Pete Souza/White House
President Obama discussing Libya inside his security tent during a trip to Rio de Janeiro in 2011.
Published: November 9, 2013
Obama’s Portable Zone of Secrecy (Some Assembly Required)
WASHINGTON — When President Obama travels abroad, his staff packs briefing books, gifts for foreign leaders and something more closely associated with camping than diplomacy: a tent.
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.
It is not exactly clear when American officials began using the tents while traveling. According to several former senior law enforcement and intelligence officials, George J. Tenet, the director of the C.I.A. from 1997 to 2004, was one of the first officials to use one regularly.
“Clinton and the White House were using him as an emissary in the Middle East with Arafat, and he was always over there and in Israel and needed to have something secure to read and talk,” said a former senior intelligence official who worked directly with Mr. Tenet. “He started using it and just continued through the rest of his tenure.”
The official said that the C.I.A. was particularly insistent that Mr. Tenet use the tent in Israel because it has some of the most sophisticated spying software. “We would get especially concerned when our Israeli hosts wanted to reserve the hotel rooms for us at the King David,” the official said, referring to a famous hotel in Jerusalem.
Mr. Woolsey, an executive now at the consulting firm Opportunities Development Group in Washington, said that when he traveled abroad as the nation’s top intelligence official from 1993 to 1995, he had only encrypted phones. “We were so far ahead of the rest of the world at that point technologically,” Mr. Woolsey said. “But by the time Tenet came along in the late ’90s, they started to get worried about China, and things were changing.”
Before the security tents are set up, hotel rooms are checked for bugs and radio waves. A former senior government official who read classified documents in the small tents said that they were far less attractive than the sleek ones that sleep six and are sold at camping stores like REI.
“I felt like I was in the middle of the big woods, but I was in the middle of a hotel room,” said the former official.
Many of the measures taken for travel are for only the most senior officials because they are costly and cumbersome. Instead of the tent, less senior officials can end up using smaller structures that look like telephone booths. But all officials traveling in this age of high surveillance are given one basic marching order: Use common sense.
“You follow procedures about what to do and what not to do,” said William J. Lynn III, a former deputy defense secretary under Mr. Obama. “It wasn’t like I had to make calls in the shower.”
Official American visitors to Russia and China are warned that they should never retrieve or discuss sensitive or classified information outside the embassy. In recent years, many private companies have gone further, instituting policies that forbid employees to take their cellphones to Russia and China.
But even outside countries with histories of spying on Americans, diplomats say, they are resigned to the fact that no electronic message sent or received is ever really private anymore.
“We do operate with the awareness that anything we do on a cellphone or BlackBerry is probably being read by someone somewhere, or lots of someones,” said a senior American diplomat.
Even with rigorous security protocols drilled into their heads by their superiors — like rules barring some White House and National Security Council staff members from gaining access to social media on their computers and phones out of fear of downloading malware — officials say it is hard to police every utterance on a mobile device.
“Given the press of events and the ubiquity of cellphones,” said one former American diplomat with experience in the Middle East, “it is in practice very difficult to constantly self-edit conversations to ensure that you don’t stray into classified information.”
A version of this article appears in print on November 10, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Obama’s Portable Zone of Secrecy (Some Assembly Required).