Situation Room Up Close

The Situation Room is one of the most secure conference rooms in the world; only a few people ever get to see it in action. Daniel Stone decodes the secrets hiding in the Sit Room.

Pete Souza, White House

Pete Souza, White House

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Just below the Oval Office, in the basement of the West Wing, is the White House Situation Room. It’s one of the most secure conference rooms in the world, used for national-security strategy sessions and the president’s classified briefings. Only a few people ever get to see the room in action. But the now-iconic series of photographs of President Obama watching the raid on Osama bin Laden’s secret hideaway in Pakistan offers a rare look inside the highly secure complex. A tour through the Sit Room’s most intriguing items:

Pete Souza, White House

The Coffee Cup

Everything served in the West Wing comes from the White House Mess, the small dining room next to the Situation Room. For most staffers who don’t sit for formal meals, it’s little more than a pickup window that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But everything the mess gives out—including cups, napkins, and plates—is emblazoned with the presidential seal. The pricing: a cup of joe costs about two bucks. Says one official: “It’s a little less expensive because it doesn’t have to run at a profit.”

Pete Souza, White House

The Binder

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s binder includes the label NOFORN, or “Not for Release to Foreign Nationals.” The classification is used in scores of White House documents that under no circumstances can be shared with personnel of other countries. For example, word about the raid in Abbottabad was intentionally, and carefully, kept from the Pakistani government.

Pete Souza, White House

The Computers

All the computers are made by HP, which won a major contract with the Department of Defense and several other federal agencies in 2006 following a brouhaha over the use of computers made by Lenovo. That company’s links to the Chinese government led politicians to challenge the State Department’s $13 million equipment purchase for use on classified networks. The State Department eventually agreed that the computers would be used only in unclassified settings. Today most computers in the Sit Room use the classification SCI, or “Sensitive Compartmented Information.” In other words, you can’t just throw a laptop under your arm and walk out the building.

Pete Souza, White House

The Burn Bag

There’s a cardboard-colored laundry bag in every major room of the White House, but the burn bag in the Situation Room gets the most use. It’s designed for documents that can’t just be thrown away or shredded, but need to be destroyed. Each evening, the Secret Service collects all the bags in the building to destroy the contents. Despite the name, few White House officials know if the contents actually get burned.

Pete Souza, White House

The Secret Service Lanyard

During times of high-stakes national security the room is tightly controlled, with multiple Secret Service officers monitoring who comes in and out. But otherwise, it’s open to anyone in the building who needs to hold a meeting. “If no one’s using it, you can just go in there and have a meeting,” says one official. It is, after all, still just a conference room.

Pete Souza, White House

The Blurry Image

Atop one of the visible documents is a logo from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—a large but quiet department of the military that provides advanced mapping for on-the-ground planning during wars, and also for national crises like the BP oil spill or Hurricane Katrina. That blurry image on top: a close-up satellite image of bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound.

Pete Souza / White House

The Missing BlackBerrys

Even the president has to excuse himself to talk on the phone. The devices aren’t allowed in the Situation Room. BlackBerrys must be left in cubbyholes in the hallway.

Pete Souza / White House

The Mystery Woman

Who's the woman peeking out from the back? A White House caption for the photo identifies her as Audrey Tomason, with the title "Director for Counterterrorism." But in a room full of oft-cited and -quoted people, there's fleetingly little published information about who she is or what she does for the administration. Read more here.