The Secret History of the White House Situation Room

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Inside the White House Situation RoomHearst Owned
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We’ve seen glimpses of it over the years, with presidents Johnson, Reagan, or Bush inside it during national emergencies, or Barack Obama watching the Osama Bin Laden raid unfold. They were in the Situation Room, the high-security White House command complex where presidents go when things get complicated. It was until recently an “unbelievably unremarkable” physical space, says George Stephanopoulos, who was communications director for Bill Clinton and whose book The Situation Room: The Inside Story of Presidents in Crisis will be published next week. Last year the complex got a $50 million makeover, and now, Stephanopoulos says, it looks the part. “It has interior glass dividers that can go opaque and wall screens that can automatically be wiped of classified information if somebody without clearance walks in.” Still, one aspect remains the same: “It’s like being in a capsule where thought is concentrated and the closest calls have to be made. You feel that when you’re in the room.”

<p><a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>The Situation Room: The Inside Story of Presidents in Crisis</p><p></p>

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The Situation Room: The Inside Story of Presidents in Crisis

The book offers much more than a description of the evolving physical spaces and technology that comprise the Sit Room, as it’s called for short. It is a history of how the room has been used over the years told by the people who relied on it to do their jobs. It includes first-person accounts by cabinet members, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who describes working with the Sit Room team during 9/11. President Johnson recorded his conversations and the book includes transcripts of some of the nightly calls he made asking about casualty counts during the Vietnam War. Equally illuminating are Stephanopoulos’s many interviews with people who staffed the room.

Stephanopoulos spoke to T&C about his own experiences in the Sit Room and how he researched his book.

Did the idea for the book come to you when you worked for President Clinton?

No. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I found out, much to my surprise, that no one had ever really done a comprehensive history of how presidents and their staffs have used that room to handle the crises that have defined our times.

president obama announces death of osama bin laden
President Obama and his cabinet gathered in the Situation Room during the 2011 U.S. Special Forces raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin LadenThe White House - Getty Images

Who did you interview and why?

Everyone from cabinet officials to secretaries…it really ran the gamut. What was most exciting to me was being able to find so many people who had actually worked in the Sit Room as duty officers and directors. They're really the heart and soul of the room and their stories haven't been told before.

Were you surprised to learn how other administrations used it?

I've covered six presidents as a reporter, but I still learned something I didn't know about each president who used the room, about how it was used, and about the crises they handled. And I got many of these details from the perspective of apolitical officers who serve the presidency, not just the president who happens to be holding the office.

president ronald reagan holding a national security council meeting
President Reagan holding a National Security Council meeting on the TWA hijacking in the Situation Room in 1985.Universal History Archive - Getty Images

Tell us about the room’s staff.

The Sit Room is really three things. A place; a process that people use to handle crises; and the people who do it. Twenty-four hours a day, the staff and officers are taking in information from all over the world, public and private intelligence, digging through it,and figuring out what needs to be brought to the attention of the president and his top aides. And they're also the communication center for the White House. If the President is going to talk to a foreign leader, it all goes through the situation room.

It just got a big, $50 million upgrade. Do you think the Sit Room will continue to change?

It will have to because technology is moving so quickly. One of the people I interviewed for the book was Eric Schmidt [the former CEO of Google], who talked about the challenges and the opportunities that artificial intelligence both poses and offers to the Situation Room. On the one hand, because you can create so many kinds of deep fakes, it makes the job of those in the Situation Room harder. On the other hand, the job of many of those duty officers is sifting through mountains of information and that now can be done so much more quickly by computers, which don't need to sleep.

president bill clinton's first hundred days
George Stephanopoulos (on right, with fingers extended) at the White House when he was communications director for President Bill Clinton. Jeffrey Markowitz - Getty Images

Are there any protocols about how the room is used? Where does the President sit?

Usually at the head of the table but sometimes in the middle. When the President is there, the principals, meaning the cabinet secretaries, the national security advisor, etc., sit at the table. Usually there's a handful of staffers, the plus ones, who are seated on the perimeter.

Also, it's the ultimate no phone zone. You have to put your phone in a locker when you go in. And there are enough detection devices so that when somebody does bring their phone in, they're inevitably caught.

A version of this story appears in the April 2024 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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