US National Security Agency

President Obama uses security tent wherever he travels to ensure secrecy

Security tent is put up in a hotel room for president's use so he can hold private meetings, away from cameras or mikes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 5:53am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 5:53am

When President Barack Obama travels abroad, his staff pack briefing books, gifts for foreign leaders and something more closely associated with camping than diplomacy: a tent.

Even when 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.

US security officials demand that their bosses - not just the president, but members of Congress, diplomats, policymakers and military officers - take such precautions when travelling 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 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 US 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 James Woolsey, 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 Obama talking from a security tent in a Rio de Janeiro hotel suite with Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, and Robert Gates, defence 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 CIA 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 travelling 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. Obama carries a specially encrypted BlackBerry; one member of his cabinet was told he could not bring his iPad on an overseas trip because it was not considered a secure device.

Countermeasures are taken on US 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.

Following a several-hundred-page classified manual, the rooms are lined with foil and soundproofed. An interior location, preferably with no windows, is recommended.

It is not clear when US officials began using the tents while travelling. According to sources, George Tenet, the director of the CIA from 1997 to 2004, was one of the first to use one regularly.