The Situation Room: An inside look at the president’s nerve center

Jonathan Karl, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Politics Confidential

The White House Situation Room may be the most famous conference room in the world. It is the place where the commander-in-chief wrestles through the presidency’s toughest decisions on matters of war and peace.

Michael Bohn, who managed the Situation Room during President Ronald Reagan’s second term and has since dedicated much of his life to studying presidential crisis management, sat down with “Politics Confidential” to give an insider’s perspective of what really happens in the government’s most important meeting room.

“It’s really the president's intelligence center that has a conference room,” Bohn explained during an interview across the street from the White House at Off the Record in the Hay Adams Hotel.

“It’s a complex,” he continued. “It's the president's alert center, intelligence center, and it used to have just one conference room. … Now they have three. And when you saw the picture of the president on the [Osama] Bin Laden raid, he was in one of the smaller conference rooms.”

Situated one level below the Oval Office in the West Wing, the complex is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by representatives from the Pentagon, CIA, State Department, and other agencies who provide up-to-the-minute intelligence updates from their respective agencies to the White House.

Because of the concentration of sensitive information that flows through the Situation Room, it operates under strict set of security protocols and is even outfitted with some superhero-like features.

“Once you go in there, you can't take your cell phone in,” Bohn said. “You'd have to put it in the cubby. If you want to talk on the phone, you have to go into an old-fashioned phone booth that closes, sort of like the Clark Kent cabinet.”

Though the Situation Room is considered integral to the presidency today, it didn’t exist prior to 1961. President John F. Kennedy called for its creation following the Bay of Pigs crisis, Bohn said, because “he was very dissatisfied with the flow of intelligence and information to him.”

“He said 'I want to get the information at the same time State Department gets it and the same time the Pentagon gets it,’” Bohn said of Kennedy. “It became the operational presidency. He could steer the ship instead of telling somebody down at Foggy Bottom or over at the Pentagon to do something. They could just do it right there.”

And by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Situation Room was fully operational.

“There CIA had the duty officers, they worked 24-hour shifts, and at night, they'd lay down on a cot, and then they had teletypes that brought in the information from State Department, Pentagon, CIA,” Bohn said.

In his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bohn said Kennedy offered a “five-star example of how to handle a big crisis with cautious, incremental steps.”

In his new book “Presidents in Crisis,” Bohn analyzed 17 crises addressed by presidents since Harry Truman and concludes that a cautious approach is generally more effective than taking bold action.

“Eight cautious presidents succeeded, five bold presidents failed, two presidents succeeded with bold action but there are little asterisks on both of them, and then two presidents failed with cautious attempts, so the data, the stats, are with the cautious people,” Bohn said.

One example Bohn offered of a president who failed with bold action was Bill Clinton.

In 1998, al Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa. Clinton responded to the bombings with bold action, striking al Qaeda targets in Sudan and Afghanistan.

At the time, Clinton was also in the depths of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And with just days before he was set to testify before a grand jury on the alleged affair, Bohn concludes that Clinton’s decision-making appears to have been clouded by the scandal.

“He wholly wagged the dog in my view, he changed his decision making process, he made a bold move that was wholly ineffective,” Bohn said. “There were training camps in Afghanistan, they were back in business two weeks later, 6 killed … 70 some cruise missiles in there. Sudan, pharmaceutical factory thought to be a nerve gas or chemical weapons factory, was an aspirin factory.”

By contrast, Bohn praised President Barack Obama for exercising caution in his handling of Syria, even though he said the president made “a mistake” by drawing a red line – which he then had to step back from in deciding not to launch a military offensive after the regime of Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons.

“Here’s the deal, he … gets his people in the Oval Office and says I'm going to punt this over to Congress,” Bohn said. “The majority of Congress was opposed to striking Syria, the majority of the public was opposed to striking Syria. … If you're worried about your credibility for making a practical, rational decision, then you have to think through that very carefully.”

To learn more about the White House Situation Room, and to find out which president has spent the most time there, check out this episode of “Politics Confidential.”

ABC News’ Ali Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Chris Carlson and David Girard contributed to this episode.