WASHINGTON >> Can you run the country with spotty Wi-Fi, computers that power on and off randomly and desktop speakerphones from Radio Shack, circa 1985?
It turns out you can. But it is not ideal, as President Barack Obama’s staff has discovered during the past seven years. Now, as Obama prepares to leave the White House early next year, one of his legacies will be the office information technology upgrade that his staff has finally begun.
Until very recently, West Wing aides were stuck in a sad and stunning state of technological inferiority: desktop computers from the last decade, black-and-white printers that could not do double-sided copies, aging BlackBerries (no iPhones), weak wireless internet and desktop phones so old that few staff members knew how to program the speed-dial buttons.
On Air Force One, administration officials sent emails over an air-to-ground internet connection that was often no better than dial-up modems from the mid-1990s.
“We can’t do this,” recalled Anita Decker Breckenridge, deputy chief of staff for operations at the White House, who has since worked with the Air Force to upgrade the president’s plane to broadband speeds. “This is the Oval Office in the sky. Talk about a network that didn’t work.”
Part of the problem? Responsibility for White House technology has long been divvied up between four agencies, each with its own chief information officer: the National Security Council, the Executive Office of the President, the Secret Service and the White House Communications Agency. That led to a series of Band-Aid solutions over the years, as one agency or another has attempted piecemeal upgrades to White House gear.
It also led to comical moments. In 2014, when White House aides accompanying Obama on his summer vacation in Martha’s Vineyard struggled with balky laptops as they tried to revise a presidential statement, they could not get on-the-road tech support from the White House Communications Agency because the agency’s staff members were not authorized to log in to computers issued by the Executive Office of the President.
Breckenridge was inspired by Obama’s development in 2015 of the U.S. Digital Service and its mission to upgrade the federal government beyond the White House. She was determined after her frustrations in Martha’s Vineyard to fix the mess, and by March 2015 had hired David Recordon, who designed and maintained the office technology for Mark Zuckerberg and the other employees at Facebook, as the information technology guy for the White House complex.
“It was an interesting challenge and world for me,” Recordon said.
One of his first tasks was trying to map the miles of Ethernet cables and phone wires inside the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The team of technicians eventually discovered and removed 13,000 pounds of abandoned cables that no longer served any purpose.
“They had been installed over the decades by different organizations using different standards, different techniques, from different eras,” Recordon said. “They were finding these pipes that just had bundles of cable that had been cut off over the years, no longer used. So we just started pulling it out.”
With the wiring fixed, Recordon started replacing computers (the new ones have fast, solid-state drives and modern processors) and color printers. The new phone system — the first since the Clinton years — is all digital, with built-in speakerphones and speed-dial buttons that can be changed online. Many White House aides now carry the most recent iPhones. Obama, however, still carries a specially modified, highly secure BlackBerry.
The Wi-Fi in the Roosevelt Room is finally strong enough to live-stream an event on Facebook, like White House aides did last week when Obama surprised former federal inmates whose sentences had been commuted. Forgotten passwords are no longer an irritant now that the White House has started requiring users to log on with a chip-enabled smart card and a pin code.
Recordon’s team also designed a new Web-based system for admitting visitors to the West Wing that can be managed securely from any computer, including ones outside the White House complex.
To be sure, some important West Wing technology was upgraded by the George W. Bush administration, which overhauled the Situation Room for the first time since the Kennedy administration and added modern communications gear. Joe Hagin, deputy chief of staff for Bush, recalled having to replace the phones in the presidential limousine after Bush complained that he had not been able to make a single phone call from his motorcade over an entire weekend.
“He said to me, ‘What the heck would happen if there were a true national emergency?’” Hagin recalled. That fear came true months later on Sept. 11, 2001, when communications glitches plagued the government and led to new equipment in Air Force One and the first BlackBerries in the White House.
Breckenridge said she was hopeful that Obama will leave to his successor’s staff a building that is more useful in the Facebook and Twitter era, or whatever comes next.
Hagin said he wished them well, but predicted it will not be easy. He recalled once discovering a basement room in the West Wing filled with telephone switching gear that technicians said could be replaced with a unit the size of a dorm-room refrigerator. But everyone was nervous about cutting the wires because no schematics or design guides existed anymore, he said.
Replacing the equipment took a full two years.