This is Nicolas Sarkozy. Is Sarah Palin available?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Nov. 10 2008 2:57 PM

"This Is Nicolas Sarkozy. Is Sarah Palin Available?"

How world leaders make phone calls.

Sarah Palin was on the receiving end of a prank calllast week when a Canadian DJ pretending to be the president of France managed to get through to the governor directly. In 2006, Daniel Engber explained how world leaders actually make phone calls. The article is reprinted below.

(Click here for an "Explainer" on why some world leaders still send telegrams.)

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Telephone.
How does the president call other world leaders?
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President Bush called the prime minister of Denmark this week to offer moral support as anti-Danish riots continued throughout the world. Last week, he called to congratulate Evo Morales, the newly elected president of Bolivia. The week before that, Bush had the new prime minister of Canada on the horn. How does the president call up other world leaders?

He has his people call their people. White House operators are known for being able to get hold of just about anyone. If Bush needs to talk to Tony Blair, his situation room operators get in touch with the staff at 10 Downing Street. They set up a time to chat and patch through the call when that time comes.

White House operators have special phone numbers for some world leaders. They might use the cell-phone number of a leader's aide in one place, and call the number for a situation room in another. In some cases, they could go through the main switchboards like everybody else.

Some leader-to-leader calls apparently do arrive via the listed phone numbers. On Jan. 27, Jacques Chirac received a call from a radio DJ in Quebec who had convinced the French operators that he was Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. According to the DJ, he called Chirac's office and was told that the president would call him back. Chirac did so half an hour later.

World leaders have to put up with prank calls all the time. As a general practice, one leader's staff members will arrange to call back the staff members of another. (If someone claiming to be from the White House called Buckingham Palace, for example, the queen's staff could call the White House back to confirm.)

This verification process doesn't always work. In 2003, a pair of radio DJs in Miami had a woman with a Cuban accent call for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. She claimed she was one of Fidel Castro's operators, and that Castro was at a secret location where he couldn't be called back. It took about 10 tries to get through, but the DJs finally weaseled a direct number out of a Venezuelan officer. (A few months later they successfully called Castro, posing as Chavez.)

In 1990, then-President George Bush returned a phone call to a man posing as the president of Iran. "We were suspicious and began checking," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, "but, ultimately, the president needed to make the call as part of the check."

Sometimes a legitimate call from a world leader doesn't go through. Following the Soviet coup in 1991, newspapers reported that President Bush made at least two attempts to check in with Mikhail Gorbachev by phone. The operator at the Kremlin told the one at the White House that Gorby wasn't available.

Bonus Explainer: For calls to Russia, there's always the famous "red phone." President Kennedy first suggested "the hotline" after the Cuban Missile Crisis. A direct teletype link to Moscow was set up in 1963. The hotline didn't include a true telephone until the early 1970s, and even then communications were almost always sent in written form.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

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