Washington's new Blackberry elite

Only those who have the President's email address are truly part of his inner circle

In a city obsessed by status symbols and access to power, nothing tops being one of the few who can send emails to President Barack Obama's "security enhanced" Blackberry.

Ever since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, there has been a hot-line from the White House to the Kremlin. The modern version of that "red phone" is the little silver device hitched to Mr Obama's belt. Nothing in Washington is more coveted than a spot on the list of email addresses that can pass unimpeded to his inbox.

"I finally agreed to limit the number of people who could email me. It's a very exclusive list," Mr Obama told the annual Alfalfa Club dinner where the elite of the Washington elite gather. "How exclusive? Everyone look at the person sitting on your left. Now look at the person sitting on your right. None of you have my email address."

The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, may be the most powerful woman in America but her emails to the President's Blackberry bounce. The same goes for the heads of Fortune 500 companies whose hands are outstretched, seeking access to a share of the $819bn economic stimulus plan that the President is backing.

For decades, discovering who was in and out in Washington was an art form which involved scouring the invitation lists for state dinners and the visitor logs to the presidential retreat at Camp David. In Bill Clinton's time, the names of guests invited for sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom was one indication. Today, it is about having Mr Obama's email address, although investigations by The New York Times and The Washington Post have done little to reveal just who is on the exclusive list.

Michelle Obama is undoubtedly on his list, as is the Vice-President, Joe Biden, who has his very own top secret Blackberry. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, and the President's top advisers and members of his close circle of Chicago friends are also part of his tight email circle.

Beyond that, not much is known. Anthony Lake, one of Mr Obama's top foreign policy advisers before the election, no longer has the President's ear, or his thumb, as one wag put it. "No," he told a reporter. "Did. Don't."

Mr Lake does not feel excluded, however, since most members of the Obama cabinet are also off the list. Even the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates is not included, but his advisers say that is because he sees the President in person so often that he does not need to communicate by email.

The secure email list is not just to safeguard the President from spam. The CIA wants to protect him from cyber attacks. One nightmare is that the President's emails get forwarded to a hostile foreign intelligence service. To reduce the risk, his address will be changed regularly and security systems ensure that none of his emails can be forwarded or have attachments.