Keeping the President Connected

September 2004
By Maryann Lawlor
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White House Communications Agency (WHCA) staff members Marty McLain (l), deputy chief of operations; Steven Smith (c), chief of operations; and Maj. Scott Jackson, USAF, chief, plans and policies, use Internet protocol (IP)-based telecommunications equipment in the WHCA’s advanced business center. The center is a complete business office that is set up in one room and provides data, telephone, facsimile
and videoconferencing services across a single IP architecture to the White House staff, Secret Service personnel and other support staff.
White House communications shortfalls remedied, but work remains.

While information technology is furnishing combatant commanders with situational awareness in current operations, cutting-edge capabilities now provide overall situational awareness to the commander in chief. In recent years, and particularly since September 11, 2001, enhancements made to the White House communications systems ensure that the president can stay connected to his troops—all the time and from any location. Like the transformation that is taking place throughout the military services, the technologies that support the president have evolved into a system of systems at breakneck speed.

Col. Michael D. McDonald, USAF (Ret.), saw a lot of changes in presidential communications systems during his three-year tenure as the commander of the White House Communications Agency (WHCA)—changes that went into high gear after the terrorist attacks. Although a lot has been accomplished, the colonel says continued improvements will help the president and his staff take full advantage of the benefits of technology.

The WHCA, located in Washington, D.C., is truly a joint agency. It is staffed by members of all of the armed forces as well as by guardsmen and reservists. To fulfill its mission to provide the commander in chief with situational awareness and collaborative capabilities, the agency operates in both the .mil and .gov domains. Its responsibilities include providing the president and his staff with information systems both at the White House and on the road so he can communicate with the military forces at every level.

The agency is organized into six operational units. Three of these units are the presidential communications commands that travel to a location before the president arrives and set up the communications hub. “All those capabilities that the president has at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue literally need to move with the president,” Col. McDonald explains. “He has to have those capabilities at his beck and call whether he’s in Omaha, in New Mexico, on Air Force One, on HMX-1 [Marine Helicopter Squadron-1] or anywhere he goes. This includes both classified and unclassified capabilities.”

The remainder of the units support specific missions. The Washington Area Communications Command provides the fixed infrastructure that facilitates all White House communications. Audio and video capabilities at locations outside of Washington, D.C., are the responsibility of the Visual Information Command. For example, this unit established the two-way videoconferencing systems so President Bush could speak to the troops in Iraq from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. The Special Missions Command handles communications for unique missions in fixed locations such as Camp David or the president’s ranch in Texas.

Col. McDonald relates that today the WHCA’s technologies mirror those found throughout industry and the civilian world. “Previously, the communications setup was designed as a single system that met the needs of the president. Now, it is a system of systems, and we’re in the process of incorporating an Internet protocol [IP] supported network,” the colonel shares.

Many of the improvements to systems actually began prior to September 11. At the end of 2000, the U.S. Defense Department assessed the state of the president’s communications capabilities. “This was DOD looking at DOD support to the commander in chief. A lightbulb went on, and a lot of the equipment—while it still worked and could still provide service—probably would not meet the information needs that would be coming along in 2000 and onward. It    wasn’t too long after that, the ink was barely dry, and we had September 11.

“What September 11 did was underscore everything that the DOD had noted. We had already begun a massive effort, and by 9/11 we had a good idea of what we needed to do. And then the terrorist attacks happened, which created an even greater sense of urgency.

“We started looking system by system at each one of the stovepiped systems we had and looking at their capacities and capabilities, what Internet technology could provide, and began moving down that path. We hit everything from the office phones to the mobile systems that travel with the president on the road to the aircraft and have been moving down that road,” the colonel explains.

John Reynozo (l), satellite communications technician, WHCA, and Wade Hunt, communications systems technician, WHCA, set up the newest lightweight satellite equipment that provides IP connectivity to support converged communications services at presidential events.  
The assessment revealed approximately 41 projects that required work. The WHCA singled out 11 of the largest and most complex to hit first. Known as the Pioneer Project, this work included upgrading all the IP networks supporting WHCA’s portion of the White House operation. “It converged data, voice and video on those networks. It brought a new mobile band to the table that was IP capable. It brought new technologies to the Red Switch, the secure voice environment. Those things are now coming to fruition. It’s a long-term plan that will continuously upgrade the president’s communications and keep them upgraded,” Col. McDonald states. The changes that have taken place have improved communications tenfold in the past three years, he adds.

The colonel reveals that the White House experienced the same problems in communications that the general public faced immediately following the terrorist attacks. “It was the ‘Mothers Day’ effect. Everyone wanted to communicate at the same time. The communications systems were inadequate to meet the needs of responding to a threat. If you’ve got 27 people trying to talk on three phones, you’re probably going to have problems. And it’s not just a matter of being able to bark orders. A lot of people think all the president needs to do is say ‘launch.’ Well, in order to do that, he’s got to have some kind of situational awareness, and that was the initial challenge that we had on 9/11. The first question was, ‘What the heck is going on?’” Col. McDonald says.

What the country needed that day was a homeland security equivalent of the military’s Global Command and Control System, and nothing like that exists in the civilian world. “The lack of connectivity at that point in time definitely made life interesting,” he notes.

The Federal Aviation Administration had the right type of systems in place and that is why it could assess the situation and direct aircraft to land safely, but the White House needs the same kind of situational awareness, the colonel states.

Today, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security must determine how to link all the people in different areas of homeland defense and security, such as local fire departments and emergency personnel, by applying the right technology. “Circuit switch technology is not going to cut it,” he states.

Col. McDonald emphasizes that the events of September 11 resulted in more than just upgrades in technology. The WHCA now works very closely with other agencies like the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Office of Naval Research and is teaming with industry. Teaming arrangements have been put into place, and new teams continue to be formed.

“This would have happened eventually, but it would have been much slower. My hat’s off to industry because companies have been working with us, and companies, on their own dime, did a lot of integration and experimentation in order to help us provide robust services,” the colonel states.

A huge amount of innovation has emerged from the events of September 11, he adds. For example, videoconferencing onboard Air Force One, made possible by IP networking, will allow personnel to send and receive e-mail as well as to take advantage of voice over IP communications.

“The challenge we now face is that we have to move faster and not just in the military but in the White House as well. Now, whenever the president goes somewhere, 20 to 25 people have to deploy to the destination five to seven days in advance of the president’s arrival. We need to expand the use of IP so that only 10 people are needed, and they can deploy only 72 hours in advance,” Col. McDonald offers.

According to the colonel, industry must be both a driving force and the facilitator of the evolution of communications capabilities. One area that needs continued development is solutions that allow actions to take place at the client level rather than higher up the network chain. Col. McDonald suggests that end-to-end security has been replaced with the need for multilevel encryption. For instance, the White House communications physical infrastructure used to be protected by material that shielded against fires and detected tampering. Today, encryption is in place at the device level so communications are protected immediately.

This approach must move forward, the colonel says, and adds that voice over IP has been around for 10 years, but some people still do not believe it is ready for prime time even though industry uses it all the time.

Col. McDonald believes that once the technical pieces are in place, they will drive changes in processes. “Those that hang on to legacy systems will be left in the dust. If you upgrade technology for technology’s sake, you’re going to lose money. The process change and the technology have got to go hand in hand, almost simultaneously, but you need the technology first,” he says.

Collaborative tools that lead to knowledge management are another item the WHCA needs from industry, the colonel says. The Defense Collaborative Tool Suite is one example of a solution that can help decision makers inundated with data to pull out relevant information that is useful.

As a huge proponent of Internet protocol, the colonel notes that devices that secure voice over IP are needed. Although the WHCA currently uses high assurance Internet protocol encryption (HAIPE) devices, they are large and bulky. One area that requires additional research and development is a way to make these devices smaller so they can be plugged into a communications device easily. “In the president’s role as head of state, we found that, despite the differences between countries, when we have talked with our counterparts in other nations, we all talk about IP capabilities and want to put them into place. What we need is a HAIPE device that we can release to coalition partners. That’s a long pole in the tent. Somebody has got to say, ‘This is a need,’” he says.

One reason much of the work in these areas has not moved forward is that companies are waiting for the government to state its requirements and develop a standard, the colonel maintains. However, once a company develops these types of solutions, they will become the de facto standard. “If a company is bold and visionary and steps out there, they will win the case. They’ll produce the killer ap,” he says.

Testing schemes and standards are another issue that industry and the Defense Department need to work on. “If we wait to try to write a standard for every single issue, we’re going to be toast. We learned this lesson in terms of accrediting networks. We try to force today’s technology to meet all the standards both forward and backward. There has to be some kind of flexibility in our process that accounts for how we use the technology,” he states.

The colonel also contends that wireless encryption is an area that requires work. “You talk about innovation. I don’t know if it’s innovative or not. All these pieces are out there. The person that integrates these things, or the companies that latch them together and say, ‘You’ve got a piece and I’ve got a piece. We’re going to make this happen,’ they’re the ones that are going to come up with that killer ap. They’re going to have a wireless encryption capability that’s going to snow everybody,” he says.

White House technology upgrades that have taken place during the past few years are just the beginning, the colonel emphasizes. As WHCA personnel realize all of the advantages technical advances facilitate, the operational processes begin to change. “This is important because while we are trying to support the 43rd president we are laying the foundations for the 53rd president. We have to lay that infrastructure,” he states.

As Col. McDonald transitioned into the civilian world at the end of his tenure at the WHCA, he offered this insight to the new commander, Col. Howard I. Cohen, USA. “Provide the White House with true plug-and-play capabilities and help the president have the same capabilities that he has at the White House no matter where he is. Put more over IP, but test this first within the WHCA. You have to look at what’s coming next. There’s nothing better than when the customers are happy about knowledge management and they are collaborating and using the network. The WHCA has to meet those needs,” he stated.

Serving as the WHCA’s commander, from three months prior to the terrorist attacks through the most recent upgrades, taught Col. McDonald some valuable lessons as well. “If you can articulate the vision across the breadth of an organization and then provide the technology to make it happen, incredible change happens,” he offers.


Web Resources
White House Communications Agency:
White House Office of Global Communications:
Voice over IP Calculator:
ITtoolbox Knowledge Management:

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