March 9, 2008

Origins 2: The Red Phone and Hobo Sign

Ever since the Clinton campaign ran its "3:00 AM, the phone is ringing ad" it has been impossible to escape discussions of which candidate is best qualified to answer "the red phone."  Most of the discussions explicitly mention "the red phone" even though the ad doesn't so it got me wondering if there was, now or ever, an actual red phone employed by the White House in crisis situations.  Here's what I found.
You can get a decent overview of the history of the Washington-Moscow Hotline, as it is more formally known, from Wikipedia.  There is a much more in-depth look at the history and technical specifics at this cryptology site.  In summary, not only is there no red phone but there has never been a phone of any color.  A couple of excerpts:  

The white paper "Origins, Use and Development of Hotlines" addresses the myth of telephones on the Hot Line.  "One of the lasting myths surrounding the Hot Line is that it consists of a telephone link. This was considered by both superpowers but there were strong arguments against using a telephone connection. All parties concerned preferred a teletype link. The Americans pointed out that a teletype system on a reserved line could have dual capabilities and be used for voice communications should that prove desirable.

Nevertheless, the image of the hot line as a telephone link has prevailed. This misunderstanding is not confined to the public. When it was suggested in the U.S. State Department in 1983 that speech facilities should be added to the hot line, many officials believed it already had a telephone as seen in the movies!

From a practical point of view, there was also the problem of translation. A vocal Hot Line required conversations to be translated instantaneously at both ends. Even though speed of communication was of utmost importance in times of crisis, accuracy in translation could not suffer because of it. Using a telephone link could therefore increase the possibility of misunderstanding rather than eradicate it. Organizing translation was no easy matter as was discovered when the London-Moscow hot line was discussed in 1966. Translators had to be on call 24 hours a day, which meant their residence had to be close to Whitehall. This led to discussions about getting two bachelors to live in a  flat or a hotel room nearby.

The spontaneity of the telephone conversation makes it unpredictable and therefore impossible to script. In times of crisis, people are under duress and pressure. Instantaneous and ill-considered remarks are dangerous. During conversations between heads of state in normal times, this can be an advantage depending on the situation, topic and the person's ability to think on his feet. However in times of crisis, mistakes come at a high price and none higher than the risk of a nuclear war.

As of 1986, the Hot Line consists of two satellite circuits and one wire telegraph circuit. The Soviets used stationary Gorizont-class satellites in the Statsionar system to replace the Molniya II satellites, also with a high-speed facsimile capability. Terminals linked to the circuits in each country are now equipped with teletype and facsimile equipment. Facsimile machines permit the heads of government to exchange messages far more rapidly than they could with the previously existing teletype system. They can also send detailed graphic material) such as maps, charts, and drawings by facsimile". 

I for one think the ad would have been even more powerful if instead of a phone ringing they had used the loud shrill sound of an incoming fax.  " . . . but there's a fax machine in the White House and its receiving incoming data.  Does it have paper loaded?  Is the toner cartridge empty? . . ."  Not just powerful, but accurate.

Now, that's all well and good, but of MUCH greater interest is the discovery while looking around for info on the "red phone" that the NSA has a whole section on their website devoted to hobo history and the codes (pdf) by which they communicated - how great is that!  I have no reason whatsoever to believe that the entire thing wasn't written by John Hodgman.  

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