For State Department officers directing calls, adrenaline always on the line

By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; B03

Every secret federal command center has its charms. At the Pentagon, vents slit the floor to block fumes, in case of a chemical attack. At the National Counterterrorism Center, an electric current excites gas between glass panes, fogging over for top-secret meetings. At the White House, the Situation Room seals so tightly that closing the door creates a sucking sound.

But none comes close to the State Department's Operations Center. Or its Barbie-size wooden outhouse, nailed to a beam, fitted with a miniature blue bulb.

"I'm going blue!" duty desk officers call out when they stand up to go to the bathroom. They flip a switch, triggering a blue glow from the outhouse. As on an airplane, the light signals: Bathroom occupied; remain in your seats. Work stations must be staffed in case of an emergency.

The ops center at State mixes, inimitably, an offbeat sense of humor and an obsessive sense of mission, with its round-the-clock, windowless, weight-gaining jobs. Down the hall from the secretary of state's suite, the center is a secure, adrenalin-injected space, accessed through the swipe of a badge and the peck of a keypad code. Recently, The Washington Post got an exclusive, unprecedented look inside.

There, 60 foreign service officers and other civil servants operate a worldwide 911. They support Americans caught abroad in political violence and natural disasters. They send out alerts when an overseas flight crashes or a grenade hits a U.S. Embassy. They connect, at all hours, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to foreign leaders, picking phone numbers out of an address book with 18,120 contacts.

On a recent morning, Clinton had an 8 a.m. call scheduled with Tony Blair, the Middle East envoy and former British prime minister. He was traveling in South Africa.

"Dialing Tony Blair's assistant. Good morning, this is the State Department," says ops center officer Sarah Duffy at 7:59 a.m.

In Cape Town, Blair's assistant is moving around briskly, trying to find better cellphone reception.

"Very good. I can still hear you," Duffy tells her.

They call it "the ballet of the phone call." The request came 16 hours ago, and every detail is choreographed. As the seconds tick down to 8 a.m., Duffy says, she feels her "heart racing. Would the cellphone work? It's like, 'you've got to get on that train; you're going to miss that flight.' "

Duffy clicks on an icon on her computer that represents Blair, a little blue face wearing a headset, and drops it into a computerized conversation box. Her hand moves over a Scooby Doo mouse pad.

Another officer, Jennifer Pearce, gets on the line and declares: "Introducing Secretary Clinton." Pearce clicks on a red "S" icon, for "Secretary," and drops it into the box with Blair.

"Hi, Tony!" says Clinton.

"Hallo Hillary," Blair says.

Clinton, at her Washington residence, and Blair, in Cape Town, exchange updates on Palestinian and Israeli peace negotiations. To indicate which party is talking, dialogue bubbles bloom over their computer icon cartoon faces. An officer listens in and transcribes.

The call is classified, but when Clinton travels and secure lines are uncertain, Clinton speaks obliquely: "That thing we were talking about before? We decided to do it."

The ops center handles about 340,000 calls on 244 lines a year, not all of them momentous. "Sir, Puerto Rico is not governed by the State Department," an officer drones to a man in San Juan. "You need to contact local authorities. Puerto Rico is actually a U.S. territory."

During shuttle launches, State officers stand by in case the flight aborts and orbits back to earth. They use a pea-green, 1960s-style phone, a dedicated line to the NASA flight director. If the shuttle has to divert to land in Spain, for example, they'll call Madrid and say: 1. Don't panic. 2. Clear the airspace. 3. It's coming your way.

The pressure is unremitting, the home-baked pear cake sent in by spouses enticing, which inevitably leads to extra pounds. The staff members' term for the typical weight gain is "the Ops 15," measured on a black scale by the door. Once a year, they puncture the pressure on New Year's Eve at midnight, activating a silver disco ball.

New officers learn the operating procedures in a 386-page manual: crisis management in Kyrgyzstan; burn bags at every desk; daily briefs prepared at 5:30 a.m.; and 3 p.m., "Secretary Time," that is, wherever Clinton is in the world.

"She's the time, regardless of what time it is here," says officer Timothy T. Davis, at 10 one night.

"Time is fluid," says his colleague Erfana Andrabi.

"I remember when I first lost track of what day it was."

"Then you realize, it doesn't matter what day it is. What matters is you're on shift, in the right chair."

Which is why ops officers take bathroom breaks so deliberately. You might call it a unique approach to government waste. Officers announce, "I'm going blue!" And when they reach the bathroom door, a red-lettered sign admonishes:

"Limit Your Visit."

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