen of Washington, DC intelligence reporters, in which he indicated that he felt the IC indeed had underestimated ISIL’s “will to fight,” while overestimating the battle-worthiness of Iraq’s U.S.-built military, drawing an analogy to flawed intelligence assessments of the Viet Cong, a war that Clapper participated in as a junior intelligence officer. But Clapper did not say that the IC got the rise of ISIL wrong, per se, and there is the critical rub.

Spies don’t take kindly to being thrown under the bus by the Commander-in-Chief, particularly on national television, and within hours the leaks began to flow, and it was soon apparent that Obama had misspoken, to be charitable. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” explained a former IC insider to Eli Lake of The Daily Beast.

It soon emerged that three top administration officials had explicitly warned about the rise of ISIL since the fall of 2013, to no apparent effect on the White House. One of them was Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, the outspoken former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who minced few words about his views on the rising ISIL threat. Perhaps not coincidentally, Flynn was ousted at DIA this summer in a rather public fashion, a defenestration that cannot look very wise in retrospect.

To make matters worse, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, stated Monday that actually the IC had been warning the White House about the emergence of ISIL as a serious threat in Iraq and Syria for  “over a year,” to no effect. “This was not an Intelligence Community failure, but a failure by policy makers to confront the threat,” Rogers explained, adding that the incompetence of the Iraqi military, which fell apart before ISIL, was well known to anybody in Washington, DC who cared to know — clearly implying that the White House did not.

It has since emerged that President Obama has not exactly been paying attention to intelligence. This has been rumored for years, but now we have some data. Every president gets a tailor-made President’s Daily Brief (PDB), a very closely held and highly classified document (for the background of the PDB this is a good primer). It turns out that, since becoming Commander-in-Chief, Obama’s overall attendance rate at his PDB is only 42.4 percent, while in his second term so far it’s lower, 41.3 percent. Moreover, in 2014, Obama has attended his PDB only 37.5 percent of the time.

Presidential interest in intelligence varies considerably, with some occupants of the Oval Office taking a hands-on approach to secret matters, while some are more aloof, but it’s safe to say that an attendance rate of hardly more than one-third at a time of crisis, with the world spiraling out of control between Ukraine and ISIL, to cite only the most pressing security problems today, is difficult to explain.

It’s easy for Obama’s defenders to dismiss this as mere partisanship, but it’s not. I’ve long defended Obama against unfair and sometimes unseemly charges from the Right about his alleged anti-military attitudes or supposed lack of interest in security issues. That said, we need to get to the bottom of this, given the extent of the strategic debacle surrounding the rise of ISIL. Partisanship is not the issue here. Indeed, the analytic element of the CIA that produces the PDB, the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), is pretty much the NPR demographic, so efforts to dismiss this issue as more right-wing posturing are wide of the mark.

Obama has created a scandal where one did not need to exist, for reasons I cannot fathom. Picking a fight with the IC is a very bad idea, as anybody acquainted with how Washington, DC, works is well aware. When “thrown under the bus” by any White House, the spooks retaliate with leaks that are often highly damaging to the administration; this is a venerable game inside the Beltway that wise politicians avoid as a lose-lose situation. This about turf, not ideology: ask George W. Bush what happened to his plans for war with Iran once the IC, led by CIA, put out its dovish 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Tehran’s nuclear program, escorted by a barrage of anti-White House leaks.

The IC is a behemoth of seventeen different — and sometimes mutually hostile — agencies residing in six different cabinet departments. Turf issues matter, and the addition of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI — that’s Clapper) in the aftermath of 9/11 has added another layer of bureaucracy rather than fix fundamental problems with the American intelligence model, some of which are caused by its gargantuan size rather than mismanagement. There was debate inside the IC about the rise of ISIL, and Obama’s opening the IC’s performance on this issue to public scrutiny on national television means that we have to get to the bottom of this.

Obvious questions present themselves. How often did Obama really get his intelligence briefings? What did those PDBs say about ISIL? Did Obama or his key staffers interact with any IC analysts on the ISIL matter? What role (if any) did differing views between agencies, especially CIA and DIA, impact the information the White House was getting? Above all, what was the role of the National Security Council and its director, Susan Rice, in the failure to anticipate the rise of ISIL, despite multiple intelligence warnings?

We need an investigation on a bi-partisan basis, eschewing politics-as-usual, just like the 9/11 Commission, to get to the bottom of this. The appearance of ISIL is the biggest terrorism story since the 9/11 attacks, and the American people deserve answers, given the seriousness of the threat to the United States and our allies posed by the murderous Islamic State.

I have no doubt that the intelligence backstory to this matter will turn about to be complicated, between conflicting raw intelligence and the usual bureaucratic cat-fights between agencies, but the essence of this scandal is simple. The White House chose to repackage a major policy failure as an intelligence failure and the spooks — who have not been happy about Obama’s cavalier attitude towards intelligence, neither did they appreciate how slow the president was to come to the IC’s defense during the Snowden debacle last year — took umbrage and are pushing back with leaks. More, and worse, leaks are coming; this is how DC works. The IC are not the people to throw under the bus if a White House wants smooth sailing. How Obama and his staffers did not seem to know this almost six years into this administration is the only real mystery in this story.


*Some call it ISIS, the administration prefers ISIL, but if you want to be pedantic Da’ish (for al-Dawlah al-Islamiyah) is correct.


38 comments on “Obama’s Big Fat Intel Scandal”
  1. Bi-Part Desires says:

    In the interest of bipartisanship, would be nice to have similar numbers for other administrations (e.g. Both Bush’s, Clinton). It is not a scientific comparison (different times we live in, different priorities), but I’m sure the issue will be raised regardless.

    1. 20committee says:

      I have seen figures but I don’t recall if they’re unclassified, so I will pass. I will say that Obama seems to be at the low end of the POTUS interest in intel spectrum.

    2. trizzlor says:

      The PDB attendance metric as a valid indicator has been debunked two years ago (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/the-bogus-claim-that-obama-skips-his-intelligence-briefings/2012/09/23/100cb63e-04fc-11e2-8102-ebee9c66e190_blog.html). It is both inaccurate (the president has PDB meetings that are not always in the record) and uninformative (when not meeting in person, the president reads his daily PDB and sends questions to the relevant IC members).

      I think this post is much stronger without this reliance on clearly bullshit metrics as if they were data.

      1. 20committee says:

        I don’t use WaPo as an authoritative source on IC matters, period.

        If the PDB attendance numbers are wrong, it would behoove the WH to release the actual stats, which are unclassified, ASAP.

      2. trizzlor says:

        >>I don’t use WaPo as an authoritative source on IC matters, period.

        The WaPo isn’t commenting on IC matters, it’s commenting on a basic statistic. I fail to see how a the conservative think-tank that provided these estimates without context is more authoritative than WaPo quotes from the presidential record and presidential scholars.

        >>If the PDB attendance numbers are wrong

        The president reads the PDB every day and corresponds with the sources by email. There are also many times when the president discusses the PDB in his morning meeting which does not qualify as a PDB meeting. The point isn’t that the PDB numbers are wrong, it’s that they are meaningless.

      3. 20committee says:

        You seem pretty worked up about “meaningless” statistics. How much intel POTUS is actually getting is the question that must be answered now.

      4. trizzlor says:

        >> You seem pretty worked up about “meaningless” statistics.

        Honestly, this is taking a fairly passive-aggressive turn that’s not really worth continuing. Chalk it up to most internet disagreements ramping up to a fever pitch for some reason. All the PDB metric tells us is that Obama (like Clinton) prefers to get his briefing in written form more often than Bush, who preferred it read to him. Obama may truly be “at the low end of POTUS interest in intel” or he may not, but this statistic doesn’t tell us that. Simple as that.

      5. 20committee says:

        Passive-aggressive turn? Project much?

        You commented on my blog, multiple times, I haven’t commented on yours.

        You seem to have some familiarity with intel issues, so I’m sure you’re aware, as many of us are, what RUMINT has been saying about Obama’s relationship with the IC for years, which is confirmed by this current scandal.

  2. mrmeangenes says:

    Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    Obama does NOT walk on water -nor should he be expected to do so; but skipping daily briefs ???? Bad news !!

    1. PJ. says:

      Jimmy Carter was notorious for never taking a briefing, look where that landed him with the Iran hostage situation. Numerous times in Africa he would be on a platform with a mass murderer and call this president of the African country a good man. His team of advisors I am sure were drinking early that day.

  3. Blackshoe says:

    I’ve often thought that when all is said and done, the Obama administration will end up being one of the worst in history, and it will largely because it was such an insular organization that was way too slow to figure out the difference between running a campaign and running a country.

    1. 20committee says:

      It’s clear that the Obama WH is a tightly-controlled organization where dissent isn’t tolerated; this has had a pernicious impact on many things, but above all foreign policy. I expect the memoirs that will emerge in 2017 will be detailed and scathing about all this.

      1. Blackshoe says:

        I’ve always thought the Harding administration provides lots of negative parralels to the current admin. Never the kind of company you want to be associated with.

  4. Airwalk says:

    Great article! Thanks. I think that there is nothing fundamentaly wrong with the American IC, although the Snowden case is horrible. I think the problem are the politicians who tend to be weaker and weaker (in the sense of IQ) with every election. Seriously: do you see a statesman/woman who has recently shown real leadership like the sort of Wilson, Churchill, Adenauer, Reagan, Helmut Kohl, Thatcher? Sorry, I haven’t. As a former spy once said: we deliver information. What politicians do with it is solely their decision. Take it or leave it!

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks for your feedback. Obama was frankly unprepared for this job in Jan 2009, but the real issue is how poor this White House’s learning curve has been. I really don’t understand how these kinds of 101-level mistakes are being made nearly six years into the administration. A mystery and not an edifying one.

      1. David Levine says:

        Hi John: it’s really not that surprising. Obama is what he was: an inexperienced community organizer and junior senator. He is very smart and enamoured by his own intellect. That has been his greatest strength in good times and greatest weakness in bad times like this. That is why they can make these mistakes six years later: every crisis is met by the same “I know better” that creates a reality distortion field around POTUS. If your point of reference is a campaign driven by data wonks and binary poll numbers stuff like fuzzy IC assessments of a world you don’t understand nor want to understand is not going to stick. In fact you’ll ignore it.

  5. Phineas Fahrquar says:

    Reblogged this on Public Secrets and commented:
    Obama at last threw the wrong people under the bus: people who know things and who know how to leak effectively. The president evidently takes a very cavalier attitude toward national security, and now those “chickens are coming home to roost.”

  6. Just a guy says:

    Very much appreciate tonight’s Tweets RE: the USN and ECS. I spent a 12-plus-hour day today getting ready to break the news of how much trouble we’re in to a group of my colleagues who don’t typically work China issues. The data keep pouring in, and precious little of it is good RE: the PRC.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks…no good news in WESTPAC, alas.

  7. AIM9 says:

    Admitting I only clicked XXCommittee your “now we have some data” embed but there was an earlier uhm, advisory somebody in the WH shoulda picked up on. Scroll to mid-point page #9:

    Click to access Flynn_02-11-14.pdf

    And as I’ve placed elsewhere, somebody shoulda taken notice at the Falluja “dust-up” which as I recall was late December.

    (I too have taken some, ahem, flak for trying to remain aloof [was going to use “above” but] from all this unhelpful partisanship. But stuff like that 60 Minutes fluff-fest makes the going very tedious.)

    1. 20committee says:

      It does indeed. There were plenty of indications, many UNCLAS and in the media, that ISIS was rising fast.

  8. Gus says:

    So based on the above Obama essentially says three things:

    1) ‘[..] Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that [..] they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.’

    2) [it is true that] ‘[Jim Clapper] didn’t [..] just say that, we underestimated ISIL.’

    3) [it is true that] ‘[Jim Clapper] said, we overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.’

    Jim Clapper says the following int the Washington Post interview:

    ‘In this case, we underestimated ISIL [the Islamic State] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army. . . . I didn’t see the collapse of the Iraqi security force in the north coming. I didn’t see that. It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable.’

    My conclusion is that Obama is saying exactly what his director of national intelligence told in the interview. Obama says simply that he did not know before June 2014 that ISIS had the capability to conquer Iraq’s second city Mosul and to advance as far as Baghdad within a month. He didn’t know because his intelligence didn’t know. That is a fair defence until the report shows up warning him of exactly that. Was it clever to make such a statement knowing that it would mean stepping on some toes within the IC? Probably not. BTW an underestimation does not necessarily entail a mistake. Whether it does depends on what information was available at the time. Not even the US IC can know everything in advance.

    1. 20committee says:

      I’m pretty clear on the limits of intelligence, thanks. If you don’t see that Obama’s on-air comments were in fact an under-bus-throwing of the IC, you don’t understand how DC works.

      1. Gus says:

        That’s possible.

  9. Jon Cohen says:

    1) Glenn Kessler @GlennKesslerWP · 10m 10 minutes ago

    This two-year-old post is still relevant: The bogus claim that Obama ‘skips’ his intelligence briefings http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/the-bogus-claim-that-obama-skips-his-intelligence-briefings/2012/09/23/100cb63e-04fc-11e2-8102-ebee9c66e190_blog.html 2) Conservative Media Blames Rise of Islamic State On Long Debunked Claim That Obama “Missed” Intelligence Briefings http://www.mediamatters.org/blog/2014/09/30/conservative-media-blames-rise-of-islamic-state/200949

    1. 20committee says:

      I repeat myself: If the figures are inaccurate the WH can fix this easily by releasing the accurate ones, they are UNCLASSIFIED.

  10. Jon Cohne says:

    Sir: Reading your replies to several comments like mine makes me start to think about “the Birther” augments. And I, having followed you for awhile now, know that you are much smarter than that.

    1. 20committee says:

      I’m not a Birther. In fact, I think Obama was clever enough to realize this issue worked well for him and he played Birthers like an instrument. Politically, that was smart,

  11. c6543 says:

    Well, if I belonged to the tinfoil-hat crowd I would have called it a strategy masquerading as confusion, like in Pakistan, or regarding Libya…or the whole Operatsya Multikulturnaja. But, as I do not, then all is probably well in the realm.

  12. dougr100 says:

    Looking up the history of the DIA in the Iraq WMD I’m thinking that President Obama threw the right guys under the bus

    1. 20committee says:

      I am anything but a fan of DIA but your comment is wide of the mark.

  13. guns says:

    CIA sharing intelligence with Hezballah: false or true?

    1. 20committee says:

      It’s possible.

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