New Situation Room: Secure Communications, Cable TV

ByJESSICA YELLIN

WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 —, 2006 -- Plastic is still covering the new carpets. The high-sheen wooden desks are wrapped in cardboard. And everywhere you look, busy experts are running around testing diagnostic computers.

But the new White House Situation Room is nearly ready to be unveiled and put to use.

The new and improved Situation Room is set to be operational on Jan. 1, with new technology, double the number of conference rooms (there were two, there will be four) and enough space to conduct five simultaneous teleconferences and reach the president anywhere in the world -- including Air Force One -- through secure communications.

Among the new features are two Space Age-looking phone booths with secure telephones and digital encryption fax machines, a central office with privacy glass that goes from transparent to milky with the flip of a switch, and massive flat-screen televisions that will be tuned to cable news shows 24/7 because, we're told, that's how White House officials often learn of developments around the world.

Deputy White House Chief of Staff Joseph Hagin described the redo as a radical overhaul.

"We gutted the old Situation Room down to the brick and into the dirt," Hagin said.

He also boasted that the project is ahead of schedule and under budget. And, he said, it's a "legacy project" designed to allow future administrations flexibility to install new technology quickly and with minimal disruption. Rack systems, trenches in the floor, and a new Situation Room budget are all intended to make quick upgrades feasible.

Hagin said the Situation Room is now fitted with the latest telecommunications equipment, allowing for a significant improvement in "the amount and quality of data that can be brought in."

According to Hagin, the idea for a Situation Room renovation dates back to the spring of 2001 when the White House commissioned the Department of Defense to study a communications upgrade. This became a priority after President Bush had difficulty communicating during the Sept. 11 attacks, Hagin said.

There have been significant technology improvements in the years since and the redo of the Situation Room is the "last piece of the puzzle," he said.

White House officials said the president has become so comfortable conducting meetings over secure teleconference that staff at the federal agencies have followed suit and the administration has seen a sharp spike in demand for secure teleconference time. In other words, there has been a real need for expanded secure teleconference facilities.

Demolition began Aug. 1 and construction started Aug. 15. The new Situation Room is built on the footprint of the former Situation Room, and takes up the same amount of space -- 2,700 sq. feet. It's wired with 40 miles of communications cables, 20 miles of electrical cables and 9,200 "communications connectors."

Hagin described the old Situation Room as "NSC-centric." He said the new space will be a White House facility, designed to be the communications hub not just for the National Security Council, but also for Homeland Security, the chief of staff's office and other senior staff needs.

A group of White House correspondents was given a tour of the renovated space. And here's what we saw:

We entered on the basement level of the West Wing, next to the White House Mess. On the wall near the door was a massive flat screen that would show the operator-on-watch video of the hallway outside the entry door. The same wall also featured a clock with multiple time zones -- Mountain, Central, Eastern and Zulu. These clocks are in nearly every room in the facility.

To the left was the president's conference room, which seats 21 comfortably but can hold up to 23. There are six flat-screen monitors -- two in front and two on the walls to the right and left. There is a massive cherry-wood desk (the president, of course, sits at the head) and the multi-time zone clock. There are cameras throughout with monitors that say "Mic OFF, Top Secret/SCI" and mirrored orbs on the ceiling that help with in-room security.

The walls are made of a grey and beige suede-like fabric called "sound-soak material," which helps with acoustics and the lighting, we were told, and is designed to enhance video quality.

In its current state, there's still plastic covering the blue carpet, cardboard on the high-polish tables, diagnostic computers and busy experts running around testing equipment.

Across the entry room, opposite the president's conference room, is the Sit Room director's office, which features privacy glass. Behind it is a communications center with digital encryption fax machines -- I counted five -- and a wall of telephones.

Down a little walkway is the Watch Floor (the official term for this area). This is where the duty officers sit -- four to five are on staff at all times. Hagin said this area shows the most improvement over the previous Sit Room.

The configuration is a bit like a small network television control room. There are two long console desks with a total of seven computer set-ups (each computer has three big flat-screen monitors) and on the wall ahead are three very large flat-screen monitors. When the room is up and running, they will be tuned to the cable news shows. Yes, we're told that the Sit Room monitors CNN, FOX and the wires around-the-clock. Because, Hagin said, that's often where they first learn about breaking news.

While this room has been under construction, the White House has held secure teleconference meetings in the Roosevelt Room and, when the president is not involved, in various rooms in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

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