Magazine article Russian Life

The Hot Line {Is a Hollywood Myth}

Magazine article Russian Life

The Hot Line {Is a Hollywood Myth}

Article excerpt

A fixture of film, popular culture and news reports, the Hotline between Moscow and Washington is both more and less than it is cracked up to be. Russian Life Editor Paul E. Richardson interviewed Craig Bell, who, from 2004-2008, was Chief and Senior Presidential Translator at the Hotline.

So what is the Hotline and what is a typical day like?

Officially the link is called the Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link, but most people just refer to it as the Hotline. At some point the office received the designation within the Joint Staff as MOLINK (for Moscow Link) so I will use those terms interchangeably. The Hotline is manned 24/7 to ensure immediate availability to the Presidents. The Hotline is a crisis link used only by authorization of the President and is not used for routine intergovernmental communications. The teams, which consist of a Presidential Translator and a Presidential Communicator, work eight-hour, rotating shifts.

In the course of an eight-hour shift, the teams test the link hourly. They also have various other duties to account for communications security equipment, and report the status of the links to supporting agencies. They also may participate in various national level crisis response exercises that are run periodically to exercise the procedures that the military and other government agencies will use to support presidential decision making in a crisis. If a new test message is received, the Presidential Translator will produce a translation of it for the test message file (the translator on the following shift reviews the translation and the Chief/Senior Presidential Translator certifies it before it is filed).

In addition to test messages, the team may receive service messages sent for the purpose of arranging maintenance or providing other information relevant to the operation of the link (the same translation and review procedures apply as for as for test messages).

On a typical shift, all of those activities will take less than a quarter of the available time. Most of a translator's shift is spent on language maintenance training, mostly using internet resources. Training activities include reading, training translations, listening to Russian audio (mostly news) and watching television news. Night and weekend shifts frequently watch Russian movies, which still provides language training, but also makes the late night and weekend shifts a bit more palatable. Several days a week, Defense Language Institute professors come to the office to do about two hours of one-on-one translation training with the shift translators.

A typical day will not see a Presidential message sent, rather the day-to-day focus is on ensuring that the link is available, the communications procedures are thoroughly practiced, and the translator is fully prepared to quickly provide an accurate translation for the President in the event that the link is needed.

... The mission of the MOLINK translators is to translate from Russian to English. We do not have the official mission to perform interpretation or to translate from English to Russian. There have been exceptions to this, but only the Chief of the Hotline is authorized to make that decision. For instance, during the recent conflict in Georgia, one of my translators and I ended up interpreting phone conversations for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of the Russian General Staff. I determined that the two of us were capable of handling the interpretation. We ended up working 12 hours on/12 hours off for about two weeks to be available for the Chairman.

So, just to clarify, what you were doing was in fact "the Hotline," as in the famous red phone ... and it comprises both written communications and verbal/phone calls? It sounds like most communication takes place in written form, however.

Yes, I was the Chief and Senior Presidential Translator at the Hotline for four years (2004-2008) and before that served as a Presidential Translator. …

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