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August 15, 2013

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

(Continued)

WASHINGTON — BUSH 41,CLINTON, BUSH 43

The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, and the associated end of the Cold War, at least in traditional terms, changed the context of the Hot Line. Operational use of the data-only line has withered. However, presidents starting with George H.W. Bush have used the "Direct Voice Link," a non-crisis circuit separate from the Hot Line, for important conversations.

Technical advances permitted communications technicians to patch Bush's secure voice handset into the Direct Voice Link. During the Soviet coup attempt in August 1991, Bush wrote that he used the line to speak with Gorbachev after his four-day detention. "My dearest George," Gorbachev said, "I am so happy to hear your voice again."

The Bill Clinton-Boris Yeltsin communications appear to have been all Direct Voice Link calls. That model continued with George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. Several media reports had Putin contacting Bush on Sept. 11, 2001, via the Hot Line, but that communication was instead a Direct Voice Link call.

Hot Line Today

In late June, Army Lt. Col. Charles Cox escorted me through the heavily guarded entrance to the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon basement. We walked down a hallway and into a one-room facility that contains the Pentagon's Hot Line terminal. Cox, the officer-in-charge and senior presidential translator, pointed to a couple of workstations and said, "Welcome to MOLINK."

Modern communications devices now require only two operators on each shift to operate the terminal 24-7 - a translator and a communicator. Of the six translators in the watch standing pool, half are civilians and half military. The six communicators are all senior noncommissioned officers.

Today the Hot Line's redundant communications pathways are via satellite and fiber-optic cable, and each end uses commercial software for email and chat. Operators use chat protocols for coordination, and the teams send test messages by email. Because substantive messages apparently haven't been exchanged in years, it's unlikely that "You've got mail" has ever popped up on a president's desktop.

One end of the Hot Line sends a test message on the even hours, and the other on the odd. The Pentagon sends its test messages in English, using the Latin alphabet; Moscow transmits Cyrillic Russian messages.

Cox was understandably circumspect when I asked about operational use. But in a light moment, he pointed at an old-fashioned red telephone not connected to anything. "When VIP visitors ask to see the 'red phone,' " he said with a chuckle, "we hand it to them."

The system has another terminal that serves the White House, and a third in a remote facility near Waynesboro, Pa.

In addition to the Washington-Moscow connections, the federal Office of Emergency Communications offers other lines reserved for crises: a voice hot line to China and data lines to former Soviet republics. Telephone lines connect the secretary of defense to his counterparts in 21 countries.

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