Skip to main content

In Hawaii this year, White House better prepared for possible crisis

By Ed Henry, CNN Senior White House Correspondent
  • On vacation, President Obama gets a daily briefing on threats
  • Beefed-up counterterrorism staffing joins him in Hawaii
  • More secure communications also are available if needed

Honolulu, Hawaii (CNN) -- Every day before 8 a.m. Hawaiian time, President Barack Obama gets an extensive briefing about all of the national security threats that have been bubbling around the world overnight while he's been vacationing.

An intelligence official heads over to Obama's vacation rental to deliver the presidential daily brief, the same classified briefing he receives every day back at the White House. After that, a series of White House staffers provide the president with extra information throughout the day via secure telephone, video and e-mail lines.

"There's the PDB, plus anything else the president needs to know about," said Ben Rhodes, a senior National Security Council staffer who is traveling with Obama here.

It didn't quite go that smoothly last Christmas in Hawaii.

Obama's golf skills
Looking ahead to President Obama's year
Bad year for President Obama?

White House aides confirmed a New York Times report that Obama was peeved late last year when he had a hard time connecting securely with his top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, from Hawaii after a Nigerian national allegedly tried to launch a Christmas Day terror attack on a flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Detroit, Michigan.

As a result, Brennan made sure that for this year's Hawaii trip, Obama got an upgrade to his communications equipment at the beach house his family rents in Kailua, a tiny town on the eastern side of Oahu about a 30-minute drive from Waikiki Beach.

Meanwhile, White House aides have similar communications capabilities at the hotel they're sharing on Waikiki with the media and regular tourists who have no idea that one floor of the Westin Moana Surfrider resort here has several rooms with communications equipment similar to the White House Situation Room.

But the thick communications cables running down the hallway of the hotel, along with the large paper shredder in the middle of the corridor that's used to destroy sensitive documents, are dead giveaways that this is not just any hotel setup.

"It's a little unusual," Rhodes said of the paper shredder, cracking a smile.

This is serious business, and the White House wanted to make sure it was fully prepared on the road for any potential terror threats given the traditional heightened state of alert over holidays, as well as the current travel threat in Europe.

In addition to the enhanced communications equipment, the White House also decided to send an extra White House staffer from Brennan's shop to Hawaii this year, just in case.

So Rhodes has been joined on this trip by Nick Rasmussen, a counterterrorism adviser on the NSC with Brennan. Last year, the NSC sent top aide Denis McDonough to Hawaii, but he did not have a colleague from the counterterror shop along with him.

Each morning around 5:30 a.m. Hawaii time (10:30 a.m. Eastern), Rhodes and Rasmussen head to a secure room in the hotel to receive classified information and then confer with other officials in Washington or other cities, such as Brennan, McDonough and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

As this is happening, Rhodes said, an intelligence official is putting together the official PDB for the President's consumption a couple of hours later. The actual PDB is a highly classified document that is physically delivered to Obama.

"Some days he's briefed [by the intelligence official] and other days he reads it," said Rhodes, noting that on a day like Christmas Day, the president will just read the document, undoubtedly giving himself a little more family time on the holiday.

"The biggest product is in the morning," Rhodes said. "But he's updated by paper throughout the day on everything from the storms in the Northeast" to more sensitive matters like terror threats.

All of that would change, of course, if there was an actual terror attack and the traveling White House would have to spring into full action, like last year on Christmas Day.

Rhodes noted that most of the secure equipment is held in reserve for the president.

"Most of it is there if it's necessary," he said. "A lot of it is 'in case' of a crisis situation."

White House aides have been bracing for working around the clock, just like last year, if necessary.

"So far so good," Rhodes said cautiously, literally knocking on a wood table so as not to jinx anything.