On Aug. 21, the day of Syria’s alleged chemical weapons attack, President Barack Obama called senior aides together into the White House’s secure, high-tech national security Situation Room to discuss … Obamacare.
The White House released an official photograph of the meeting, which had been scheduled before the apparent massacre, on its Flickr stream. It shows the president at the head of the table in the basement nerve center’s main conference room, apparently addressing officials on various video-conference screens.
That Aug. 21 meeting highlights how the administration has been using a secure facility originally designed to manage the government response to natural disasters or terrorist attacks, or oversee military operations, for purposes unrelated to national security.
Obama’s days since then have been consumed with plotting the American response to Syrian strongman Bashar Assad’s actions, with a death toll Washington has set at about 1,400 civilians. Several of the president's discussions, taking place in the Situation Room with grim-faced national security aides, also appear on the official White House Flickr stream.
The president of the United States, of course, is constantly required to juggle multiple crises at the same time, in addition to overseeing the regular functioning of the executive branch.
But during George W. Bush's presidency, the White House used the Roosevelt Room, not the Situation Room, for video conferences not related to national security issues (as well as more than a few that were). That ground-floor West Wing space had one screen, nestled in an oversized cabinet, though aides could also wheel in other video-conference devices as needed.
So why hold an Affordable Care Act meeting in the White House's most tightly controlled bunker? Surely they aren't lending symbolic weight to the Republican argument that the law is a disaster?
No. The Obama White House has generally been less reluctant than some other presidents' to put the state-of-the-art Situation Room — about 2,700 square feet in the West Wing basement — to other uses.
A White House aide told Yahoo News on Friday the Situation Room now serves for a variety of meetings, sometimes because there are few other spaces available that have its breadth of communications capabilities. The Obamacare meeting pictured, for example, included more than a dozen people calling in from outside Washington to discuss setting up state-based marketplaces for insurance.
In March, Obama press secretary Jay Carney said the space “frequently” serves for meetings “on different topics that are not related to national security issues or classified matters."
While the West Wing has a “supercool” reputation, Carney told reporters, “it is an amazingly small space.” And when the Roosevelt Room is already occupied, “the options are few.”
In April 2012, Obama did a rare interview in the Situation Room with NBC News as he took a victory lap of sorts one year after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. That operation generated one of the iconic photographs of the Obama administration, taken — you guessed it — in the Situation Room.
And in March 2010, CNN reported that pop music megastars Beyoncé and Jay Z’s behind-the-scenes tour of the presidential mansion had included a stop in the Situation Room.
This week, the Situation Room has served as Vice President Joe Biden's bunker as he works to persuade wary lawmakers to back military action against Syria. While it's not clear whether he has been discussing classified information — one of the room's chief uses — the space could hardly fail to impress the power of the presidency on his guests.
What does the famous "nerve center" of the White House look like? The White House threw open the Situation Room doors in December 2009 and produced this video. Still not satisfied? The Bush administration invited reporters to walk through the newly overhauled Situation Room in December 2006. Here is The New York Times piece written at the time.
Situation Room personnel once asked for attendees' cellphones and pagers to be left at the front door, but the refurbishment added sensors in the ceilings that detect such devices and alert security, White House officials said.
During the 2006 tour, reporters were taken to the much-photographed main room, where the president typically holds National Security Council meetings. It held six flat-screen televisions with video-conference cameras and displays that highlight the current security level of the discussion and whether the microphones are on to avoid potential slip-ups.
UPDATE: Phil Lago, the career intelligence professional who, as a senior member of Bush’s National Security Council, oversaw the total overhaul of the Situation Room, writes in to share his unique perspective:
“I believe we built a powerful capability for the president, and his staff, to use any way that he sees fit. It was built for him. One of our goals in the overhaul was to transform the Situation Room, spiritually as well as physically, from the Cold War relic that it was to a state-of-the-art facility to be used for issues that we couldn't envision,” Lago writes.
“Remember, the concept and tagline, ‘homeland security’ was in its embryonic stage. The goal, even then, was to meld the two staffs together, to force the government to work closer together on these issues,” he says. “President Bush was adamant about having the national- and homeland-security communities working hand in hand; but that is easier said than done. We saw the need to develop tools that would force this to happen.”
“We also gave the President a capability to speak to larger segments of the country from the situation room. The video-conferencing capability allows him to talk, at the highest classified levels, about sensitive security and military issues, but also allows him to talk with governors and local officials at the unclassified level,” Lago explains. “We used the room to communicate with regional emergency management organizations and some of the global and regional health issues of the time.”
“I remind folks: We built it for the President to use how he sees fit," he says. "We didn't build it so we could tell him how not to use it.”