HAGERSTOWN, Md. – The Washington-Moscow Hotline is not just a Cold War relic, but a system for top-level crisis communications that remains a useful tool for U.S. and Russian leaders at odds over their relations with Syria and Iran, a former director of the Soviet space exploration program says.
As U.S. officials mark the 50th anniversary of the system's first transmitted test message, Roald Sagdeev, now a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, says the next crisis could be just around the corner.
"It's very important to make sure we can keep this, especially at the time of what's happening in Syria," he said Wednesday. "We should stay with at least keeping what we have for the rainy day."
Sagdeev is among Thursday's scheduled speakers at Fort Detrick, a military installation in Frederick where the Army maintains a satellite link for the hotline.
Despite popular myth and movie lore, the president doesn't use a red phone to talk with his Russian counterpart. In fact, the connection established in 1963 was for written communications only. A voice component was added decades later as the system evolved from an undersea telegraph cable to today's exchange of data by both satellite and fiber-optics.
"The system is very robust, as you might imagine," said Craig Bouma, civilian executive offer of the Detrick Earth Station.
Bouma manages the twin satellite dishes and a staff of 16 civilian Army employees -- eight technicians and eight linguists. They work around the clock to ensure the system is operating correctly. The station also handles secure communication lines for the Pentagon and the State Department, Bouma said.
Until February, the Washington-Moscow link was operated by Honeywell under a five-year, $8.4 million contract.
Bouma said the workers at Detrick have daily interaction with their Russian counterparts in written exchanges that sometimes reveal cultural differences.
"The Russians express themselves in very flowery text: `Dear esteemed colleague, greetings. Welcome to the shift,"' Bouma said. "My linguist says that's very common in the Russian culture."
The link was set up after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis to avert the accidental outbreak of war. Known at the Pentagon as MOLINK, for "Moscow Link,' it went live Aug. 30, 1963, with the U.S.-generated message, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog's back 1234567890."
Presidents used the text-only hotline more than 15 times by 1990, according to Fort Detrick's spokesman at the time, Norman Covert. President Lyndon B. Johnson notably used it during the six-day Arab-Israeli war in 1967 to advise Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin of U.S. ship and aircraft movements in the Mediterranean following an Israeli attack on the USS Liberty.
Starting with President George H.W. Bush in the 1990s, telephone calls have replaced written messages as the preferred mode of communication between the nations' leaders, said Michael Bohn, a former White House Situation Room manager and author of "Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions from Truman to Obama." He said that when the link was created, written messages were seen as a safer way of expressing oneself.
"In a tough situation, you have to be careful what you say. The process of sitting down and writing it out clears your head a little bit and makes you slow down a little bit and think twice," Bohn said.
President Barack Obama now speaks by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They spoke as recently as March, when Obama phoned Putin to welcome Russian cooperation on international efforts to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The upgrade to voice communications reflects changing times and technology, said James Goldgeier, dean of the American University School of International Service.
"You know, 50 years ago was a long time ago, and the abilities to communicate -- it just wasn't as easy as it is today," he said. "We just take it for granted now that we can text and we can Skype and we can communicate immediately with anyone over a variety of different mechanisms, and even that we can see the people we communicate with."
Bouma wouldn't say if the system can also carry video, citing national security concerns.
Goldgeier said video capability should be added if it doesn't already exist.
"I think the next phase of this would really be to upgrade this type of link to a video link," he said. "I think it's high time."