Tweeter-in-chief to confront China’s ‘great firewall’
Washington — America’s tweeter-in-chief is set to face off bit-to-bit against China’s “great firewall.”
President Donald Trump’s arrival in Beijing on Wednesday will serve as a test of reach for his preferred 140-character communications tool.
The White House is declining to comment on the president’s ability to tweet in China or the precautions being taken to protect his communications in the heavily monitored state. It’s about more than cybersecurity. Knowing the president’s penchant for showmanship, some aides are trying to build up social media suspense before Air Force One is wheels-down in Beijing.
Spoiler alert: The American president will get his way. Multiple officials familiar with the procedures in place but unauthorized to discuss them publicly said the president will, in fact, be able to tweet in China.
Twitter is blocked for domestic users in China, but foreigners have had success accessing the social media service while using data roaming services that connect to their home cellular networks.
For an American president, it’s not that straightforward. Securing the president’s communications — and tweets — in China requires satellites, sophisticated electronics and the work of hundreds on multiple continents.
Trump, like his predecessor, has a secure cell phone, though he uses it more for tweeting than phone calls. He’s sent at least two dozen tweets in the first four days of his trip to Asia. Developed in collaboration between the National Security Agency and Secret Service, it has some regular functionality disabled to protect from hacking. But China poses a distinct challenge: Merely turning it on there is a security risk, as China’s cellular network is believed to be entirely compromised by its security services.
Several former administration officials said they did not recall whether President Barack Obama brought his cell phone to China. The White House declined to say whether Trump would be bringing his phone on the trip, but tweets sent by him since he’s departed Washington are marked as being sent from an iPhone.
Chinese officials appeared to recognize the importance of the medium to their guest. Asked whether Trump would be able to tweet from Beijing, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang told reporters on Friday: “We take everything into account on receiving foreign heads of state so you should have no reservations about Mr. President’s ability to keep in touch with the outside.”
But officials said it would hardly be up to China, as it would be inconceivable for Trump’s device to ever reach a Chinese network.
The White House maintains an ever-updating set of policies and regulations for overseas travel. According to current and former White House staffers, officials are sometimes issued new devices specifically for foreign trips. Their phone numbers and emails are forwarded to the new devices for the duration of the overseas stint, then shifted back to their stateside devices once they return. The phones used on the trip are returned to the White House IT office for inspection.
In the event the trip is to a high-risk cyber-espionage location, such as China, Israel or Cuba, aides are given extensive briefings on cybersecurity. Among the precautions: Aides are strongly discouraged from turning on their devices in the offending country.
Former White House press secretary Josh Earnest recalled that security protocols changed frequently during the Obama administration, but that aides were encouraged to leave their personal devices on Air Force One.
“While in the country, we were encouraged to bring everything with us whenever we left the room, even for short periods” such as a gym visit, Earnest said. “And, we were told never to use hotel provided Wi-Fi.”
But, Earnest added, it “seems reasonable that these safeguards are easy to put in place for Trump’s phone.”
The White House Communications Agency, a 1,200-person military command, is responsible for the president’s global communications needs. The primary role is to maintain communications for critical defense purposes, like emergency communications with military commanders. In every presidential motorcade, for instance, an armored SUV codenamed Road Runner provides for a connection to an array of military and Secret Service communications networks. Abroad, it also enables mundane presidential traffic, like tweets.
On a trip, the WHCA, along with the White House situation room staff, maintains a secure communications suite at the presidential hotel for use by presidential staff. It includes both secure and unsecured phones, as well as access to the White House Wi-Fi network. It is swept routinely for spying devices and guarded 24/7. Overseas, “we’d have to be extra vigilant about confining classified — and even personal — discussions to this suite,” recalled Ned Price, a former CIA analyst who worked as a spokesman for Obama’s National Security Council.