The White House Situation Room, the high-security complex beneath the West Wing where presidents watch history unfold and receive top-secret intelligence, has undergone a much-needed makeover for the first time in 15 years.
The yearlong gut renovation saw the ground dug out five feet to remove concrete and cables, the walls stripped to the studs, and the entire room refitted with enhanced security and technology. The government’s bill came in slightly north of its $50 million budget, according to Marc Gustafson, the Situation Room’s director who joined the White House to oversee the project and its team of contractors who all required varying levels of security clearances to work on site.
“The stonemason didn’t need top secret,” Gustafson said with a laugh, noting that the later phases of construction were more sensitive than the early groundwork.
While the name suggests a singular enclosure, the Situation Room complex features three boardrooms of graduating size; two breakout rooms for Cabinet secretaries to phone their agencies; and a command center known as the “Watch Floor,” where a dozen staffers watch intelligence and media feeds from around the world.
The new changes are most apparent in the John F. Kennedy conference room, the largest that’s known colloquially as WHSR JFK: Sleek, mahogany finishes paired with navy carpet, ultra-modern monitors lining the walls, and a digital board with time zones selected each day based on global hotspots likely under discussion. (When the White House toured reporters through the complex, the zones selected were Kyiv, Tehran, and Zulu, the zone fixed at prime meridian and used by the military.)
Gustafson, who describes it as “a marriage of traditional and modern,” said President Joe Biden’s jaw dropped when he saw it this week alongside the senior White House officials involved in the renovation, including those from the WHSR, National Security Council and White House IT. Biden cut the ribbon to christen the new facility on Tuesday.
An extra touch: Seals for the president, vice president, national security adviser and Executive Office of the President are stored in a nearby closet to be swapped out depending on who’s helming the meeting. The new seals, approximately two feet in diameter, were enlarged at the request of White House photographers who suggested they needed to be larger than attendees’ heads.
The Situation Room, originally built for the Kennedy administration to receive and send secure information after the Bay of Pigs invasion, is the stuff of political lore, having been depicted in shows like “The West Wing” and “Homeland.”
It’s where US presidents and their top aides hold calls with foreign leaders, receive and digest classified information, and watch intelligence feeds showing history unfolding in real-time. And Gustafson said the Room, pre-renovation, had been subjected to “heavy wear and tear.”
It’s where Biden tracked the withdrawal from Afghanistan, including learning of the death of 13 service members outside of an airport gate in Kabul. Biden also appeared unannounced in the Situation Room to join aides as Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, Gustafson said.
It’s where aides briefed President Donald Trump on intelligence related to the coronavirus in early 2020.
And, in one of the smaller rooms, it’s where President Barack Obama and his national security team followed the Navy SEALs raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2011. During the renovation, that room was removed entirely and fashioned into two, cubby-sized breakout rooms for Cabinet secretaries to make secure calls to their agencies. The original room depicted in the Pete Souza photo “Situation Room” will be rebuilt in Obama’s Presidential Library.
A phone booth used by Biden when he served as vice president was also removed and placed in storage for preservation purposes.
During the construction, White House aides erected makeshift Situation Rooms in the West Wing and in a staff building across the street. When cocaine was found at the White House near the outside building entrance that leads to the Situation Room, national security adviser Jake Sullivan acknowledged the complex was out of commission.
“The Situation Room is not in use and has not been in use for months because it is currently under construction,” Sullivan said in early July. “So the only people coming in and going out of the Sit Room in this period have been workers who are getting it ready to go.”
And it’s likely the last renovation for the foreseeable future. Gustafson said the new room was constructed in panels that can be swapped out when they need to be modernized or replaced.