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August 15, 2013

Hot Line: Even without a Cold War, the Washington-Moscow link is still up

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —  REAGAN

Problems in Poland continued well into Reagan's first year in office. On Dec. 13, the Soviet Union imposed martial law in Poland and arrested Solidarity leaders. After 10 days of diplomatic exchanges, Reagan sent a protest to Brezhnev on the Hot Line.

Brezhnev replied on Christmas morning. An aide delivered the message, sans wrapping and bow, to the president in the White House residence. The Soviet reminded Reagan that the Polish matter was "the business of the parties themselves and only them."

Reagan's next use of the Hot Line came after the 1982 Israeli military incursion into Lebanon. Israel, seeking to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization from its bases in southern Lebanon, commenced air attacks June 5 and sent ground forces across the border the next day.

The Israelis routed the PLO, then expanded their assault to the Syrian air force and air defense system, both of which they destroyed. Concerned that Israel might threaten Syria itself, Brezhnev rattled the Hot Line. Brezhnev's bottom line: The United States must restrain Israel, or the Soviets would intervene.

The Soviet military backed up Brezhnev's bluster by placing selected airborne troops and their airlift forces on alert. The United States did not respond in kind. However, when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin met with Reagan in the White House on June 21, the president leaned on him hard enough to gain a ceasefire.

In 1985, Moscow and Washington again upgraded the Hot Line circuitry by adding a facsimile system. Six years later, they added separate non-crisis voice circuits.

             

Dear Mr. President

In 1985, when I was running the Sit Room, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev unexpectedly sent a 15-page handwritten letter to Reagan via the Hot Line fax. My senior duty office called me at home on a secure line, and I immediately asked him to patch me though to John Poindexter, the national security adviser. I offered to send the letter to State for translation.

"Not so fast," Poindexter said. "I don't want State reading that letter until we know what it says. Can you get it translated?"

 The two military noncoms on duty at the White House Hot Line terminal, then located in the East Wing basement, gave the letter their best shot. They were trained in Russian, but Gorbachev's idiosyncratic usage, and penmanship, gave them quite a challenge.

The letter turned out to be a detailed assessment of the issues the two men faced in their continuing dialogue. For example, Gorbachev took a pot shot at U.S. rhetoric about regional conflicts: "Why apply a double standard here and assert that Soviet aid is a source of tension and U.S. assistance is beneficial?"

Washington and Moscow expanded the scope of the Hot Line system in 1988 when the governments established Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers in each capital. The State Department runs the NRRC system, which insiders called the "warm line." The links have provided a means below head-of-state level to rapidly exchange information about missile tests, exercises, nuclear accidents, arms control agreement monitoring and incidents at sea. State notified Moscow of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks via the NRRC circuit.

In June, the two countries added a cyberspace alert circuit.

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