05.19.11

Inside the Other Situation Room

The State Department’s crisis center has been operating in secrecy for half a century, currently keeping Hillary Clinton and others up to speed on what’s going on, from Damascus to Kabul, 24/7. Daniel Stone gets a rare peek at how “Ops” works.

Late in April of 1961, President Kennedy was planning the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. While his entire administration was at work figuring out how to depose Fidel Castro, Secretary of State Dean Rusk called up one of his senior aides. “Set up a crisis center right now,” he said, according to an unpublished memo declassified last month. “Figure out how to get rid of Castro and then we’ll see what else there is for the center to do. You’ll get any help you want in the department. Get going.”

Analysts assembled in one of Foggy Bottom’s biggest conference rooms with folders of classified documents and Soviet-style rotary phones. Of course, anyone could attest now that their efforts to take down Castro were never successful—including Fidel Castro himself, who formally stepped down as Cuban president last month—but the top-secret assembly became a permanent fixture in the State Department, keeping the secretary and local embassy officials apprised of any news around the world that could affect American citizens or interests.

Fifty years later, State’s Operations Center (simply referred to as “Ops” by staffers) is a high-tech data center constantly buzzing with new information. Diplomacy traditionally has been the art of lunching with the right people at the right time. But between the high-level meetings and State visits, the more manic information center at State helps make sure senior U.S. diplomats have the latest information before heading into high-stakes discussions.

It’s similar to the White House Situation Room in that it’s secure and off limits to anyone without the government’s highest security clearance. But unlike the president’s highly restrictive bunker, State’s center is operational at all hours, making it the epicenter of American diplomatic efforts whenever there’s daylight somewhere on the planet. “It’s the 24/7 nerve center,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told The Daily Beast. “Everything we do is a constant interaction with the op center…We literally around the clock have to be in contact with our embassies and counterparts and reaching out to people.”

Foggy Bottom is filled with lore about just how fast Ops can move. There’s the story about Clinton wanting to talk to an ambassador visiting Washington who left his cell phone in his hotel room. Nimble Ops analysts tracked him down by calling his hotel concierge, then sending photos to three different restaurant managers to scan their dining rooms—and got him on the phone, all in a matter of minutes. Then there’s one about former Secretary Madeleine Albright trying to reach a diplomat who was out of contact at a Redskins game. Operatives figured out how to flash a message on the Jumbotron for him to find a payphone.

Recently, however, the center has been supremely tested. Arab uprisings, nuclear meltdowns and the ongoing war on terror have forced Washington-based diplomats to pivot much faster. One analyst recalls in February watching the Egyptian protests in real time. “Mubarak is going to speak, the crowds are getting bigger, he may resign,” the analyst recalls someone shouting out, as the intel rapidly changed. When the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan showed signs of duress in April, the room immediately set up a task force to run scenarios of what the government would do if people poisoned with radiation arrived in boats on America’s shores. Each time WikiLeaks has published classified diplomatic cables over the past few months, the department has instantly set up crisis rooms to monitor the fallout.

“Other agencies probably have cooler toys, but we have smarter people.”

Staying up to speed around the clock and around the world takes its toll. For important issues, staffers have been known to call Clinton at 2 or 3 in the morning—oddly reminiscent of her iconic campaign ad against Barack Obama in 2008. But even during our short walk through the department, she credited Ops with keeping her constantly informed on current issues, from the Israeli Palestinian conflict (“It’s a complicated time we’re living through for everyone.”) to Libya (“I think what’s happened in the last several weeks is quite significant…we have to be patient but things are trending in the right direction.").

One might imagine a scene out of Jack Bauer’s counterterrorism unit on 24—dimmed lights, flashing screens, constant crises. “It’s not quite like that,” said a senior manager of the center, who insisted on not being quoted by name. “Other agencies probably have cooler toys, but we have smarter people.” Analysts sit in gray cubicles, under signs hanging from the ceiling identifying their titles—senior watch officer, watch officer, diplomatic security agent—which indicate how much information they receive. All wear Madonna-style phone headsets as they shout at each other to instantly set up conference calls or handle incoming cables from overseas diplomats.

A far cry from the old-style phones, advanced computers and TV monitors keep a pulse on every “area of interest,” as one analyst called them. Volatile places like North Korea, Libya, and Burma are constantly monitored. Digital clocks line the wall with the local time in what are considered, at any given time, the six most sensitive places on earth. (Earlier this week those were Tripoli, Damascus, Moscow, Kabul, Islamabad, and Singapore.) Another clock keeps what’s known as “Secretary Time” to track wherever Clinton is on the planet.

To get even remotely close to the complex of conference rooms is tough for even regular State staffers. Several guards block the approaching hallways. And before finally going in, you’d have to surrender your phone (tweeting, it seems, has not yet invaded diplomacy). When an analyst’s computer was experiencing a small glitch, I was asked to leave the room until it was fixed.

Getting to work in ops may well be harder than being an astronaut. Foreign Service staffers need a personal recommendation from their local ambassador just to get an interview. Then the hours are grueling – two morning, evening and overnight shifts each week. “You never adjust to it,” one former analyst told me. You have to commit to a full year, although some stay on for decades.

But the tools they get make up for the demands: data trackers, advanced radio receivers and Web-based conference calling that can get anyone, anywhere, into a conference call. (“I just talked to the prime minister of Egypt this morning, set up by Ops,” Clinton said as we walked through one of State’s whitewashed hallways.)

There is also the benefit of always being the first to know about what’s happening in the world. Karen Zareski, the center’s deputy director for crisis management, explained the standard much of the staff keeps: “If I don’t already know about something that’s on the international page in the newspaper, I consider it a failure.”

Daniel Stone is Newsweek's White House correspondent. He also covers national energy and environmental policy.