White House Remodeling 'Situation Room'

The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 19, 2006; 7:44 PM

WASHINGTON -- The Situation Room at the White House isn't one room at all but a sprawling 5,000-square-foot complex. And it's nothing like the state-of-the-art Counter-Terrorist Unit on TV's "24."

When a remodeling project is completed _ after eight months and a classified number of taxpayer dollars _ White House officials expect their 'Sit Room' to function at a higher level and look a lot better than the place Henry Kissinger once described as "uncomfortable, unaesthetic and essentially oppressive."

The complex fills much of the lower floor of the West Wing and extends into an area dug out of the berm beneath the White House's outdoor pool. Workers gutted the area in August.

"We literally took it down to the bricks and the bare floor," said White House deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin.

On Tuesday, Hagin took several groups of reporters on a tour of the half of the complex that is expected to be ready for use by the first of the year. Work will then begin on the other half, expected to be finished by spring.

The Sit Room has been updated many times since President Kennedy ordered it created in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. Officials decided it was due for its first comprehensive renovation, not only to expand the type of information that could stream in but to make the facility flexible enough to incorporate future generations of communications gear.

"It's much more plug-and-play now," Hagin said.

The Sit Room has always been designed to hum nonstop. Bush goes there for regular meetings with his National Security Council and to talk via secure videoconference with foreign leaders. In times of emergency, the Sit Room becomes a crisis-management center.

Watch officers are glued to computers 24 hours a day, sifting through intelligence information from the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department and other quarters. They monitor diplomatic cables and public sources such as Internet traffic and news dispatches, watching for developments big enough to warrant telling national security adviser Stephen Hadley, who decides whether Bush must be alerted.

With the remodeling, the complex will be able to bring in more easily information from state and local governments and civilian sources when, for example, natural disaster strikes or a security threat looms. Analysts from the Homeland Security Department now will join the others, Hagin said.

Its primary function as the main node for information coming into the White House is not changing.

"It's not an operations center," Hagin said. "It's where information is fused."

Despite Hollywood's glamorous depictions, the Sit Room will still feature understated surroundings. Walls covered with cream-colored fabric and cherry cabinetry telegraph law firm more than war room.

But there are plenty of bells and whistles.

A reception area comes complete with a lead-lined cabinet for visitors to deposit cell phones and Blackberries. Nearby are two retro-looking, glass-encased booths for making calls both secure and private.

The president's primary conference room is outfitted with six screens _ each with split-screen technology _ and has cameras, microphones and speakers in the ceiling. A new so-called "surge room" is positioned next to the theater-style, tiered area where the watch officers will sit.

As Hagin played tour guide, workmen scurried past dozens of high-definition screens showing, for now, football games. Tall windows let in light, even as Hagin stressed that special glass and, when needed, several levels of shading will thwart prying eyes.

A wall of gleaming wood inboxes _ for Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett, Tony Snow and other top Bush aides _ sat empty, waiting for the next crisis to fill them with paper.

© 2006 The Associated Press