White House situation room, 'nerve center' of bin Laden raid, turns 50

The White House situation room is now associated with one of President Obama's successes, but it owes its existence to JFK's great blunder.

Reuters/White House/Pete Souza/Handout
U.S. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011

The picture is already an icon: President Obama and his national security team, gathered around a conference table, rapt as they look at an update of the Osama bin Laden raid as it occurs.

But here’s a fun fact about that photo – the room where that team is sitting, the situation room, had an anniversary almost the same day that photo was shot. The famed White House command center is 50 years old Friday.

President Obama marked the anniversary by speaking to situation room staff.

“It’s the President’s eyes and ears. Providing the latest information and alerts, it’s the nerve center for the US government,” said Mr. Obama, in a statement.

And it owes its existence to a US operation that was as big a failure as the bin Laden raid was a success: the Bay of Pigs.

The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles in April 1961 was a flop, to put it mildly. Fidel Castro’s armed forces crushed the invaders within three days. It was a coup for him and a disastrous defeat for the US president of three months, John Kennedy.

According to historian Arthur Schlesinger, JFK figured that one reason the Bay of Pigs failed was that he got only secondhand updates on the situation. Mr. Schlesinger writes in his book “A Thousand Days” that Kennedy and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy wanted a place where they could get the same real-time info the Pentagon and the CIA got, and where the chief executive and his closest advisers could weigh this data in confidence and come to their own conclusions.

In retrospect, lack of timely updates may have played a minor role in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. But in the weeks between the Bay of Pigs and May 15, Kennedy’s naval aide Tazewell Shepard enlisted a bunch of Seabees and turned part of the West Wing basement “into a facility that some political scientists say changed the fundamental nature of the presidency,” writes Michael Bohn, a former situation room director, in his 2003 book “Nerve Center.”

How did it do this? Information is power, and by putting more information at the fingertips of the Oval Office, the situation room boosted a president’s power relative to the four-stars and spymasters of the national security establishment.

The room is actually a warren of rooms, expanded and technologically updated in 2007. It now hosts about 25 secure conferences a day, states an administration video tour of the space.

JFK’s role as father of the situation room wasn’t forgotten Friday. His daughter Caroline and a slew of former and current national security officials watched as Obama dedicated a secure conference room to the 35th president.

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