White House situation room, 'nerve center' of bin Laden raid, turns 50

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The famed White House command center is 50 years old Friday.

President Obama marked the anniversary by speaking to situation room staff.


“It’s the President’s eyes and ears. Providing the latest information and alerts, it’s the nerve center for the USgovernment,” said Mr. Obama, in a statement.

And it owes its existence to a US operation that was as big a failure as the bin Laden raid was a success: theBay of Pigs.

The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles in April 1961 was a flop, to put it mildly. Fidel Castro’s armed forces crushed the invaders within three days. It was a coup for him and a disastrous defeat for the US president of three months, John Kennedy.

According to historian Arthur Schlesinger, JFK figured that one reason the Bay of Pigs failed was that he got only secondhand updates on the situation. Mr. Schlesinger writes in his book “A Thousand Days” that Kennedy and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy wanted a place where they could get the same real-time info the Pentagon and the CIA got, and where the chief executive and his closest advisers could weigh this data in confidence and come to their own conclusions.

In retrospect, lack of timely updates may have played a minor role in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. But in the weeks between the Bay of Pigs and May 15, Kennedy’s naval aide Tazewell Shepard enlisted a bunch of Seabees and turned part of the West Wing basement “into a facility that some political scientists say changed the fundamental nature of the presidency,” writes Michael Bohn, a former situation room director, in his 2003 book “Nerve Center.”

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