May 28, 2012

Obama on vacation

In the previous post we saw the cool phones the American president uses in his Oval Office. This time we take a look at the telephone equipment he uses when he is on vacation, because "Presidents don't get vacations, they just get a change of scenery." as a former president once said.

For this purpose we have two nice pictures from the vacation of president Obama from August 18 to August 29, 2011 on the Blue Heron Farm in Chilmark on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

In the first picture we see president Barack Obama, reflected in a mirror, conducting a conference call on the situation in Libya with his national security staff. Also participating is John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, who sits on the right:

President Barack Obama and his assistant John Brennan in a conference call. August 22, 2011
Note how the telephone and power cables are taped onto the table
(White House photo by Pete Souza - click for a bigger version)

On the table we see two sets of the Secure Terminal Equipment (STE), made by L3 Communications. This is a telephone capable of making secured calls up to the level of Top Secret. The STE is the successor of the legendary STU-III system and is used for secure end-to-end communications throughout the government and the military of the US. For the President Of The United States (POTUS), these phones are used when he is travelling or staying somewhere outside the White House.

In the second picture we see Obama monitoring Hurricane Irene with John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism (in light blue shirt) and some other officials. They are waiting for a conference call on the hurricane with affected governors and mayors:

Obama monitoring Hurricane Irene with his assistant John Brennan
and some other officials. August 26, 2011
(White House photo by Pete Souza - click for a bigger version)

This picture shows the same table as in the previous one, but with different chairs and different phones. There are two telephone sets on each side of the table: an regular white Panasonic KX-TS108W office phone, and a dark gray Cisco 7975G Unified IP Phone.

The white phone sets are most likely part of the private branch exchange (PBX) of the holiday house and therefore have no special security features. As we can see in this picture, the conference call is made using these white phones.

The Cisco phones are more interesting, because they belong to the highly secure Executive Voice over Secure IP (VoSIP) phone network, which was installed in 2007-2008. For this network the common high end Cisco IP telephone sets are used, but with a bright yellow bezel faceplate, instead of the standard silver one. Yellow indicates that this network is cleared for conversations up to Top Secret/SCI, the highest classification level.

As the second picture is taken some days later than the first one, it looks like the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) eventually installed this secure network instead of the STE phones. In the pictures you can see that the cables of the STE-phones are only provisionarily taped onto the table, but the cables of the Cisco ones are neatly bound by tie bands. The latter phones allows the president to make calls with the highest classification level.

A bit strange however, is the fact these phones are sitting in what seems to be a not very secure room (note the open door in the first and the open window in te second picture and that it's a temporarily hired location). For example former president G.W. Bush had such communications equipment in a special room without windows at his ranch in Texas.

For (non-secure) mobile communications during president Obama's vacation, the telecommunications company Verizon installs two temporary cell towers, known as cell on wheels, on Martha's Vineyard. Apparently the island normally lacks a sufficient cell phone coverage, so these extra towers are needed to provide the president and his staff with a good reception.

This also leads to the somewhat odd situation that local people only have a good cell phone reception during the time the president is on the island. Then suddenly their phones ring and text messages arrive in places where it's quiet during the rest of the year!

- NY Times-article: If Phones Ring, Obama Is Here, With Cell Power

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In Dutch: Meer over het wetsvoorstel voor de Tijdelijke wet cyberoperaties