The White House Communications Agency

The White House Communications Agency
Presidential Service Badge
Type Of ActivityCommunications support for the White House
Washington DC
Date of Activity
 Nov 1965 to Dec 1973
  38°53′52″N 77°02′11″W

WHCA’s Role in Providing Communications Support to the President, and The Early Presidential Emergency Facilities (PEF)

The White House Communications Agency (WHCA), originally known as the White House Signal Detachment (WHSD), was officially formed by the United States Department of War on 25 March 1942 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The WHSD was created to provide normal and emergency communications requirements in support of the President. The WHSD provided mobile radio, teletype, telephone and cryptographic aides in the White House and at Shangri-La, now known as Camp David. The mission of the WHSD was to provide a premier communication system that would enable the President to lead the nation effectively regardless of his location worldwide, and in any emergency situation. In 1954 WHSD was reorganized and renamed the White House Army Signal Agency (WHASA).

In 1962 WHASA was discontinued and its duties were transferred to the auspices of the Defense Communications Agency under the operational control of the White House Military Office, and reestablished as the White House Communications Agency (WHCA). WHCA was divided into three units:

The Defense Communications Operations Unit (DCOU) was located on M St. in Washington DC and was responsible to maintain the communications equipment used to support the White House when the President Traveled outside of Washington DC either in the USA or worldwide. All trip equipment was staged at this location. The equipment included all FM hand held radios and base stations, switchboard, all communications center equipment with secure voice and TTY, as well as all AV equipment necessary for all media events.

Entrance to Checkmate (The Shop) from Wisconsin Ave NW in Washington D.C. (1973)
Entrance to Checkmate (2011)
The Defense Communications Administrative Unit (DCAU) was also located on M St. in Washington DC. This unit was responsible for all Personnel functions including recruitment, formulating travel rosters and arranging WHCA transportation necessary for all domestic and worldwide Presidential trips.

The Defense Communication Support Unit (DCSU) was headquartered at Camp David, and was responsible for the operation of the seven Presidential Emergency Facilities (PEF) locations as well as the Eisenhower farm in Gettysburg Pa. and the communications equipment on the Presidential Train “CRATE” in Harrisburg, Pa.

The USSS CP at the Eisenhower farm in Gettysburg PA
DCSU would also be responsible for communications at the LBJ Ranch in Johnson City TX, as well as President Nixon’s homes in San Clemente Ca. and Key Biscayne Fl.

WHCA was commissioned to provide reliable communications support to the President, Vice President, Executive Office of the President senior staff, National Security Council, Secret Service and others as directed by the White House Military Office. WHCA ‘s primary duty would be call communications in the White House starting with the President’s desk phone in the Oval Office This support includes FM mobile and HF radio communications, non-secure voice, secure voice, record communications, audio-visual services, automated data processing support and photographic and drafting services both in Washington, D.C. , anywhere in the USA and worldwide. In the ten years that I worked with WHCA we used state of the art communications equipment but it took many people and thousands of pounds of equipment at each stop to provide quality communications. Advances in technology not only reduced the size and weight of the equipment but also dramatically reduced the number people required to provide the same quality of service.

Changes in the WHCA Trip Requirements

The trip packages had not change much by 1987, other than they were traveling with Dimension PBX electronic switchboards instead of the mini boards; otherwise you would not have noticed a difference in the trip environment. The Motorola radios got smaller and then added Data Encryption Standard (DES) which was a headache because sometimes the key change for the network would change while in route to a trip location. Each radio needed to be keyed with a device called a "squirt gun" and at a designated time the new key would take effect. Later a reserve key was loaded at the same time in the event that you needed to remotely update because of a lost radio. The WH Staff just couldn't understand that some of the safe guards about tampering with a "lost" radio would cause it to dump the key codes and only be available in clear mode. 

Now the switchboard and FM radio sections just called AT&T and Motorola and tell them to package the latest and greatest and it is done. All of radio nets have been encrypted with DES and it was an issue when someone dumped the memory and needed to re-key the code at a trip site. The AV section has progressed to some more modern modular PA systems, and is now WHCA’s primary function.

The only thing different in the Commenter in 1987 to the Model 28 TTY paper tape 100 baud noisy machines, was the owner of the finger prints on the boxes. The crypto element is now reduced to a controlled "credit card" sized module similar to Direct TV. No more guarding the boxes and don't they don't have to go through the load the plane routine. 
The USSS still has all the same frequencies, but about 1986 they had an encrypted cellular site in the EOB. The Mobile Telephone Switching Office (MTSO) would route all calls from Electronic Serial Number (ESN's) assigned to the White House to that cellular hub and they were actually drawing WH Centrex dial tone, plus it was capable of encryption over the non-copper segments. I am sure that over another 20 years and it has continued to improve. 

WHCA Communications Van (Roadrunner)
The first WHCA mobile Communications Van (Roadrunner) was a plywood pallet that was slipped into a Ford Econoline Van with a Model 28 TTY, and a 19" rack of base stations. WHCA used the old "ALPHA" FM frequency and transmitted TTY back to CROWN, when Roadrunner stopped, the operators team would hop out and start a small Honda Generator for power.   While in route there was a power inverter, but the RPM's of the engine needed to be in a  roar  to maintain voltages and lots of blown fuses and plenty of burned up power supplies in the beginning.  The newer Roadrunners are were electronic platforms built into GMC Suburban with a satellite dome, lots of auxiliary power from multiple inverters, full complement of base stations, and a trunking satellite mini-cellular so the event site could link back to Camp and draw dial tone.  Lower ranking WH Staff would use their own cell phones over the public network; but rest assured that cell saturation around a POTUS event is highly possible.  They have worked out an agreement with the all of the common carriers a priority way to block normal traffic on a certain percentage of trunks that is all behind the scenes negotiations, a normal person just gets a no service indication.

Now that we have the Internet and cellular network, the role of WHCA is somewhat limited to Command and Control circuits. Camp David is the satellite downlink point and all trip sites carry small suitcase multiplexers and pull in mini-cells in the hotel and they have the WH Centrex available on their permanently assigned smart phones. All staff members carry encrypted personal digital assistant (PDA's) so the comm. center is basically out of business on the road other than to assemble the news summary and the program database (PDB) so I have been told. AV is the biggest job for WHCA now. They shrink wrap a trip load and put it on a common carrier freight truck 2-3 days before a visit and it arrives on the hotel loading dock. No more deck loading cargo planes, which are now C-17's except for overseas trips. 

The south lawn of the White House
At the end of the trip, all the equipment is returned to a Rental Truck and delivered to a common carrier freight company and returned to Anacostia. Only short notice trips get airlifted from Andrews, with anything planned, the trucks roll down the Interstate. WHCA has a couple of semi-trailers and their own drivers for big swings and will try to save money and drive multiple stops and drop them off and recover them at end of trip in a few days. Most of it is commercial carriers. Remember LBJ, he would be airborne before WHCA was ever notified, I can remember Trucks loaded and waiting at Checkmate.

I always said that it the American taxpayers knew what it cost for our President to travel anywhere that they would demand that he never left Washington!

Experiences and Comments

I re-enlisted in the Army in Dec. 1964 for Microwave Repair School at Ft Monmouth in Eatontown, NJ. We rented an efficiency apartment in North Branch, NJ for about a month while we waited to be assigned to Gov’t Quarters. 

Don at Ft Monmouth, NJ Gov’t Housing (1965)
Joanne and Don in April 1965 Long Branch NJ
Don was a little over a year old when we moved to NJ but had already lived in Chicago and Seattle while I was assigned to Nike Missile bases in those cities. We would relocate four times while working in WHCA.

Microwave school was twenty six weeks long, and I learned that upon completion of the course that most of the graduates went on to advanced training on Troposcatter Radio, and then on to Viet Nam. This was indeed true but in July of 1965, I was interviewed by a recruiting team from WHCA and this interview would change everything!

I was pulled from class and was told to report to a conference room where I was asked about my background by four individuals dressed in civilian clothes. They talked about the Agency, what they did and what would take place if I were selected. One requirement was for them to complete an intensive background investigation to receive a Top Secret Clearance. Since I already had a Secret clearance I didn’t see a problem. Little did I know that they would visit all of my references and talk to them about me and my family? I also was required to pass a polygraph examination prior to actual assignment to in WHCA. The polygraph examination took place about a month after the interview. I have to say that I was really nervous while they asked me a series of questions to insure that I was not concealing anything that might have been used against me and that I would be handling very sensitive information. I answered all of the questions without a problem until the last one, “Have you answered truthfully to all of the previous questions?” all of a sudden the needles went crazy. I Had to do it again with the same result. I was given a short recess and after a third try, I PASSED! Now all I had to do was to finish school and wait for the security clearance to be completed.

Finally on November 16, 1965 I received orders transferring me to WHCA and to report to Washington DC. We packed up and headed south. Since we were not heading to a Military Base all my orders contained was a street address in Washington, DC. Unfortunately for us this address was incorrect and we circled for an hour never finding this location. Luckily I had been given a phone number to call if I had any questions while I was waiting for my Top Secret security clearance to be approved. So I called the number and found out that the address was an old location and the Agency had moved. The facility was located in an unmarked building on M St. in Georgetown.

It was then that I found out that I would be going to be assigned to Camp David as part of the Detachment maintaining the microwave network providing communications to the Presidential Emergency Facilities (PEF) in and around the Washington DC area.

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