Situation Room Receives New Look, New Technology

Complex under White House West Wing has $50M upgrade
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 8, 2023 2:19 PM CDT
White House Situation Room Undergoes a $50M Upgrade
This image provided by the White House shows the completed renovations in the White House Situation Room on Aug. 16.   (Carlos Fyfe/The White House via AP)

The White House Situation Room—a space of mystique and secrecy—just got a $50 million facelift. Actually, "room" is a misnomer, writes Colleen Long for the AP. It's a 5,500-square-foot, highly secure complex of conference rooms and offices on the ground floor of the West Wing. These are rooms where history happens, where the president meets with national security officials to discuss secret operations and sensitive government matters, speaks with foreign leaders, and works through national security crises. It's where President Barack Obama watched the raid that took down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011 and where President Lyndon Johnson went over Vietnam War plans.

The redo, the first since 2007, was no small update: The total gut renovation took a year to complete. The White House opened the classified space to a group of reporters this week for a rare visit. President Biden got a tour on Tuesday and then received an intelligence briefing there. The renovated space has a modern-but-vintage vibe. Old floors, furniture, computers, and other tech were stripped out and replaced with pristine mahogany paneling from Maryland, stonework from a Virginia quarry, LED lights that can change colors, and flat-screen panels. See-through glass offices fade to opaque with the press of a button. The whole space has that new-car smell. But there are still plenty of landline phones: No cellphones are allowed in the secure space for security reasons.

Access is tightly controlled and generally restricted to the president's national security and military advisers. Anyone listening in on classified briefings needs clearance. Even the contractors working on the renovation had to get temporary security clearances. Illuminated signs flash green for declassified and red for classified. The hush-hush complex was created in 1961 after the Bay of Pigs invasion: President John F. Kennedy believed there should be a dedicated crisis management center where officials could coordinate intelligence faster and better.

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After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the complex had a significant update. It's staffed around-the-clock by personnel who monitor breaking developments worldwide. It has a reception area with a US seal in stonework, then a main conference room, known as the JFK Room, as well as smaller meeting rooms and the "watch floor," a 24/7 operations center. Workers dug five feet underground to make more room and installed new technology. "Now we have all the capabilities," said Situation Room director Marc Gustafson. The goal is to never need a complete renovation again; the space was designed so panels can be removed and updated and new technology swapped in. Gustafson said visitors previously remarked that the room didn't reflect Hollywood's grand imagining of it. "This looks like the movies."

(More White House Situation Room stories.)

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