Published January 23, 2009
The leader of the free world gets to keep his beloved BlackBerry — but don't try reaching him on it.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs confirmed Thursday that President Obama is using a super-secure BlackBerry, though it's only to communicate with a select circle.
"The president has a BlackBerry through a compromise that allows him to stay in touch with senior staff and a small group of personal friends," Gibbs said at a White House press conference, "in a way that use will be limited and that the security is enhanced to ensure his ability to communicate, but to do so effectively and to do so in a way that is protected."
Part of the "compromise" — Gibbs declined to say with whom Obama had made it — involves the president giving up his old e-mail address and switching to a new, secret one.
The Atlantic magazine's Marc Ambinder first broke the news that Obama would become the first BlackBerry-carrying president on the magazine's Web site Wednesday night.
It wasn't clear whether Obama's personal BlackBerry had been upgraded, or if he'd gotten an entirely new unit.
During the presidential campaign and transition period, Obama used a Verizon Wireless BlackBerry.
In photos, it appeared to be an 8700, commonly issued to corporate staffers and which comes without the camera or full-sized headphone jack found on more consumer-oriented models.
It survived a drop onto an airport tarmac last week as it slipped out of Obama's fingers as he was getting into a limousine.
Obama famously used it to communicate at all hours during the nearly two-year-long presidential campaign, and friends said he needed it to stay grounded by e-mailing with family and acquaintances during his rapid ascent up the political ladder.
"I'm still clinging to my BlackBerry. They're going to pry it out of my hands," he told CNBC in an interview earlier this month.
Gibbs cited that desire to not get "stuck in a bubble" as part of the reason for the "compromise."
George W. Bush and Al Gore both used BlackBerrys during the 2000 presidential campaign. But Bush gave his up, as well as the use of any e-mail software, upon taking office after having sent out a final e-mail to friends and family.
It's not clear whether Bush is able to use e-mail again now that he's a private citizen.
The reason cited in 2000 was because of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which makes all written White House communications public property subject to examination under the Freedom of Information Act five years after the end of a presidential administration.
There are security reasons as well. It's nearly impossible to make any Internet-connected device — computer, cell phone, camera or BlackBerry — absolutely safe from hackers or spies.
Yet Bush may have been the only person in his White House staffer who didn't carry a BlackBerry — and all staffers and aides are subject to the same PRA guidelines that the president is.
Still, knowing that Obama still has his little e-mail device strapped to his hip may just be catnip to some people.
"The moment it becomes known that Barack Obama uses his BlackBerry, you know that a significant share of Russia's signal intelligence and China's signal intelligence and cyber intelligence budgets will be targeted to break it," telecom analyst Roger Entner told the International Herald Tribune last week.