Chamber of secrets: Inside the White House Situation Room

This week the world caught a glimpse of the room where the President's toughest decisions are made.
Click to follow
The Independent US

It's all in the name. The Situation Room is where the buck makes the descent to its final destination. It's the most important room in America's most important building. When White House photographer Pete Souza released the shot of Obama, Biden, Clinton et al watching events in Pakistan unfold, the image of the Situation Room immediately became as famous as any White House photograph since Stanley Tretick's portrait of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr peek-a-booing through his father's Resolute Desk.

The intensity in Souza's image comes from precisely what isn't in the frame. We can see the President still in his golf slacks, fresh from nine holes at the Andrews Air Force Base course, but not what he's looking at.

They're all captivated, but all we can evaluate are the protagonists' emotions: Biden, poker-faced; Clinton, horrified and "no drama" Obama strung with tension like a sharp Stradivarius.

Whether they were watching a live feed from a Navy Seal's helmet or CIA director, Leon Panetta, describing events in Abbottabad, the image will be one of the defining ones of the 44th President's time in office.

The most shocking part is the room itself: a cramped space with Obama perched in the corner. Is this broom cupboard really the Situation Room? Well, no – not really.

We're media-trained to know that the Situation Room is the dark hub of decision making, where presidents, from The West Wing's Josiah Bartlett to 24's David Palmer, make life or death decisions. But although it doesn't look anything like President Merkin Muffley's "War Room" in Dr Strangelove, it has been the home of some of the most important calls of the last 50 years – from events in Vietnam and Iraq to the death of Osama bin Laden on Sunday. Built in 1961 after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs led JFK and his National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy to rethink the White House's communications facilities, the "Sit Room" actually comprises a number of rooms tucked away in the West Basement of the White House.

Renovated towards the end of George W Bush's presidency, it hosts 25-plus conferences a day and provides constant updates to the executive branch.

The singular noun confuses. Many assume the Situation Room is solely the main conference room – the one you can see Reagan in, left – , but the complex also includes a private office for the President (complete with windows that fog up at the touch of a button), a "surge room" for unfolding emergencies, the "watch floor" where intelligence staff keep an eye on the world and a couple of smaller conference rooms. Sunday evening's cramped shot comes from one of these.

West Wing trainspotters might also enjoy the capsules with top-secret phones (nicknamed "Superman tubes" by staff) and mahogany panelling that's made from the same grain as woodwork on Air Force One and Camp David – lest the President feels homesick.

As these images show, we've seen the inside of the Situation Room since its inception, but never has its inherent drama been displayed so vividly as in Souza's work on Sunday evening.