Obama’s Surveillance Decisions Made Night Before Speech

President Barack Obama wrestled with his decision to end U.S. government storage of private phone data until hours before his speech yesterday announcing plans for the nation’s surveillance programs, said Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser.

The administration aims to bring a proposal on data storage to Congress by the end of March, when the program expires, Rhodes said. The program might also be phased out, he said, if existing efforts can sufficiently track terrorists.

“We’d like to be at a point when reauthorization comes up that we can present to Congress, ‘Here’s the new approach we’d like to take,’” Rhodes said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.

Details of the National Security Agency’s collection of information about Americans’ phone calls -- revealed in May by former contractor Edward Snowden -- have rankled civil libertarians and challenged companies from AT&T Inc. to Google Inc. Rhodes said the president’s speech yesterday responding to the ensuing uproar wasn’t completed until this morning.

“The final decision on what to do about Section 215 -- that the government will not hold this data -- that was made last night by the president,” Rhodes said. “He was still working on his speech even after that decision had been made. I spoke to him as late as midnight last night with final changes that he was putting on.”

‘Vital Role’

In his speech at the Justice Department in Washington, Obama defended electronic spying, saying the programs have a “vital role” in securing the nation against terrorism. Yet, he said, “important decisions” remain on how to maintain the programs while upholding privacy protections.

Obama said businesses providing information about their customers to the government will be able to make public more information about those orders. John Podesta, one of his advisers, will work with the private sector to make sure disclosures don’t hurt U.S. businesses, Rhodes said.

Obama gave Attorney General Eric Holder and the NSA 60 days to develop a plan for storing bulk telephone records outside of government custody, one of the most contentious issues arising from Snowden’s disclosures.

Rhodes said the “pendulum has swung back” since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the thrust of national security decisions was for “more surveillance, more government intrusion.”

Data Storage

“There are things that we can do as the executive branch, frankly, to just say that we’re not going to hold this metadata and that we’re, frankly, not going to access it without going to a judge first,” Rhodes said. “Those are changes that we can put in place immediately.”

Rhodes, 36, a New York City native, started writing speeches for Obama while the Illinois Democrat was a freshman in the U.S. Senate. He then moved to the 2008 presidential campaign and then to the White House staff.

Obama said during his speech that the U.S. won’t monitor communications of “heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.” Rhodes declined to name which countries’ leaders will be free from surveillance and which won’t.

“Allies, of course, are our treaty allies in NATO and Asia,” Rhodes said. “We also have friends that we don’t have formal alliances with. This is a substantial number of foreign leaders that we’ve decided that we’re not going to conduct surveillance on.”