The Washington Post

Behind-the-scenes, White House preoccupied by NSA surveillance controversy

The National Security Agency (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

In public, President Obama has focused this week on income inequality, touting initiatives to help the poor and unemployed. But in private, the president and his top aides have spent more time dealing with another issue.

Obama met Thursday with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to update them on his review of the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance program. A day earlier, he huddled separately with top intelligence officials and a White House advisory panel on privacy issues and civil liberties. He also called German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose mobile phone had been tapped by the NSA, and invited her to Washington.

In addition, his top lawyer, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, met with privacy advocates Thursday, and executives from the nation’s largest Internet companies were scheduled to visit the White House on Friday.

Ever since Edward Snowden stole 1.7 million classified files from the NSA last summer, the Obama administration has been under siege and looking for a way out.

The behind-the-scenes effort to manage the fallout from the Snowden leaks has been so wide-ranging and time-consuming that officials from the George W. Bush and Obama administrations compare it to White House deliberations over the 9/11 and Iraq intelligence commissions’ reports, the U.S. military surge in Afghanistan, and the WikiLeaks disclosures.

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The challenge is, in some ways, even more complicated this time.

“Unlike 9/11, where at least the story was over what happened with the 9/11 plot and there was a series of recommendations, this story is going to continue through the year,” said Michael Allen, a national security official in the George W. Bush administration and the author of “Blinking Red,” about efforts to reform intelligence after the terrorist attacks. “They’ve been completely unable to get ahead of any Snowden story whatsoever. Each time a new story hits, there’s 48 hours of consternation.”

The White House hopes to break that cycle later this month, when Obama is expected to deliver a national address announcing a set of intelligence-gathering changes. His aim is to set in place guidelines that will convince critics he is serious about reform and that will withstand future disclosures.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday that the president is nearly done with the review, but he would not disclose what Obama is likely to say.

“The bulk of the work on this is the policy review, not reacting to what the next story is,” said another senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations. “We don’t know what the next thing will be, and we do have to deal with what comes next. But getting the policy right is what’s important so that as new things come, we’ve addressed the core of it.”

Administration officials were so eager to move past the NSA controversy that they originally planned to have Obama deliver his speech Dec. 15, without waiting for an NSA review board’s Dec. 18 report that included 46 reform recommendations. But Obama’s trip to South Africa in early December for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service led officials to postpone the address until after the holiday break, officials said.

In the meantime, the data leaks continue to intrude on other White House priorities. Last month, technology executives balked at a White House invitation to meet with the president on health care until the administration agreed to also discuss their concerns about the NSA’s collection of Internet users’ personal information.

“An ongoing series of leaks like this can be all-consuming,” said Tommy Vietor, the Obama administration’s former national security spokesman. “The subject matter is in­cred­ibly sensitive. Very few people have been read into the program for good reason. When you get a phone call from a reporter saying, ‘I’m publishing some documents on a program you’ve never heard of in three hours. What’s your comment?’ — that’s an impossible position to be put in.”

Since the first stories on the NSA programs were published last summer, Obama’s national security staff has moved to beef up its staffing to get ahead of what it quickly recognized would be a damaging story with no end in sight.

Counterterrorism chief Lisa Monaco has overseen weekly interagency task force meetings since August that have included representatives from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Pentagon and the State Department; cybersecurity experts; economic analysts; and lawyers from the White House counsel’s office.

A handful of new White House staff members were also brought in to help, and Miriam Perlberg, a cybersecurity expert, was asked to take the additional role of “director of disclosures” to monitor the Snowden leaks. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who came to the West Wing last year after serving as deputy national security adviser, also has been involved.

Julie Smith, who stepped down from a job on the national security staff last year, said that in recent discussions with administration officials, she came away convinced that “nothing was predetermined, despite rumors that Obama was going to have a more or less sweeping endorsement” of the advisory panel’s report.

“They say by the middle of January, they’ll be done, but, my God, that’s a tall order,” said Smith, now a consultant with Beacon Global Strategies. “If you look at the [Afghanistan] surge, the review of that and what folks undertook at that stage, it was a heavy lift as well. But it does not come close to this.”

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.

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