It was like something out of a Tom Clancy novel. A somber and youthful President addressing the nation in an unprecedented late night broadcast, announcing that an elite team of Navy Seals had quickly and decisively killed the head of a global terrorist network. Television viewers across the planet watched as Barack Obama closed one chapter in the long struggle to bring to justice those responsible for the events of September 11th 2001.
In the hours and days that followed many speculated about the exact details of the dramatic raid. This speculation was exacerbated by the shifting official narrative of the raid coupled with a frustrating lack of physical or photographic evidence.
After the White House had decisively announced that they were not going to release photos of Osama Bin-Laden’s corpse, journalists, pundits and those of us curious about exactly what had happened were left with Obama’s speech and one enigmatic and very dramatic photo to ponder. Now known as the “Situation Room” photo, this one photo has in the weeks following the raid gained an iconic stature.
In the photo we see several White House, Defense and State Department officials intently watching the raid in real-time on what we assume to be a screen just off-camera. This all takes place in what is known as the White House Situation Room. In one telling expression, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton holds her hand to her mouth in what looks (since denied) like an alarmed reaction to something happening on the screen. Something the rest of us can’t see. Taken by official White House photographer Pete Souza and dissected by millions of viewers, the photo has emerged as the defining photo of the Bin Laden raid. And it is a powerful photo. Like many great news photographs, this photograph shows us a lot but tells us very little about what was happening in that room at that time.
As an outlet for the MCDM program at the University of Washington, Flip The Media has access to the MCDM’s very diverse and fascinating community of scholars, students and tech industry insiders. One recent addition to this community happens to have been, until recently, one of the architects of the room where this powerful photo was taken. In the wake of the Bin Laden raid Brian Sollom, former Assistant Director of the White House Situation Room and former counter terrorism officer agreed to share a little of what he could about the nature of the White House situation room and why it rightly deserves a place in our imaginations.
What is the history of the WHSR, and why was it created?
The White House Situation Room was created in May, 1961. As a result of the failed “Bay of Pigs” Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation to overthrow Fidel Castro, President Kennedy directed his National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy to create the Situation Room. President Kennedy’s experience during the Bay of Pigs operation showed him the need to access the same information the CIA and his military advisers were accessing, so that he could assess the situation independently, and confer with his advisers. President Kennedy wanted the room staffed 24/7 by intelligence officers working under the aegis of the National Security Council, originally created in 1947 under Harry Truman, so that he could be briefed on world events ahead of his meetings with his military and national security advisers.
With limited funding and space, Bundy was able to work with engineers to carve out a small area in the basement of the West Wing, an annex of the White House built in 1906. A single CIA officer, pulling back-to-back shifts, and sleeping on a cot during off-hours, originally staffed the WHSR. Initially the WHSR contained a single conference room, a projector room, and an outer office. The WHSR was also equipped with communications gear that could transfer information and calls to wherever the president was, including the new Air Force One presidential jet, and later, the Marine One helicopter.
We don’t know much about the WHSR, but it has been reported that it was renovated in 2006-2007. Why was it renovated?
Since the Kennedy administration, each subsequent administration has grappled with responding to domestic and international events, from the Vietnam War during President Johnson’s tenure, to Hurricane Katrina during President George W. Bush’s time in office. Each president, and his staff, has had to struggle with the amount of data generated by each event, and has attempted to utilize modern technology to collect, store, analyze, and disseminate this data as part of presidential policy decision-making. As a result, President George W. Bush directed his Deputy Chief of Staff, Joe Hagin, to oversee the first renovation of the WHSR, in 2006.
Deputy Director of the WHSR Jeff Harley giving us a guided tour of the facility. Note the decorating Tips.
I entered service as a Duty Officer in the WHSR on March 20, 2006, just prior to the renovation. I was tapped by the then-director of the WHSR to advise him on some of the technical and visual capabilities being considered for inclusion in the updated space. After completion of the retrofit, and after serving as a Senior Duty Officer for almost a year, I was asked to stay an additional year by a subsequent director, to help oversee an upgrade in technological capabilities ahead of transition in administration in 2008. This lifecycle upgrade was to serve not only President Obama, but form a benchmark capability for future administrations.
How do the President and other senior officials use the WHSR?
The primary mission of the WHSR is to provide situational awareness to the President of the United States (POTUS), and his key military, national, and homeland security staff during a crisis. The WHSR provides situational awareness through written and oral briefings, utilizing visualization technologies and services. The WHSR uses these technologies to connect the President with political, military, diplomatic, and business leaders in and out of the United States.
The tools here are designed to contextualize raw data for decision makers. This allows them to interact with the necessary data supporting policy deliberations quickly and efficiently. The WHSR helps metricize and visualize data so the POTUS and his staff can base their decisions on relevant, timely, and accurate information. Another way that I described this decision-making process is that it helps compress the time/space decision loop, so that the POTUS and his staff can attempt to manage a complex situation rather than reacting to a situation.
How did the renovated WHSR aid the POTUS during the Bin Laden operation?
Quite simply, the WHSR enabled the POTUS to host a number of his key staff in a shared space, viewing data in a variety of formats, while simultaneously connecting to a number of key staff in various locations outside the White House. The WHSR was able to provide technology and services to the POTUS and his staff that enabled situational awareness, facilitated consultation and debate, and aided real-time decision-making.
Was he able to view the operation in real time? Was he able to see Bin Laden shot?
I don’t know, because I no longer work there, and frankly, I don’t have a “need to know.” And a “need to know” is the governing principal in this and other sensitive government facilities. Perhaps the WHSR updated its capabilities since I left, which may have aided a real-time view of the operation. I just don’t know and probably couldn’t tell you if I did.
However, we can find out these details in the future when President Obama’s records become public, and other aspects of the bin Laden operation are declassified.
I’ll share with you a very telling and humbling lesson I learned while I was assisting the WHSR lifecycle upgrade. During the course of my final year at the WHSR, we met with the leadership of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). They are the people who document and preserve presidential records. We briefed them on some technological capabilities we wanted to include in the new WHSR. We were excited that we were going to utilize some new tools and cutting-edge technology. The head of the NARA delegation looked at me and replied that it was indeed exciting, but it was their job to ensure, along with others, that the POTUS have the time/space considerations to consult and deliberate with staff on historical decisions. Technology can aid presidential decision-making, but it cannot make it for them. There must be a buffer of time/space between the technology and the decision, so that the human elements of reasoning and fallibility are preserved in our nation’s history. That was a piece of wisdom that has stayed with me and is good advice for anyone looking at technology as an integral part of his or her business model.
Is the United States unique or do other governments have facilities like the WHSRs? If they do, do they have similar capabilities?
The short answer is yes. But a more relevant question for people who study the tactical use of technology in enacting policy might be: Do U.S. corporations have this capability? If so, how sophisticated are they?
My position is that government at all levels, as well as businesses, should create these capabilities to facilitate leadership decision-making. Moreover, once these situational awareness centers are created, they need to be connected to other nodes of decision-making. This might seem Orwellian, but consider the complex communication requirements each level of government needs –local, state and federal– before, during, and after a natural disaster or other critical event.
Are there other, better, newer, shinier, gee-whiz technologies WHSR should upgrade to?
Considering the current budget debate, the government is striving to provide maximum results with strained resources.
Should we update the WHSR with new capabilities? Yes. But with the pace of technological advances and the limited financial resources of our government this means that the WHSR has to procure technology that will last a number of years—most likely beyond the stated requirements of the current administration.
It all comes down to the human element. The duty officers are the greatest technology our country has to offer, and they can’t be replaced by hardware or software.
President Kennedy understood this. He created the U.S. Army Special Forces. He created the mission to fly astronauts to space and to the moon. He created the WHSR. He understood that no matter how cutting-edge or advanced the technology, it was the person, not the technology, who would succeed or fail based upon the ability to assess the situation and take the appropriate risks.