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Combing the PDB

Although some sources told The Times that Mr. Obama was definitely receiving briefings from the CIA on the threat posed by al Qaeda affiliates, others said it was not specifically clear how prominently the assessments factored into the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) presented to Mr. Obama last summer and fall.

The PDB is among the most closely guarded classified documents in Washington — particularly because of politically disastrous ramifications if the American public were to find out that a sitting president ignored warnings presented in the document.

In 2004, George W. Bush became the first U.S. president in history to release a PDB to the public. The briefing — detailed in the official 9/11 Commission Report — was titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” and was delivered to Mr. Bush roughly five weeks before the horrific terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

With regard to the months leading up to the November election, one source familiar with the process explained how material from various intelligence agencies fed to the White House was ultimately cleared by the office of Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper.

“There might be different points of view from different agency heads. At the end of the day, though, the intelligence community view is put forth by the DNI,” the source said.

Mr. Clapper appeared eager to provide a rosy assessment of the threat in February 2012 — roughly eight months before the election. He told the Senate Committee on Armed Services that the “coming two to three years” would bring a situation in which the leadership of the “global jihadist movement” would become “more decentralized, with ‘core’ al Qaeda — the Pakistan-based group formerly led by Osama bin Laden — diminishing in operational importance.”

“There is a better-than-even chance that decentralization will lead to fragmentation of the movement within a few years,” Mr. Clapper said in written testimony. As a result, he said, “core al Qaeda will likely be of largely symbolic importance to the movement; regional groups, and to a lesser extent small cells and individuals, will drive the global jihad agenda both within the United States and abroad.”

The roots of the assessment can be found in a March 2012 report by the DNI’s own National Counterterrorism Center, which portrayed an evolving al Qaeda threat that could be read in multiple ways.

The report said terrorist attacks carried out “by AQ and its affiliates” actually “increased by 8 percent from 2010 to 2011.”

But the spike was not a result of increases in attacks by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Rather, it was because of a sharp jump in the number of attacks carried out in Somalia by the al-Shabab network — an organization that intelligence analysts largely regard to be more localized than the others and, as a result, less threatening overall to the U.S.

An “Overarching Trends” section of the report cited “an 11.5 percent increase” in the number of terrorist attacks carried out across Africa, an increase attributable to the rise of the shadowy Islamist group “Boko Haram” in Nigeria.

The new ‘core’

In light of such assessments, some intelligence sources cautioned against reading too eagerly into Mr. Obama’s sloganeering on the campaign trail. Providing a more accurate depiction of the evolving al Qaeda threat would have required the kind of more detailed explanation that has, in the current era, come to be shunned by candidates running for the highest office.

Mr. Obama did attempt such an explanation on at least one occasion during the campaign.

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