- Associated Press - Monday, October 4, 2010

Forget about the midterm elections and speculation about West Wing personnel shake-ups. The big question being asked around the White House is: What’s that noisy construction really all about?

The drilling, clanging and banging are tearing up parts of the front lawn of the White House, obstructing the view for tourists on Pennsylvania Avenue and causing headaches - literally - for the staff.

“Every, like, three minutes for the past four hours, that machine has clanged to get the dirt off of the drill bit,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, referring a giant rig outside his office. “It is the single most unnerving thing.”

The work pace is so intense that it has raised questions, particularly among skeptical White House reporters, about the true purpose of the project. The government assures it is a run-of-the-mill upgrade of utilities, albeit one made more complicated by the fact that the White House must stay in operation the whole time.

Big construction projects - most of them unannounced, unexplained and done at undisclosed cost - are not uncommon at the White House.

Often they are hidden behind tall fences or even in temporary buildings shielding them from view. A major project undertaken during the Reagan administration was situated near the East Wing and lasted for many months, concealed from public sight. It was widely thought to be connected with the underground bunker known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, or the PEOC.

Protected by vault doors, the center is said to be able to withstand the devastating effects of a nuclear blast. Former President George W. Bush met with national security advisers there on the night of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Vice President Dick Cheney spent much of that day in the emergency operations center and, according to then-counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, complained that the bunker’s communications systems were terrible.

One project that was proposed years ago - and then dropped - called for digging under the North Lawn of the White House to excavate a cavernous space where underground offices would be built for the relocation of the press corps from their prized West Wing digs. Years later, a multimillion-dollar project was undertaken to strip the press area down to bare brick walls and completely rebuild and modernize the facilities.

At roughly the same time, the basement Situation Room complex was overhauled to install the video screens, fiber optics and other high-tech communications gear that until then existed mostly in movie depictions. Not surprisingly, the project was kept secret until just before the revamped site was reopened in January 2007.

In the current project, the General Services Administration, which oversees White House construction, said workers are updating a host of utilities in the East and West Wings of the building, including heating, cooling and electrical systems, as well as the fire alarm equipment.

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