A “situation room” is a physical room in which key decision makers gather to share information and make plans about the major issues affecting their future.
National governments can have a situation room; so can municipal governments or even cable TV shows. Wolf Blitzer’s television show “Situation Room” may be one of the best-known such rooms in the world.
In the United States, the Situation Room is located in the basement of the West Wing of the White House. It was first established in 1961 and has been described as “the most sensitive single location in the US government.” It’s the place where key military and intelligence discussions take place, including discussions about the US nuclear arsenal and the country’s relations with other nations.
According to the White House archives, President John F. Kennedy created the first situation room because he “determined that future presidents would need a dedicated crisis management center and ordered the construction of a secure communications site. This became the first White House Situation Room.”
The White House situation room is kept as private and secure as possible. Only people with the highest-level security clearances can enter the room. Even people who have been thoroughly vetted by the secret service must leave their personal electronic devices outside the room before going in.
Over the years, the White House situation room has acquired a certain mystique. Whenever the nation faces a crisis, or a major military decision needs to be made, the president and key advisors meet in the situation room to decide how to best address the issue. Typically, the White House feeds into the mystique by releasing photographs of the president taken at key moments in the situation room.
One of the most iconic situation room photographs in our time is the image of President Barack Obama and his team of key advisors in May 2011 as they waited to learn whether Seal Team Six had succeeded in its mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. The photo shows the president and his team looking highly focused, leaning forward and watching a screen as they wait to learn what’s going to happen. The team looks close-knit and relatively informal.
Ironically, the photo itself was not taken in the situation room. The White House photographer, Pete Souza, took it from a small conference room next to the situation room itself. But the photo, with its intensely charged atmosphere and plentiful emotion, lives on as many people’s image of the situation room.
Eight years after the iconic Obama photo, the Trump White House released a picture of President Trump taken during the military operation underway against Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The photo is strikingly different from the one of Obama and his team. Here, President Trump and his advisors are wearing suits and ties; the members of the military are in full dress uniform. Instead of being pictured in an emotional moment, the team is shown looking stoic. The press, unsurprisingly, made much of the moment and of the contrast between the two photographs.