Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room

Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room – Book Review

John P.J. Derosa

by Michael K. Bohn, Brassey’s, Inc., Washington, D.C., 2003, 239 pp., $24.95 (hardcover).

It is 0100 hours. A message is handed to you, which reads, “Explosions reported in the vicinity of regional government offices.” Communications systems begin blaring, people demand answers, deadlines begin piling up, and to top it off, you are only in the middle of a 12-hour shift. Karbala, Kosovo, Kabul, or Kuwait–you could be pulling your shift in any number of world locations. Those who have worked in a tactical operations center know of the challenges faced by White House Situation Room Duty Officers.

In Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room, Bohn quickly establishes that the movie and television portrayals of the Situation Room are mythical. So much so, that administrations continually strive to downplay meetings conducted in their conference rooms. In fact, recent administrations, specifically that of George W. Bush, have put to use a video teleconferencing system to reduce the media exposure of meetings of the President’s principal deputies.

Nerve Center is presented in the same manner as Tom Clancy’s nonfiction works, such as Armored CAV, Airborne, and Marine. It begins with an anecdotal introduction followed by an evolution from origin to present day operations. Continuing, Bohn details the capabilities and limitations of the Situation Room. He concludes with a fictional account of the Situation Room embroiled in a future crisis.

At its basic level, the Situation Room is the President’s alert center. Born out of the 1961 Bay of Pigs failure, the Situation Room was created out of a determined need for the President’s staff to have a communications facility within the White House to receive, sort, and distribute intelligence reports from the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA. Moreover, President Kennedy wanted his national security advisor to be a personal presidential advisor, unlike previous administrations. Therefore, the national security advisor required access to the same information in near instantaneous fashion as the President’s cabinet secretaries. What has evolved is an-all-in-one alert center, communications hub, and meeting place that culminates intelligence for the President and his national security staff.

Bohn undoubtedly presents an insider’s perspective of the Situation Room. As a former director of the Situation Room under President Reagan, he was intricately involved in its day-to-day operations. Although a retired naval intelligence officer, he does not limit his perspective to a military view. Bohn readily includes the perceptions of White House civilians (both permanent and presidential staff) and State Department, CIA, DIA, and NSA duty officers.

Nerve Center joins the growing ranks of recent current events literature. A strong delineation, however, is its historical, rather than journalistic, focus. It achieves professional value from its primary source documentation. Gathering sources from interviews, public documents, presidential papers, press releases, speeches, journal, newspaper, and internet articles, Nerve Center is very well documented for a relatively short book. Impressively, Bohn conducted over 60 personal interviews, to include two former Presidents, six national security advisors, and six situation room directors. Bohn went to all extents to complete this book.

Although not in the normal genre of interest in the armor community, it is an interesting book nonetheless. Nerve Center’s appeal comes from its Tom Clancy-like approach. It chronicles a ‘behind-the-scene’ actor of U.S. security policy that has taken on a mystique all its own. While Hollywood created the myth, Bohn clarifies the legend.


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