The Washington Post

Data mining revelations may overshadow China summit

SAN JOSE, Calif. --  President Obama jetted west to cultivate a personal bond with China’s new leader -- one he hopes might smooth the sometimes volatile relationship between the United States and the rising Asian power.

But Obama’s carefully-planned attempt at personal diplomacy is being interrupted by a flaring controversy in Washington over new disclosures of the government’s extensive and secretive programs to mine data about people’s telephone calls, e-mails and Internet searches and postings.

President Obama arrives upon arrival at Moffett Field, Calif. on Thursday. (AP/Jeff Chiu)
President Obama waves upon arrival at Moffett Field, Calif. on Thursday. (AP/Jeff Chiu)

On Friday afternoon, Obama will arrive in Rancho Mirage, Calif., to begin a two-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a sprawling desert estate called Sunnylands. Among the issues Obama has been planning to raise with Xi is cyber security -- specifically, China’s spying on U.S. businesses. Yet hovering over their discussion will be questions about the Obama's own administration’s tracking activities.

On Thursday, as disclosures about the National Security Agency’s data mining programs surfaced and stunned much of official Washington, Obama stuck to his script. In three speeches at out-of-town events, the president made no public comments about the issue.

At a North Carolina middle school, Obama pitched his plan to extend broadband and wireless Internet to the nation’s schools. Later, he addressed donors at a pair of private Democratic fundraising events in the Silicon Valley area, but made no mention of the NSA revelations.

The president deferred to his underlings to offer official responses. First, deputy press secretary Josh Earnest defended the NSA’s seizure of telephone records, telling reporters that the program strikes “the right balance” between security prerogatives and civil liberties.

Later, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said that information gathered from the broader NSA program mining data about people’s Internet activity is “among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect.”

To be sure, Obama broadly addressed national security matters in a sweeping, hour-long policy address May 23rd at the National Defense University. Still, he has yet to comment specifically on this week’s remarkable revelations.

The White House’s efforts to contain the political fallout on Thursday were being managed both in Washington and in the air, aboard Air Force One en route to California. Although some senior aides stayed behind at the White House, several others, including communications director Jennifer Palmieri and senior foreign policy aide Benjamin J. Rhodes are traveling with Obama, as is Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser. Donilon, who has played a leading behind-the-scenes role in orchestrating the China summit, is scheduled to brief reporters Saturday following Obama’s first meeting with Xi.

Obama faces mounting pressure to address and justify his administration’s actions. He will have such an opportunity on Friday, when he plans to deliver remarks in San Jose about the implementation of his signature health care law. At the event, scheduled for around 9 Pacific time (noon Eastern time), Obama could also address the NSA issue.

Obama will have another opportunity to comment on the NSA issue later Friday during his visit with Xi in Rancho Mirage, where a pool of reporters will be in a position to ask him questions.

Aboard Air Force One on Thursday, a reporter inquired about whether Obama might talk about the NSA matter in the coming days. Earnest replied, “I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.”

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.



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