Breaking down the Situation Room
Here is a tour of everything you need to know about the action in the photo and the specs of the room -- from its gadgetry, to its cultural representations on TV and film, to its interior design -- from our in-house experts.
(Photo by Pete Souza / White House; Photo has been altered to obscure a classified document)
Official White House photographer Pete Souza has taken countless photos of President Obama signing documents or shooting hoops or greeting officials. But on Sunday, Souza snapped his magnum opus: a Situation Room action shot -- or watching-the-action shot -- of the president and his national security team monitoring the hit on Osama bin Laden.
The tableau of the already iconic photo is powerful: the unfamiliar staring-daggers gaze of Obama; the operatic emotion of Hillary Rodham Clinton, cupping her mouth with her hand; the Where's-Waldo quality of National Security Council staffer Audrey Tomason popping up at the back of the room; and the mystery arms and elbows of otherwise unseen men.
With so much to see, and with the government withholding the bloody bin Laden images, it's no wonder that the photo is on track to become the most-viewed image on Flickr (current No. 1: a 2006 image of the Nohkalikai Falls in Cherraphunjee, India). And no surprise that it is inspiring armies of Internet Photoshoppers ("Jersey Shore's" bare-chested cast member "the Situation" placed in the Situation Room, of course).
For all that's happening inside the frame, there is a lot going on outside it, too. Using the photo as a window, our in-house experts offer a tour of the personalities, gadgets and ideas found only in the world's most secure warren of rooms.
-- Jason Horowitz
Obama has the most to lose if things go awry, but the president's taking up the least amount of room. In contrast to Vice President Biden, with that broad open torso, spread out, filling out his seat, Obama has drawn inward, sucked himself into a small place. If this were a stage, you'd never guess the buck stopped there. It is Hillary Clinton who seizes the audience. With the gesture of the hand to the mouth, as if masking a gasp, she is expressive, emotional and human, a Cassandra who stands out amid the lockjawed, impassive ensemble. The photo depicts a pas de deux between the president and his secretary of state, former competitors now moving in sync to take down an off-stage enemy.
What do too many of us reach for when we're tired and stressed? It's not yogurt and carrot sticks, but something soft and soothing (turkey, synonymous with holidays and comfort) or crisp and salty (enter potato chips). The New York Times reported that for the viewing, "a staffer went to Costco and came back with a mix of provisions -- turkey pita wraps, cold shrimp, potato chips, soda." The choice of a wrap rather than a slice of bread to bundle the turkey strikes me as very Bush-era, wraps being so yesterday. Maybe there wasn't an option at Costco -- which, by the way, is more than one food professional's not-so-secret source for choice cuts of meat, chicken and cherries in season.
The food is all very easy to eat. Nothing requires a utensil, or much concentration, unless the shrimp included tails. Had the first lady walked into the room, no one would have felt obliged to hide what they were eating; the turkey and shrimp would have met her approval. As for the potato chips and soda ... hey, everything in moderation.
Couldn't White House chefs Sam Kass or Cristeta Comerford or even the Navy Mess whip up some MREs for the group? For starters, the Mess is typically dark on Sunday. Also, "if it's that quiet" a meeting, says Palena chef Frank Ruta, who cooked at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. from 1979 till 1991, "they might not want to involve many other people." In an attempt to make it appear as if everything was normal, everything was routine, the party in the Situation Room -- close to where the always-curious press hangs out -- ventured outside for fuel.
The Situation Room is the ultimate Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, known as a SCIF. There are SCIFs throughout the government, such as "the Tank," the Joint Chiefs' equivalent of the Situation Room. A SCIF has all kinds of protections against surveillance. When you go into a SCIF, you have to surrender your cellphone, usually in a wooden set of cubby holes.
The all-time master of the Situation Room was Henry Kissinger, who used the place to run back-channel operations. In my youth, I had a friend who worked for Kissinger in the Sit Room. One of her jobs, as I remember, was finding low-brow thriller paperbacks for him to take on his trips. The military became so nervous about Kissinger's use of the Situation Room that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time, Adm. Tom Moorer, actually sent in his own spy, Yeoman Charles Radford, to monitor the paper flow.
Back then, the technology in the room was nowhere near what it is today. The first hot line to the Kremlin was literally a clankity-clank Telex machine -- that was the technology that was going to save us from nuclear war. Now the Situation Room's biggest nightmare is cyber-war -- electronic malware that would penetrate the inner lobes of the national security brain. The Pentagon and intelligence agencies take elaborate precautions: The military operates what amounts to a separate, classified Internet, and nothing from "outside" is supposed to connect with it. Memo to Situation Room attendees: Don't bring your flash drives.
In the photo, the participants all seem to be eyeballing something in real time. It's possible, though unlikely, that they were watching the actual raid through a videocam carried by a member of SEAL Team 6, just like in a Tony Scott movie.
In Sit Rooms and command centers around the world, there's often a video feed from Predator drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles, sometimes known as "Pred porn" because it's so mesmerizing. I've seen Predator feeds of a car meandering down a road, or of a dark cave in Afghanistan, and wondered: "Is he there? Am I glimpsing [Ayman al-]Zawahiri or Osama?" Look at the tension and anticipation on the faces in that White House picture: A decade of watching and waiting, and now it's about to happen for real.
I like the little details in the picture: Which men are wearing ties? Why is the president sitting away from the action, almost in the second row? (Perhaps that defines him.) Why is Tom Donilon, the big-cheese national security adviser, standing, while his deputy Denis McDonough has a front-row seat? The stiff military officer in the uniform -- is he allowed to unbutton his jacket? And that paper in front of Hillary Clinton that's so sensitive it has to be fuzzed up -- what's that about, please?
In the Situation Room, decor is classified.
It's apparently on a need-to-know basis. But why? Isn't this essentially Corporate Office Decor 101? Long table, cushy high-back black chairs, plush wall-to-wall carpeting, a home-entertainment-center of screens.
Don't bother asking if the chairs are leather or pleather, if the polished table is cherry or walnut. The first lady's office was mum. So was the first family's decorator.
"I have no experience with that space," Michael S. Smith said. "So I have no comment."
Retired White House chief usher Gary Walters, who served in that role for 21 years, explained the secrecy. "The decorations are driven by security," he said. Walters added that the warren of rooms is furnished by the General Services Administration in consultation with the administration and the military. The room is soundproof.
And despite some presidential seals, rather blah.
"It's what I call 'office bland,'?" says presidential expert William Seale, who wrote "The President's House: A History." "It's the same decorating you see in buildings all over town."
The institutional look is duplicated in other presidential work venues. According to a WhiteHouse.gov video about the Situation Room, meeting rooms at Camp David and Air Force One are designed to evoke the same feel, textures and sounds for the convenience and comfort of the president. It wasn't always that way. Photos from the 1960s show flimsy wood paneling, paper maps, white bucket chairs (leather? Naugahyde?) and metal shelves bulging with files.
For the latest major makeover, in 2007, the government splurged on a few flashier features. A window in a small office off the main conference room fogs at the push of a button. The last time we saw that? In the Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada changing rooms.
At least two basic metaphors of power are at play: being in the room and at the table. Both metaphors expressly exclude us, the viewers of the photo, who are not there, not in the loop. The photograph fascinates because it represents the most basic aspects of political power: knowledge, access, influence and proximity.
The photograph thus puts the viewer in a subordinate position. But the chain of meanings continues at least one more step. The anxiety on the faces shows the degree to which some of the most powerful people in the world can't control events. They (and their administration) are subordinate to chance and fate, to unknown unknowns and known unknowns.
So the sequence is this: We have less power than they do, and they have less power than reality. The photographer creates a kind of "V" of sightlines to emphasize this drama: We look in from one angle as they look out at another, almost a perfect mirror image.
We enjoy narratives of great power because we have so little power in our own lives over things such as errant buses, disease, death and the vicissitudes of love. The photo reveals that sometimes even people who seem to have invested in them the talent and power to be masters of their fate are frightened, worried, tense and uncertain. And so by excluding us from the world of one kind of power, the photo reminds of a more fundamental powerlessness. It keeps us out of one room but puts us all in another, from which there is no exit.
I find it somehow comforting that the White House Situation Room (and the situations in it) doesn't resemble the situation rooms seen in TV shows and movies. I'm glad the president and his staff aren't frantically swiping at translucent screens, a la Tom Cruise in "Minority Report." I'm glad they don't have what "24" fans laughingly called "whatever technology," which was on ridiculous display at Jack Bauer's Counter Terrorist Unit. I'm glad the real-life participants also, reportedly, suffer from tech glitches once in a while and have to call IT. Just because we all sort of like "Star Trek" doesn't mean that we really want to live our most important moments on the bridge of the Enterprise.
Rather, what we're seeing here is a group of busy people huddled in what could be a conference room at any Embassy Suites. Part of that worry on their faces, to me, reads as the relief that you would see in any type-A Washington workaholic who gets beeped on two (or even three) smartphones at the very same moment the home phone rings on a Sunday afternoon: Thank God I was there to answer it. Thank God I wasn't the last one to get here. You know one of these people in this picture was the last one to get there. The rest of them may never speak of it, but everyone in that room will know. Where were you? Asleep?
A 2007 renovation of the Situation Room updated its gadgetry and expanded its square footage, seeming to at least partly channel "24" and other espionage tropes. These places are always a dash of "Dr. No" crossed with "Apollo 13" and just a wee bit of HGTV's "Designed to Sell." They are inspired by control rooms, nerve centers, man caves, evil lairs. (How come nobody ever talks about good lairs?) The polished wood, blue carpet, mounted wall televisions and muted phone beeps also give a nod to the ongoing, quasi-colonial blanding of America. Convention hotels, think-tank lobbies, Ethan Allen, funeral homes. Whoever designed it knew that the chrome and glassy translucence of Hollywood "situation rooms" would not stand the test of time. A serious room means serious business.
In the photo, Brig. Gen. Marshall B. "Brad" Webb, assistant commanding general, Joint Special Operations Command, is seated in the chair usually reserved for the president. Back in March 2010, it was Jay-Z in that chair. Hours before performing at a sold-out Verizon Center -- where he boasted to the crowd, "I just came from the White House" -- as part of his "Blueprint 3" tour, he toured the most top secret room on Earth with his wife, Beyonce, and an entourage that included R&B singer Trey Songz. Hova, who in a recent computer commercial acted as though he had the tools for global domination at his fingertips, then posted online a photo of himself at the head of the table. The administration was decidedly not down with it.
Political thrillers wouldn't be nearly as thrilling without the de rigueur Situation Room scene, its austere mahogany luxury providing the perfect backdrop for scenes of presidential decision-making, geopolitical tradecraft and, when the Martians attack, either consummate bravery or craven pusillanimity.
When "Air Force One" wasn't up in the air with Harrison Ford's superhuman president, it was in the Sit Room with Glenn Close's super-loyal vice president. Although John F. Kennedy spent relatively little time in the Situation Room during the Cuban missile crisis, in the film "Thirteen Days," that's where he anxiously awaits news of whether Russian ships will violate the U.S. blockade. In the "The Fifth Element," the Situation Room communed with space.
Situation Room scenes in movies usually portray the president sitting at the head of the table, overseeing a taut, often overlapping argument about national security options and "go" codes. Here, the president is hunkered down almost anonymously, his attention directed with everyone else at a screen that lies tantalizingly out of frame. As they watch a real-time military thriller unfold before their eyes, they look for all the world like they're watching a movie.
A "We Got Him!" gathering is the ultimate come-as-you-are occasion. On a Sunday afternoon, the president came in off the golf course. It was fortunate that no one showed up wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with words that might be considered, uh, off-message.
The night that Saddam Hussein was captured, I was at a black-tie dinner from which a government official departed before the soup was on the table (another instance of suspending convention that is justified on only such an occasion) and must have been the best-dressed person in that situation room. In general, however, this is the rare White House event at which formality is unseemly.
When a death is involved, even the death of an enemy, any signs of jubilation and partying are vulgar. That must be why, in a White House crammed with sets of china, coffee was served in paper cups. It may also be why the official picture shows everyone with a properly somber and dignified expression, taken before the outcome of the mission was known. Had it been taken at the moment of success, an official explanation would have been required, stating that any signs of rejoicing were only because the Americans were safe, and not because Osama bin Laden was dead.
Published May 5, 2011.
Death comes nearly 10 years after he orchestrated the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil.