A Week of Meetings Shaped Address

Minutes after President Obama defended his policies on wanting to close Guantanamo Bay and his strategy for fighting terrorism, former Vice President Dick Cheney gave a rebuttal and defended Bush-era policies on why enhanced interrogation techniques were necessary and justified.
Friday, May 22, 2009

President Obama paced the Oval Office, the debate about torture and detainees clearly weighing on him.

For more than an hour early last week, national security speechwriter Ben Rhodes scribbled down the president's thoughts, filling eight pages of a legal pad.

White House aides said the roots of yesterday's speech at the National Archives were established in that session, and grew out of the president's frustration with what he saw as a scrambled national conversation on the intertwined issues of national security and torture.

Obama, aides said, believed that the administration was being forced by legal proceedings to make case-by-case decisions that were not understood by the public in the broader context of his attempt to shift the nation's conduct in the battle against terrorism.

A White House adviser familiar with planning for the speech compared its development to that of a speech on race relations Obama gave during the campaign and his economic address at Georgetown University last month.

"He wanted to very clearly delineate his vision to the broader population," the adviser said, discussing internal White House deliberations on the condition of anonymity.

"He gets frustrated when arguments get distorted or dumbed down," the adviser said, and wanted to "lay out a vision in the most comprehensive way."

The first draft of the speech came in at more than an hour and was heavy on details, aides said. Over the next week, senior aides in the Defense and Justice departments and intelligence agencies joined in meetings to discuss the substance of the address.

This week, Obama held meetings with national security aide Denis McDonough, Rhodes and other advisers every day on different issues the speech touched on. He stayed up until 2:30 yesterday morning editing the final text, an aide said.

White House officials insisted they were not aware that former vice president Richard B. Cheney had scheduled a speech at the American Enterprise Institute until after they had chosen yesterday for the president's address.

"No one here closely monitors the AEI calendar," one aide quipped.

-- Michael D. Shear

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