February 4, 2012

Does Obama really lack cool phones?

(Updated: December 21, 2014)

In April last year, US president Obama told some fundraisers that he was disappointed by the communications equipment he found in the White House:

"I always thought I was gonna have like really cool phones and stuff," he said during a Q&A session with contributors at a fund-raising meeting in Chicago on April 14, 2011.

"We can't get our phones to work." Acting out his exasperation, he said: "Come on, guys. I'm the president of the United States! Where's the fancy buttons and stuff and the big screen comes up? It doesn't happen."

Obama made these remarks after the press pool had left and may not have realized some reporters back at the White House could still hear his comments. The president was probably responding to a question about bottlenecks in technological innovation and he used his White House experience as an example.


A lot of people would probably like to believe these remarks of the president, symbolizing the outdated state of the federal government. But in fact, what Obama said, isn't quite true.

In 2006-2007 president George W. Bush had the White House Situation Room completely renovated, providing it with state-of-the-art communications facilities. Since then the real Situation Room has all the phones and videoscreens and other stuff, which was before only seen in movies.

Also, when Obama took over the office in January 2009, he found quite a cool phone on the presidential desk in the Oval Office: an Integrated Services Telephone 2, or IST-2. This is a so called red phone (I'll explain that term in a later blog post) capable of making both secure and non-secure calls from one single instrument:



Not a cool phone? An IST-2 telephone on Obama's desk, March 29, 2009
(White House photo by Pete Souza)


The IST-2 was installed in the White House in 2007. It's a phone specially designed for the US Defense Red Switch Network (DRSN), which connects the president and the Pentagon with all major military command centers. These new phones were part of an upgrade of the communications system, which became necessary after some serious communication problems occured during the 9/11 attacks.

Therefore, the problems caused by outdated equipment should have been solved under president Bush. This would leave nothing to complain about for Obama anymore.

But there's an other interesting fact. Only a few weeks before Obama made his aforementioned remarks in April 2011, the rather rare IST-phone had just been replaced by two more ordinary sets:



The Cisco 7975 and the Lucent 8520 on Obama's desk, July 31, 2011
Also on the desk appears to be the iPad Obama got from Steve Jobs in May 2011
(White House photo by Pete Souza)


Now we see a Cisco 7975G Unified IP Phone (with expansion module 7916) behind a Avaya/Lucent 8520T on Obama's desk. This Lucent phone is from the most widely used business phone series worldwide, but is dating back to the mid-nineties. The Cisco 7975G is a VoIP (Voice over IP) telephone, and as such also one of the most widely used.

Both are high-end multiline models, with many functions and large displays, with the Cisco one even having a full colour touchscreen. This phone is also "cool", not because of having the military grade specifications or the exclusiveness like the IST-2, but because the phone (and its ringtone in particular) became an almost iconic item from the highly popular tv-series 24:



A Cisco 7970 IP Phone used in the CTU operations center in the tv-series 24
(screen cap by www.24tv.de)


This series, which was broadcasted between 2001 and 2010, shaped people's imagination of the presidency and was in many ways a forerunner of reality. For example there was a popular black president (David Palmer) years before Obama was elected, and much of the fancy communications equipment from the series, like video teleconferencing, was implemented in the real White House Situation Room in 2007. And now the real president also has the same cool Cisco phone as the heroes used in the tv-series.

So, as we have seen, Obama didn't really tell the truth. The story he told the fundraisers was true during the beginning of the Bush administration, but not during his. Obama actually has some quite cool phones at his disposal, but maybe the only thing is that he just doesn't realize that ;-)


Update:
A great picture of the phones Obama uses in the Oval Office was released on December 16, 2014, when he made a call, using the non-secure telephone, to president Raúl Castro of Cuba:


President Obama calling president Raúl Castro of Cuba, December 16, 2014
Also notice the specially secured Blackberry at his right hand
(White House Photo by Pete Souza - Click to enlarge)




Links
- Report on CBS News: Obama laments lack of "cool phones" at the White House
- About the renovation of the White House Situation Room
- Pictures of more "Obama Phones" at Cryptome.org
- Dutch article about Obama's gadgets at ZDNet.nl
- Extensive German fanpage of the 24-series


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