The Justice Department is spending $400,000 to set up a 24-hour command center that officials say will improve their response to hijackings, terrorist attacks and other emergencies.
The center, being constructed in a secure room at the department's headquarters on Constitution Avenue NW, will include telephones, teletypes, computerized equipment and at least three televisions for monitoring coverage of a breaking event. A half-dozen employes will be assigned to staff the room around the clock.
The center will contain direct phone links to the White House, State Department, Defense Department and other agencies. The FBI has communications links with the same agencies at its emergency operations center across the street, which is sometimes used by Justice Department officials.
Officials said the idea surfaced after the TWA and Achille Lauro hijackings last year, when they had to gather in an assistant attorney general's office and realized they had no central locale for dealing with late-night crises.
Several Justice officials said privately they view the planned operation as unneeded, the result of a fascination with fancy gadgetry.
But Mark Everson, special assistant for management to Attorney General Edwin Meese III, said it is "a modest effort compared to what else is around town."
"This will provide a communications link to track people or get them packages at off-hours," he said. "If an incident is important enough to involve the attorney general or deputy attorney general, it gives them the ability to gather information quickly . . . . Someone can take a call from the watch officer at the [White House] Situation Room who says, 'We need an expert on counterterrorism.' "
Asked why Meese, who sits on the National Security Council, is the first attorney general to seek such a center, Everson said: "It's a big oversight. It's long overdue."
Still, Everson said, "We are really being quite frugal about this." The center's furniture, he said, will be made by federal prisoners.