Inside the newly-revamped White House Situation Room

Nerve centre beneath the West Wing has been the scene of many a tense moment since 1961 and its use is said to ‘reflect the personality’ of the commander-in-chief in power at the time

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 13 May 2024 18:03
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National security adviser Jake Sullivan describes how White House situation room works

President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan has given ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos a rare tour of the White House Situation Room following its $50m revamp.

The makeover of the nerve centre of the West Wing – which was first opened in 1961 and where every president from John F Kennedy to Mr Biden have overseen some of the toughest moments of their tenures – was completed last October, greatly enhancing the room’s security and technological capability.

Mr Sullivan told Mr Stephanopoulos, who has just authored a new book chronicling presidential crises handled within the facility’s walls, that, contrary to popular belief, the 5,500 square foot Situation Room in the basement of the White House is actually a vast complex comprising multiple rooms.

The adviser detailed the workings of the Watch Floor, where civilian and military experts monitor events around the world on a bank of glowing monitors 24/7 and put in a call to the president or his top aides whenever a developing situation requires their immediate attention, which could come at any time of the day or night.

“When you see the number from the Situation Room at 3am, it’s not usually to update you on good news, I would say,” Mr Sullivan joked.

He went on to explain the facility’s use as a venue for secure video conferences, explaining that Mr Biden had made it his base from which to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 with his fellow world leaders and to coordinate their response.

“He uses this room not just to make decisions but to do diplomacy, to build and execute coalitions and alliances and so a lot of the history that is written day to day in American foreign policy is lived out in this room,” Mr Sullivan said.

The adviser explained that the complex serves as a place for the commander-in-chief and his senior decision-makers to “share their viewpoints” and that “asking the right questions” of expert intelligence officials is key to securing a successful outcome during stressful moments of global consequence.

US president Joe Biden meets with members of the National Security team regarding the unfolding missile attacks on Israel from Iran on 13 April 2024 in the White House Situation Room in Washington, DC (Adam Schultz/The White House/Getty)

According to Mr Stephanopolous’s new book, the Situation Room was created at the request of President Kennedy in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, a disaster that was blamed on inadequate communications and intel and which no one wished to repeat as the tense atmosphere of the Cold War lingered on.

The site chosen for a state-of-the-art surveillance base was formerly a bowling alley and might have been called either the “Nerve Center” or the “Executive Coordination Center” before the intentionally more mundane and euphemistic “National Daily Situation Room” was recommended.

Some presidents like Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War or Ronald Reagan in the 1980s would come to regard the facility as the beating heart of the White House and loved to be there while others, like Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, found it gloomy and preferred the pomp and ceremony of the Oval Office instead.

Here’s a look at some of the more extraordinary events that have since been overseen from within its walls.

Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962)

The centre proved its worth within a year of its opening, when intelligence staff intercepted a Radio Moscow broadcast that revealed that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had decided to remove Russian missiles from the island after all, news that was immediately communicated to President Kennedy, enabling a broader conflict to be averted.

“If the Situation Room had not yet existed, Khrushchev’s overture would have taken longer to arrive, and the Cuban Missile Crisis might have taken a much darker turn,” Mr Stephanopoulos writes of the significance of that moment.

9/11 attacks (September 2001)

Following the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, members of George W Bush’s administration ran to the complex much like “the firefighters in New York rushed toward the burning towers”, the ABC journalist observes, noting that staff refused to obey evacuation orders even though al-Qaeda terrorists were feared to be targeting the building.

Frank Miller, President Bush’s senior director for defense policy, asked everybody present to write down their names and Social Security numbers, telling them: “We want to know what bodies to look for.”

Raid on Bin Laden’s compound (May 2011)

One of the most famous images of the 21st century was captured in the Situation Room by official White House photographer Pete Souza on 11 May 2011 when President Barack Obama, his then-vice president Joe Biden, secretary of state Hillary Clinton and a host of military brass and staffers gathered to watch the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout on 2 May 2011.

The terrorist leader was gunned down by US Special Forces after almost a decade on the run as part of Operation Neptune Spear, a moment witnessed live by Mr Obama and his staff in a cramped side room rather than around the main conference table because an engineer could reportedly not work out how to patch the feed through in time, a technical blunder that at least yielded a truly iconic photograph.

President Barack Obama, vice president Joe Biden, secretary of state Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House on 1 May 2011 in Washington, DC (Pete Souza/The White House/Getty)

Firing of Trump aide Omarosa (December 2017)

Mr Stephanopoulos writes that the Situation Room and how it is used by a particular administration often “reflects the personality” of the president.

We should therefore not be surprised that the first person to be fired in the room was an aide to President Trump: Omarosa Manigault Newman.

Ms Manigault Newman was reported to have been dismissed by White House chief of staff John Kelly on 13 December 2017, although she later claimed to have resigned and produced a tape recorder she had smuggled into the room and presented the audio of her exchange with Mr Kelly to NBC journalist Chuck Todd to play on air in August 2018.

That proved a matter of no little controversy, as cell phones and recording devices are banned from the facility.

Larry Pfeiffer, an Obama-era director of the Situation Room, told Mr Stephanopoulos: “Nobody’s being frisked as they come in the door. It’s an honour system.

“Most of the people coming in and out of there tend to be very high-level, very important people. Certain assumptions get made that they’re going to do the right thing.”

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