News

Insider reveals the secrets of the Situation Room — where high drama and low farce collide

On May 1, 2011, President Obama, his workers and army brass watched the raid to on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound whereas crowded tightly collectively in the Situation Room, the sequestered advanced in the White House basement.

Official White House photographer Pete Souza captured the iconic second, but it surely solely occurred as a result of of technical difficulties.

Obama was initially alone as the mission happened, getting updates in a big convention room — regardless of its singular title, the Situation Room is definitely a number of convention rooms and workplaces.

The Situation Room book cover.
George Stephanopoulos’s new e book seems to be at the historical past of the Situation Room.

But, the tech crew couldn’t determine the right way to patch in a live video feed of the mission to that individual room, so the president watched historical past unfold with the relaxation of these assembled.

That’s “how you end up with this rather clown-car-like image of everyone trying to cram into the small room — because no one can quite figure out how to move the video over to the big room,” former National Counterterrorism Center director Mike Leiter tells George Stephanopoulos in his fascinating new e book “The Situation Room: The Inside Story of Presidents in Crisis” (Grand Central Publishing), out May 14th.

When most individuals suppose of the Situation Room, they think about one thing full of grandeur and mystique, like the epic struggle rooms depicted in motion pictures corresponding to “Dr. Strangelove,” however Stephanopoulos reveals it to be paradox.

It “has been the crisis center during America’s catastrophes,” where some of the world’s most “sensitive and sometimes scary information” has been shared, he writes. But the 5,500-square foot Situation Room can be, bodily, a “mundane place” that’s not above technical points.

Though the thought for the Situation Room was first prompt to President Eisenhower in the Nineteen Fifties, it was John F. Kennedy who acted on it, lower than two weeks after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

A location was picked — an outdated bowling alley under the West Wing — and a number of names have been prompt, from “Nerve Center” to “Executive Coordination Center.” Kennedy in the end picked a moniker coined by army researchers, who’d filed a report recommending a “National Daily Situation Room” for Cold War issues.

A desk and a world map in the White House Situation Room in 1962.
When it first got here into existence in the early Sixties, the Situation Room appeared fairly humble. Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
Interior long table and chairs in the Situation Room in 1962.
John F. Kennedy was the first president to implement a Situation Room. Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Less than a 12 months later, throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the Situation Room would show to be integral.

When Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev determined to take away the missiles, he introduced his plans on Radio Moscow, where the message was intercepted by Situation Room workers and instantly relayed to Kennedy.

“If the Sit Room had not yet existed, Khrushchev’s overture would have taken longer to arrive, and the Cuban Missile Crisis might have taken a much darker turn,” writes Stephanopoulos.

Twelve administrations have used the Situation Room, and every president’s angle in the direction of it “reflected his personality,” he notes.

Some, like Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, “wanted to be in the place where things happened.” Others, corresponding to Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, disliked being in the National Security Council’s area.

Lyndon B. Johnson and staffers look over a map in the Situation Room.
Lyndon B. Johnson had an unhealthy obsession with the Situation Room, typically spending sleepless nights getting common updates on the Vietnam War Universal Images Group by way of Getty Images

Ford most well-liked the Oval Office to the Sit Room as a result of, as his biographer Richard Norton Smith speculated, it was “a way to establish his legitimacy as president.”

Kissinger believed Nixon hated the Situation Room as a result of “Johnson had suffered from the ‘Situation Room syndrome,’” Stephanopoulos writes.

LBJ, his presidential predecessor, had an unhealthy obsession with the place, often spending sleepless nights getting regular updates on the Vietnam War. Johnson once told his wife, according to her diary, that he wanted “to be called every time somebody dies.” (It didn’t assist that each of his sons-in-law have been preventing in the struggle.) 

Lyndon Johnson at the head of a long table in the Situation Room with other men on either side. The table is filled with papers and folders.
Johnson as soon as instructed his spouse, in accordance with her diary, that he needed “to be called every time somebody dies” in Vietnam. Corbis by way of Getty Images

But Nixon additionally prevented the Sit Room room as a result of he was grappling along with his personal demons. In October 1973, as Kissinger and different White House advisers tried to resolve how to reply to the Yom Kippur War, Nixon “was holed up in the residence,” Stephanopoulos writes, “incapacitated by scotch, sleeping pills and depression.”

Stories from the Situation Room’s colourful historical past run the gamut from heroic to mad. 

During 9/11, similar to “the firefighters in New York rushed toward the burning towers, Sit Room staffers raced toward the White House,” writes Stephanopoulos. When the White House was given evacuation orders, as a result of of issues that terrorists have been concentrating on the constructing, the workers declined to depart.

Frank Miller, the senior director for protection coverage, requested all people to put in writing down their names and Social Security numbers. “We want to know what bodies to look for,” he defined. Even that chilling request wasn’t sufficient to get staffers to depart their posts.

There are additionally tales that sound like they may very well be one thing out of a sitcom. Ford not often visited the Sit Room for official enterprise, however usually traipsed via the advanced with First Lady Betty “in their bathing suits,” Stephanopoulos writes, “on their way to the White House’s new outdoor swimming pool.”

Ronald Reagan at the head of the table in the Situation Room, surrounded by advisers and papers.
Reagan (at head of desk) favored the Situation Room. He “wanted to be in the place where things happened,” Stephanopoulos writes. Universal Images Group by way of Getty Images
George Bush James Baker Richard Allen Martin Anderson Alexander Haig Ed Meese Larry Speakes David Gergen discussing the assassination attempt in the Situation Room/
When then-President Reagan was shot in 1981, VP George Bush and staffers gathered in the Situation Room to debate the tried assassination. Courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Jimmy Carter, throughout a Situation Room assembly to debate Desert One, the in the end doomed mission to rescue hostages from Iran, acknowledged that one of the colonels had a particular Georgian accent.

“You’re my neighbor!” Carter exclaimed, realizing they doubtless lived in the identical city. “Who are your folks?”

He additionally took conferences about utilizing “remote viewers” — higher often known as psychics — to collect intelligence and assist with army operations. During one dialogue with U.S. Navy captain Jake Stewart, Carter requested if psychics may very well be used to find the hostages.

“I don’t know,” Stewart instructed him. “Do you want me to try?” Carter simply nodded.

In 2012, Obama tried to contact a Saudi Arabian prince who was being handled at the Cleveland Clinic, however calls from the Situation Room have been repeatedly dismissed as a prank.

“They said, ‘Sure, fella!’ and hung up,” former Sit Room responsibility officer Drew Roberts instructed Stephanopoulos. “We called five more times with various ‘No, wait! I’m serious!’ ploys and were hung up on five more times.”

Omarosa stares straight ahead in a senate hearing, wood paneling behind her.
Trump aide Omarosa was the first individual to be fired in the Situation Room. REUTERS

Security in the Situation Room is tight — no cellphones of any sort are allowed, and, to this present day, no calls between heads of state are recorded. Instead, three staffers eavesdrop on headsets and write down the whole lot by hand, evaluating their variations later.

Only a handful of conversations in the room have ever been recorded. One of them was March of 1981, after Ronald Reagan was shot in Washington D.C. 

National safety adviser Richard Allen introduced in a small tape recorder to “capture the scene for posterity,” writes Stephanopoulos. It was frenzied, with White House chief of workers Al Haig demanding that earlier than something was revealed to the world, “we’ll discuss at this table!”

Bill Clinton and his staffers and military brass sit at a long table in the Situation Room.
Twelve administrations have used the Situation Room, and every president’s angle in the direction of it “reflected his personality,” Stephanopolous notes. Getty Images

The different recording got here in 2017, when Trump aide Omarosa turned the first individual to ever be fired in the Situation Room. She smuggled in a recorder.

It occurred, as Obama-era Sit Room director Larry Pfeiffer instructed Stephanopoulos, as a result of “nobody’s being frisked as they come in the door. It’s an honor system … Most of the people coming in and out of there tend to be very high-level, very important people. Certain assumptions get made that they’re going to do the right thing.”

The shadow of historical past is difficult to disregard in the Situation Room. During planning classes for the 2011 bin Laden raid, then Secretary of Defense Bob Gates couldn’t assist however bear in mind the failed try and free hostages throughout the Carter administration in 1980.

“You felt this ghost come in the room with him saying ‘I was here for that,’” deputy nationwide Ben Rhodes, a safety adviser for strategic communications, instructed Stephanopoulos.

An empty Situation Room with monitors, cords and phones strewn on the table in the middle of a renovation.
The Situation Room has been renovated at numerous factors over the years to maintain up with the occasions. AFP by way of Getty Images

Gates voted in opposition to the raid, noting too many similarities with Carter’s foiled mission. Obama heard out his issues, and the raid proceeded anyway, succeeding partly as a result of they leaned on Gates’s expertise.

“It was like a football team playing together an entire season, then rolling into the Super Bowl at peak performance,” Stephanopoulos writes.

Lots has modified since the Situation Room’s debut. It bought a $50 million improve final 12 months, with sooner servers and new tech for detecting unauthorized cellular gadgets, but it surely’s additionally come full circle.

“Once again, the United States and Russia are adversaries,” Stephanopoulos writes. “History is, in some ways, repeating itself.”

George Stephanopoulos in coat and tie sits at a news desk.
Author George Stephanopoulos was a senior advisor in the Clinton administration. He’s now a number on “Good Morning America” and “This Week.” ABC

And the Sit Room stays at the heart of all of it. Except now, younger staffers discuss with to it by its initials — WHSR, pronounced “whizzer.”

NSC spokesperson Emily Horne instructed Stephanopoulos that she’s as stunned as anybody about the change.

“I suppose I’m not one of the cool kids,” she instructed him, “because I still can’t bring myself to call it that.”

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button