Edited by Jerry Proc

Many people believe that a red telephone was part of the Washington-Moscow Hotline (WMH). There were NO phones at all on the hotline, let alone red ones. The so-called "RED HOTLINE" between Washington USA and Moscow was actually a secure TELETYPE link. It is not known if any voice capability has been added since 1986, the year in which information about the WMH seems to dry up.  Basically, any telephone that the President of the United States uses to call Moscow can be thought of as a hotline phone and as we will see later, it will not be a red telephone.  "Hotline" phones can have different uses for different groups and they also come in yellow, black, green, gray and blue - with and without security. Some will have a large lamp on the front to indicate an incoming call .

Tim Tyler relates his experiences with White House communications systems during the Reagan era. "The Reagan-era Oval Office had a total of four phones:

* A non-secure office phone terminal on the President's desk.
* A secure telephone kept inside one of the lower side cabinets of his desk (ie the Resolute desk).
* A non-secure telephone sitting on the end-table by one of the couches.
* At times, a secure telephone inside a special end-table by one of the couches.

White House Communications Agency  (WHCA) [1] techs could and would move phones around as needed.  For example, the secure phone near the informal sitting area may just be there during enhanced geo-political situations. The secure phones were normally kept hidden to minimize clutter as well as any potential confusion as to whether a call was secure or non-secure.   Normal phones weren't removed for Operational Security (OPSEC) reasons unless it was the only way to prohibit some people from snooping around to see who or what the labeled speed-dial/WHCA drops went to.

If the President of the United States (POTUS) was out of town and any phone was removed from the Oval Office, it was done for Technical Surveillance Counter Measures (TSCM) reasons. There was always a Secret Service Uniformed Division officer duty position outside the main Oval Office door. Only key White House aides, the White House Usher, US Secret Service Presidential Protection Division (SS PPD) [2] or TSCM personnel would be allowed inside. One side benefit of having good Executive Complex credentials was the ability to sign-in a couple guests and give them tours of the White House. Every guest, would of course, want to peek into the Oval Office.  For this reason, the main Oval Office door was kept open, but there was a velvet rope running across the door frame.  The US Secret Service Uniformed Division (USSS UD) [3] Officer would be nice to you and your guest(s) as long as your group was orderly and you didn't loiter too long.

A nice, modern phone on the President's desk is a display of power (PSYOP) [4], even though a  Western Electric model 500 or 2500 without a dial pad  would have been more than sufficient, since it would  be linked directly to an operator at the White House Signal Switchboard (primary and back-up facilities) which was cleared for Presidential calls. With the resources of the entire US Government and those of AT&T, the POTUS could call anywhere in the world and talk to whomever he wanted to. Any Presidential phone could be considered a 'hotline' to the Kremlin because all the POTUS had to do was pick-up any phone and tell the operator to connect him to the Soviet Premier or any other official  and a somewhat special phone  number (though not really a direct link) could be called and answered in less than a minute.

There were special, red phones in the US government hooked up to special switches, but the POTUS wouldn't have anything like that in his regular office -- it stands out too much.  It could cause a panic if the media happened to see him use it ("Oh no! He's on THE red phone -- a nuclear war is about to start!").

The Oval Office is set up to be a comfortable, official work space for the POTUS and a place for him to meet with important guests and staff. It's deliberately laid out to be a low-key, calm environment.  One can see artwork and family photos. There is no computer on his desk or any high-definition plasma TVs on the wall. Hence the reason why there is no bright red phone in the Oval Office. Even aboard Air Force One, the handsets and multiline phone terminals are white or tan but none are red. One colour is for non-secure communications while the other is for secure use.

A RED/BLACK system architecture was of course maintained, and in the Washington DC area, even the BLACK architecture had special protections due to the Soviets scanning AT&T microwave relays."

Larry Miller, a retired USAF Electronic Communications and Cryptographic Equipment Systems Repairman (306'er) relates his experiences with hotline phones " I worked at Strategic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters at Offutt AFB, Nebraska back in the day when the SAC existed. I had occasion to visit the offices and homes of several of the senior officers of SAC.  I recall seeing, on the SAC Commander in Chief's (CINC) side desk/credenza, a red phone, a yellow phone and a black phone all of the ring down variety. These three were similar to an standard Bell 500 desk phone, without the dial and had a large light bulb to indicate an incoming call.  These were referred to as hotlines and there were no electronic security features associated with those lines that I was aware of. One of the colored phones went to the Pentagon and one went to North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), but I don't recall which color phone went where. Additionally, the CINC had a secure voice instrument and a 27 button call director telephone on this credenza"

When Michael Graham worked in the strategic weapons community, he recalls this use for the red phone. "There is a communications need even more critical than getting in touch with the Soviet Premier. This communications system was commonly referred to as the  "red phone".

The President of the United States is at the top of a chain referred to as National Command Authority (NCA) which is involved in the release of nuclear weapons. At one point there was a telephone/radio system that included the President, the senior officers at NORAD and SAC, what used to be the SAC alternate command center at Barksdale AFB. Barksdale, Cheyenne Mountain and Offutt AFB contained all of the communications links necessary to control all strategic elements of the armed forces as well as make video broadcasts. The Airborne Launch Control Center (ALCC) was inthe air constantly, to launch ICBM's if the ground-based systems were destroyed. The ALCC staff knew the location of each person's (in order of authority) location and how to get in touch with them. There was a general on board who had a copy of the latest intelligence summary on Soviet strategic assets as well as the general world situation. They would work their way down the President, Vice-
President, Secretary of Defense until they reached the appropriate person or until a certain time expired. The general on board had all of the launch codes needed to execute the Single Integrated Operating Plan (SIOP)  or LNO (Limited Nuclear Option) .  Hence the use of the red phone".

George Mace also adds the following. "In the late 1960's I served as US Army project manager for implementation of the AUTOSEVOCOM system within the continental United States (fifty plus locations). Some locations like the Pentagon and other facilities had large amounts of  users that required RED, clear, analog communication. This was accomplished by RED analog telephone switches housed in shielded rooms. All RED phones were connected to this switch by grounded shielded pair cable, installed in ferrous conduit. These phones had their own telephone directory and subscribers could dial each other direct (within their own secure facilities). All long haul secure analog communication went via the crypto systems provided. This is the genesis of many RED phones, with dial capability, that appear in today's market".

This is the telephone used by President G.W. Bush in the Oval Office. Download the image to read the labelling of the speed dial buttons. This artifact is part of the 911 display at the GW Bush Museum in Dallas Texas.  (Image courtesy of Ron Plante, via Tim Tyler).

In this photo taken early in 2009, President Obama uses a  Raytheon IST-2 telephone to conduct his business. (A Whitehouse photograph PS-0056 via Tim Tyler)

Closeup of above telephone. The IST-2 (Integrated Services Telephone -2)  is a 50-line-button desk/wall-mounted telephone instrument that serves as the user interface to Raytheon digital switching systems. It provides the user with a consolidated secure/non-secure communications device allowing access to all of the switch resources from a single instrument. This eliminates the need for the user to have to remember particular operational nuances of a communications device. The IST-2 telephone instrument connects to a switch via a twisted, shielded pair of wires and communicates digital voice and data. In addition to voice and data, the phone is able to activate functions of the switch, and the switch is able to control visual and audible functions on the phone. 

April 6, 2011: The phone in the Oval Office has been upgraded. (White House # P040611PS-1380 via Tim Tyler)

This USSTRATCOM phone is part of the 911 display at the GW Bush Museum in Dallas Texas. (Image courtesy of Ron Plante, via Tim Tyler)
Acronyms used in this story:

[1] WHCA = White House Communications Agency.  This is the Department of Defence organization responsible for providing reliable communications and audio-visual support any time, any place to the POTUS, VPOTUS (Vice President of the United States) and key staff.

[2] SS PPD = US Secret Service Presidential Protection Division -- responsible for all safety and security precautions for the POTUS and family.

[3] USSS UD = US Secret Service Uniformed Division -- provides a uniformed law enforcement and security force for the Executive Complex, which consists of the White House, Eisenhower Executive Office Building (previously known the Old Executive Office Building, OEOB) and New Executive Office Building.

[4] PSYOP = PSYchological OPeration -- an action or campaign conducted in an effort to produce a wanted outcome based on a psychological reaction.

[5] The SIOP includes all strategic nuclear elements of the armed forces, including ICBMs, manned bombers and SLBMs. Targets and times are coordinated VERY carefully. You want certain types of attacks where all weapons arrive simultaneously on certain targets, but you want to make sure you don't have fratricide issues where an explosion or debris thrown into the atmosphere by one weapon doesn't destroy another weapon. Also you don't want to hit manned bombers. The 544th Strategic Intelligence Wing at Offut AFB in Omaha used to do much of this type of planning when SAC was still in existence. There were Air Force and Navy personnel involved in the process, since both services use strategic nuclear weapons.

[6] Limited Nuclear Option. As an example, if a country  threatens to use to use chemical weapons against the United States, it is highly likely that a targeting program run would be run to determine if a key city could be hit with an ICBM or SLBM.

Credits and References:

1) Tim Tyler  <polohat(at)>
2) Richard Brisson" <spytools(at)>
3) George Mace" <gmace8(at)>
4) Larry Miller <eljaym(at)>
5) Michael Graham <counterforensics(at)>
6) IST-2 Telephone description

Back to Menu Page
Jan 22/18