White House makeover: Sit­u­a­tion Room up­dated, up­graded

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Joseph Curl

The most se­cure room of the most se­cure build­ing in the world has un­der­gone a com­plete over­haul for the first time since the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion, bring­ing the White House’s nerve cen­ter of com­mu­ni­ca­tions into the 21st cen­tury.

Since its cre­ation shortly af­ter the 1962 Cuban mis­sile cri­sis — when Pres­i­dent Kennedy re­al­ized that com­mu­ni­ca­tions within the White House were in­ad­e­quate to han­dle a ma­jor break­ing in­ter­na­tional con­fronta­tion — the Sit­u­a­tion Room has been the site where pres­i­dents have dealt with the world’s most ur­gent crises.

But the room — ac­tu­ally a se­ries of con­fer­ence rooms, of­fices and a com­mand-and-con­trol cen­tral hub — could not keep up with tech­nol­ogy, and es­pe­cially the power and wiring needs that re­quires. The White House be­gan a ma­jor ren­o­va­tion of the area, on the ground floor of the West Wing, on Aug. 15, strip­ping much of the site down to bare brick.

Shortly af­ter Christ­mas, though, the cen­tral com­mu­ni­ca­tions cen­ter in the White House will re­open, and the covert op­er­a­tions co­or­di­na­tors who work around the clock 365 days a year will re­turn to one of the world’s most high-tech of­fices. And up­grades for fu­ture pres­i­dents will be as sim­ple as un­plug­ging old equip­ment and plug­ging in the new.

“Now we won’t have to cut through ma­hogany pan­el­ing to make room for ev­ery­thing,” Joe Hagin, the deputy White House chief of staff who over­saw the pro- ject, said with a laugh on Dec. 19 dur­ing a tour of the new fa­cil­ity.

Once the en­tire area was gut­ted, work­ers strung 40 miles of com­mu­ni­ca­tions ca­bles, lead­ing to 9,200 com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­nec­tors.

The pres­i­dent’s new main con­fer­ence room, which seats 21, fea­tures six 50-inch plasma-screen tele­vi­sions. While work­ers putting the fin­ish­ing touches on the fa­cil­ity on Dec. 19 were watch­ing “March of the Pen­guins” on one of the large screens, the pres­i­dent will use the mon­i­tors for se­cure video­con­fer­ences, link­ing gen­er­als on the ground 5,000 miles away or dis­as­ter co­or­di­na­tors re­spond- ing to hur­ri­cane dev­as­ta­tion in the United States.

Be­fore the ren­o­va­tion, the White House could han­dle two such video­con­fer­ences. Now, the new Sit­u­a­tion Room can hold up to five.

Cam­eras point in ev­ery di­rec­tion inside the room, in­clud­ing one tucked into the ceil­ing, which can be used to zoom into a piece of pa­per or lap­top screen to beam the im­age around the world. Two smaller cam­eras al­low the Se­cret Ser­vice to keep an eye on the pres­i­dent at all times.

One small touch could have come from Mr. Bush him­self, who loathes ring­ing cell phones: Black­Ber­rys and mo­bile phones are for­bid­den, and those brought into the se­cure area will set off alarms.

Some spots fea­ture the kind of high-tech giz­mos seen in Hol­ly­wood movies. The win­dows of the half-dozen of­fices along the cor­ri­dor to the main con­fer­ence room all have “pri­vacy glass.” With the flip of a light switch, the glass turns white, keep­ing pry­ing eyes out.

And in the main cor­ri­dor, three small glassed-in booths — look­ing a bit like the “Cone of Si­lence” from the 1960s “Get Smart” spy-spoof TV se­ries — al­low top White House of­fi­cials to con­duct se­cure calls. Walls in the con­fer­ence room are made of “sound-soak­ing” ma­te­rial, which im­proves acous­tics but also keeps ev­ery word ut­tered within the cham­ber.

Off the main con­fer­ence room, on a raised dais, will sit the “com­mu­ni­ca­tors” who pass along the in­for­ma­tion pulled to­gether in a nearby area called the “watch floor.” A row of com­put­ers flank one side of a long table­top, a bank of tele­phones just be­hind.

Down the hall will sit the watch work­ers, who keep track of crises around the world. Once spread out in a long “L” shaped area, the new setup puts three rows of “watch­ers” one above an­other, and at the top, the watch com­man­der.

Katie Falkenberg / The Wash­ing­ton Times

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin sur­veyed the retro­fit­ted Sit­u­a­tion Room in the West Wing, where the pres­i­dent can deal with crises us­ing 21st-cen­tury tech­nol­ogy.

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