Situation Room Up Close
Posted by Xeno on May 6, 2011
Just below the Oval Office, in the basement of the West Wing, is the White House Situation Room. It’s one of the most secure conference rooms in the world, used for national security strategy sessions and the president’s classified briefings. Only a few people ever get to see the room in action. But the now-iconic series of photographs of President Obama watching the raid on Osama bin Laden’s secret hideaway in Pakistan offers a rare look inside the highly secure complex. A tour through the Sit Room’s most intriguing items:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s binder includes the label NOFORN, or “Not for Release to Foreign Nationals.” The classification is used in scores of White House documents that under no circumstances can be shared with personnel of other countries. For example, word about the raid in Abbottabad was intentionally, and carefully, kept from the Pakistani government.
All of the computers are made by HP, which won a major contract with the Department of Defense and several other federal agencies in 2006 following a brouhaha over the use of computers made by Lenovo. That company’s links to the Chinese government led politicians to challenge the State Department’s
$13-million equipment purchase for use on classified networks. The State Department eventually agreed that the computers would only be used in unclassified settings. Today, most computers in the Sit Room use the classification SCI, or “Sensitive Compartmented Information.” In other words, you can’t just throw a laptop under your arm and walk out of the building.
There’s a cardboard-colored laundry bag in every major room of the White House, but the burn bag in the situation room gets the most use. It’s designed for documents that can’t just be thrown away or shredded, but need to be destroyed. Each evening, the Secret Service collects all of the bags in the building to destroy the contents. Despite the name, few White House officials know if the contents actually get burned.
Atop one of the visible documents is a logo from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—a large but quiet department of the military that provides advanced mapping for on-the-ground planning during wars, and also for national crises like the BP oil spill or Hurricane Katrina. That blurry image on top: a close-up satellite image of bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound.
Even the president has to excuse himself to talk on the phone. The devices aren’t allowed in the Situation Room. Blackberries must be left in cubby holes in the hallway.
Who’s the woman peeking out from the back? A White House caption for the photo identifies her as Audrey Tomason with title “Director for Counterterrorism.” But in a room full of oft-cited and quoted people, there’s fleetingly little published information about who she is or what she does for the administration. Read more here.
The presence of Tomason is notable for a few reasons. Next to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she’s the only other woman pictured in the testosterone-filled room. And she appears to be the only person under 40. But what matters most is that she is standing just a few feet from the president, who is otherwise surrounded by his closest advisers, as they watch one of the country’s highest-stakes operations in decades as it occurs in real time.
When The Daily Beast asked the White House press office about Tomason, an official said she worked with the National Security Council, a White House agency closely involved with the intelligence that led to bin Laden. The official intimated that the White House generally doesn’t discuss personnel at any of the government’s covert or intelligence agencies. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the NSC, confirmed she worked with the agency. When asked why she had never been identified or mentioned before, Vietor responded “Well, we’ve never killed bin Laden before.” …