In the spring of 1961, John Kennedy’s White House had a situation, but no Situation Room. Kennedy had just endured the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, a fast-moving fiasco that left the president frustrated at the confused flow of intelligence into the Oval Office.
And so, after the president put his own naval aide in charge of construction, a group of contractors and some Seabees worked at night to convert the mansion’s basement bowling alley into what is still the country’s most famous ultra-secure workspace: the White House Situation Room.
This week, the room is in the news as the surprising scene of the firing of former presidential adviser and reality show foil Omarosa Manigault Newman.
Most shocking of all were her claims of having sneaked out a surreptitious recording of the encounter with White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. It was a jarring shift in the history of a room that was designed expressly to keep its secrets in.
Previous chief executives had used various spots for their most sensitive communications, from Lincoln’s late-night visits to the telegraph office next door to the White House to Roosevelt’s in-house World War II command center in the mansion’s Map Room.
But the failed Bay of Pigs operation left Kennedy wanting a more robust and efficient movement of critical information in and out of the White House. The procedures, equipment and styles have evolved over the decades.
The Kennedy version was furnished in Danish modern. Richard Nixon refurbished it a decade later, and it was gutted and completely rebuilt at the end of the George W. Bush administration. But the basic function of the “Sit Room” has remained the same: Duty officers working around the clock in the space sift through intelligence feeds for the president’s daily briefing. And when a crisis strikes, it becomes a secure communications center with global reach.
“The Room” is in fact a small suite, consisting of three conference rooms and a duty watch station. There is little to denote the potential power flowing from those swivel chairs.
“It’s paneled, nicely appointed, but it’s not the war room that Dr. Strangelove had,” Michael Bohn said in a talk about the Situation Room’s history carried on C-SPAN in 2003. Bohn, who died earlier this year, was the naval attache in charge of the room during the Reagan years and the author of “Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room.” “But it’s not just a conference room,” he said, “it’s the president’s intelligence center.”
Located next to the White House mess, the Situation Room has been the scene of some of modern history’s most fraught moments. It was up and running for Kennedy’s faceoff with the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis. Lyndon B. Johnson spent so much time in the room during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, he had his Oval Office chair brought down and would sit there in his pajamas.
At the end of his presidency, Jimmy Carter spent endless hours in the room negotiating futilely for the release of American hostages in Iran. A few days before he left office, according to Bohn, Dennis Chapman, director of the Situation Room, delivered some papers to the president. Carter, worn out by his difficult term in office, put his arm around Chapman and said, “You know Dennis, the Situation Room is the only part of the government that never let me down.”
The catalogue of crisis moments is in the very air of a space that is the most secure corner of one of the world’s most secure buildings.
“You could always feel the weight of history in that room,” said Pete Souza, the White House photographer during the Obama administration. “Most of the time, it wasn’t a jovial atmosphere in there.”
Souza captured one of the most intense real-time dramas to unfold in any White House. On May 1, 2011, Barack Obama and most of his senior national security advisers squeezed into the smallest of the three conference rooms. A video link connected them with a Navy SEAL team in Pakistan as the fighters entered the compound where they believed Osama bin Laden was hiding.
Long gone were the analog wall clocks of the early years, the teletype machines that once made up the Situation Room’s hotline to Moscow. Now, as the team closed in, the president and his advisers watched live in the overcrowded space.
“I couldn’t move at all,” Souza said. “I was touching shoulders with two different people.”
From a professional standpoint, Souza has one beef with the windowless space: “The lighting of the Situation Room sucks.”
In the close confines of the White House, the room is inevitably used for things other than negotiating global trip wires. The Clintons’ Labrador retriever, Buddy, was occasionally exiled down there when he got too boisterous upstairs. Staffers have had birthday parties and Thanksgiving dinners in the Situation Room, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, once judged a pumpkin-carving contest there.
When there was a door to an outdoor pool in the room in the 1970s, the Carters were known to pad through in their robes. Bohn once heard Rosalynn Carter give the president “the business” when they walked through an occupied watch center: “I thought you said there wouldn’t be anybody here.”
As the Iran-contra scandal was unfolding, Oliver North and his secretary, Fawn Hall, reportedly borrowed the Sit Room shredder to destroy documents when their office shredder broke down. According to Bohn, a watch officer in the room, sensing an opportunity, took a bag of the shredded paper home to sell as souvenirs.
“I didn’t see him again after that,” Bohn said of the staffer.
That’s because, what happens in the Situation Room is supposed to stay in the Situation Room.
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