Obama’s Portable Zone of Secrecy
Even when Mr. Obama travels to allied nations, aides quickly set up the security tent — which has opaque sides and noise-making devices inside — in a room near his hotel suite. When the president needs to read a classified document or have a sensitive conversation, he ducks into the tent to shield himself from secret video cameras and listening devices.
American security officials demand that their bosses — not just the president, but members of Congress, diplomats, policy makers and military officers — take such precautions when traveling abroad because it is widely acknowledged that their hosts often have no qualms about snooping on their guests.
The United States has come under withering criticism in recent weeks about revelations that the National Security Agency listened in on allied leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. A panel created by Mr. Obama in August to review that practice, among other things, is scheduled to submit a preliminary report this week and a final report by the middle of next month. But American officials assume — and can cite evidence — that they get the same treatment when they travel abroad, even from European Union allies.
“No matter where you are, we are a target these days,” said R. James Woolsey Jr., the director of central intelligence during the Clinton administration. “No matter where we go, countries like China, Russia and much of the Arab world have assets and are trying to spy on us so you have to think about that and take as many precautions as possible.”
On a trip to Latin America in 2011, for example, a White House photo showed Mr. Obama talking from a security tent in a Rio de Janeiro hotel suite with Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, and Robert M. Gates, the defense secretary at the time, about the air war against Libya that had been launched the previous day. Another photo, taken three days later in San Salvador, showed him conferring from the tent with advisers about the attack.
Spokesmen for the State Department, the C.I.A. and the National Security Council declined to provide details on the measures the government takes to protect officials overseas. But more than a dozen current and former government officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, described in interviews some of those measures.
They range from instructing officials traveling overseas to assume every utterance and move is under surveillance and requiring them to scrub their cellphones for listening devices after they have visited government offices, to equipping the president’s limousine, which always travels with him, to keep private conversations private. Mr. Obama carries a specially encrypted BlackBerry; one member of his cabinet was told he could not take his iPad on an overseas trip because it was not considered a secure device.
Countermeasures are taken on American soil as well. When cabinet secretaries and top national security officials take up their new jobs, the government retrofits their homes with special secure rooms for top-secret conversations and computer use.
In accordance with a several-hundred-page classified manual, the rooms are lined with foil and soundproofed. An interior location, preferably with no windows, is recommended. One of the most recent recipients: James B. Comey, the new director of the F.B.I., whose homes in the Washington area and New England were retrofitted.
During the Cold War, a former senior official said, listening devices were found embedded in the walls and light fixtures of the hotels where American diplomats stayed. These days, the official said, American analysts worry more about eavesdropping radio signals beamed toward hotel rooms in the hopes of picking up officials’ conversations.
“We took it for granted that in some of these hotels, no matter the state, that devices were built in there,” the official said.
New York Times