It was a familiar scene Monday evening -- too familiar. As news of yet another hostage crisis spread through the corridors of the State Department's Foggy Bottom headquarters, an emergency task force gathered around an oblong, Formica-topped conference table in a windowless room on the seventh floor.
A few feet from this "task force suite" was an office with a secured telephone and a Wang word processor, through which the State officials could communicate with their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon. Thirty yards down a hall lay the main Operations Center, where communications equipment heralded a new round of international crisis management.
There were about a dozen of them around the table -- representatives of the State Department's Near East Bureau, Consular Affairs Bureau, European Bureau and counter-terrorist program, as well as a Pentagon representative. They knew each other well; they had been through this before.
"It's a race to find out who's involved, who's at risk, informing their families, and so on," a State Department official involved with the group said yesterday. The task force, he said, "gets better each time around."
The crisis had begun about an hour before, at 5:30 p.m EDT, when Reuter and the Associated Press reported from Rome that armed men had seized an Italian cruise ship carrying 400 passengers in the Mediterranean and were demanding the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
White House and State Department spokesmen said yesterday that -- as frequently has been the case in recent years -- the media learned of the hostage-taking about the same time as the American government did. At the White House, a spokesman said, foreign correspondents were calling to confirm the story even before the national security adviser and the president had heard of it.
By 6 p.m. Monday, officials said, it was clear that the State Department would "take the lead" in managing the crisis. The decision to put State out front was an obvious one, they said. Communication with American embassies as well as foreign governments in Europe and the Middle East would be essential to obtain information about the ship's hijacking and to participate in any negotiations.
Secretary of State George Shultz was told of the cruise ship's hijacking while attending a private dinner for Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore aboard a Potomac River barge. White House spokesman Larry Speakes said yesterday that President Reagan and national security adviser Robert McFarlane discussed the matter twice on Monday night, and again yesterday at a 9:30 a.m. meeting in the Oval Office.
In addition, Speakes said, an "interagency group" met in the White House situation room Monday for one hour beginning at 8 p.m. He said that the group "was not at the Shultz level" but would not otherwise elaborate on its membership.
Geoffrey Kemp, a special assistant to the president for national security affairs from 1981 to 1985 and now a senior fellow at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested yesterday that the State Department may not be the ideal place from which to manage an international crisis.
"At State, you'll find that 30 people from each department" show up at the meetings, he said. "One of the big advantages to having meetings at the White House is that you can control who comes . . . The turf battles over who comes to the meeting are avoided." Kemp said that this limiting of access was often a practical matter; only Cabinet-level officials can enter the White House situation room without first undergoing computerized security clearance.
The relatively informal atmosphere at the State Department "is a problem," a department official knowledgeable about the Operations Center conceded. "But you're dealing with a bunch of people who operate on a very disciplined basis -- eight-hour shifts, manuals on everything. There is a 'zero defects' approach . . . You hope that from that cadre you've got enough people who can go in and give the right advice. Some task forces operate better than others."
This time, the seventh-floor task force is working around-the-clock, drafting policy recommendations, writing telegrams to overseas embassies and monitoring news and other communications. The group communicates at regular intervals with the White House National Security Council and the Pentagon. "It's a regular process," a State Department official said. "It's word processing very similar to the ones [in news rooms]."
"The critical question is always information," Kemp said. "On the whole, the media gets breaking information ahead of the government . . . One of the more fiendishly frustrating jobs is not just to check the media reports, but to compare them and decide which ones are accurate."
Equally important is controlling the flow of information out of the White House and State Department, Kemp said. "At the end of every meeting -- whether a conference phone call or a physical meeting -- there's an item on the agenda, 'press guidance.' You have to control leaks."
State's Operations Center was established in the early 1960s in response to the Cuban missile crisis, according to department officials. Its role was upgraded and its task force crisis rooms were expanded in 1970. Since then, the center has continued to expand in scope and authority. During the Iranian hostage crisis, it became responsible for coordinating information about all nonmilitary international incidents. "Iran was a watershed," a department official said.