NSA

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

By David Nakamura
Published: January 9, 2014

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.

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.”

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