- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2006

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 project, said with a laugh yesterday 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 yesterday 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 responding 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.

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