December 29th, 2010
04:47 PM ET
HONOLULU, Hawaii (CNN) - Every day before 8 a.m. Hawaiian time, President 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 very same classified briefing he receives every day back at the White House, and then a series of White House staffers provide him with extra information throughout the day via secure telephone, video and email lines.
"There's the PDB plus anything else the president needs to know about," Ben Rhodes, a senior National Security Council staffer who is traveling with Obama here in Hawaii, said in an interview. It didn't quite go that smoothly last Christmas here in Hawaii.
White House aides confirmed a New York Times report that Obama was peeved in late 2009 when he had a hard time connecting securely with his top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, after a Nigerian national tried to launch a Christmas Day terror attack on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
As a result, Brennan made sure that for this trip to Hawaii 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 that make them every bit as secure as the White House Situation Room back in Washington.
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 with a smile.
But 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 counter terror shop along with him.
Each morning around 5:30 a.m. Hawaii time (10:30 a.m. ET), 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 says 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," said Rhodes. "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 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.
"So far so good," said Rhodes cautiously, literally knocking on a wood table so as not to jinx anything.