Behind the scenes, White House preoccupied by NSA spy scandal

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WASHINGTON -- In public, President Barack 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.

Mr. 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 the NSA had tapped, and invited her to Washington.

In addition, his top lawyer, White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, met with privacy advocates Thursday, and executives of the largest U.S. Internet companies were scheduled to visit the White House today.

Ever since contractor 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.

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 Bush administration national security official and author of "Blinking Red," about efforts to overhaul 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 Mr. 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 that he is serious about an overhaul, and that will withstand future disclosures.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday that the president is nearly done with the review, but would not disclose what Mr. 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 Obama official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal talks. "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 Mr. Obama deliver his speech Dec. 15, without waiting for an NSA review board's Dec. 18 report that included 46 overhaul recommendations. But Mr. 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.

Meanwhile, 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 also to discuss their concerns about the NSA collection of Internet users' personal information.

Since the first stories on the NSA programs were published last summer, Mr. 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.


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