As part of a major, two-year overhaul of the West Wing, President Obama will move into a replica of the Oval Office, which will be located in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House.
Real Clear Politics’ Alexis Simendinger has the scoop this morning. She reports that the “new” Oval Office will be ready by August, if the President is ready to move and “if design challenges are resolved.”
“This week, fresh lumber and rebar are visible as walls rise out of the ground at 17th and State streets NW, at the southwest corner of the executive office building that began as home to the U.S. War Department in 1888. The small construction site, which is shrouded from view by tall chain-link fences and forest-green tarps, signals one of the preparatory phases for the eventual West Wing overhaul, according to sources familiar with the plans.”
My colleague Carol Joynt first reported last year that the President would be relocating sometime in 2013.
More intriguing still is why exactly the President is being relocated at all. For months now, the speculation among some of my sources has been that the White House is building a secure command and control facility underneath the existing structure. These people used to work in the White House in national security positions, and their informed speculation is that the President is going to get a state-of-the-art bunker from which he would be able to issue commands in a time of emergency, such as a terrorist attack on Washington. (Current White House officials have been tight-lipped, and the official line is that all the underground construction is for “infrastructure” repair.)
The existing White House “bunker,” the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), is not up to the task, my sources say. Many will remember what a difficult time Vice President Dick Cheney had on September 11, 2001, when, while holed up in the PEOC, he had trouble keeping in constant communication with President Bush, who was hopping around the country aboard Air Force One. The PEOC is a Cold War relic, outfitted with some sleeping quarters and provisions for the President and a small number of staff. But it’s not capable of serving as a modern command post.
The White House Situation Room, which was renovated in 2007, would suffice as a presidential command center, but only if there is no surrounding threat to the President’s safety, sources say. If the White House were physically damaged in an attack, or if the air outside were filled with chemicals, biological agents, or radioactive material, the President would have to shelter in place, perhaps for an extended period.
In this regard, the physical location of the mysterious new structure is telling. Construction began in a deep pit in front of the West Wing. It encompassed West Executive Avenue, which separates the White House from the adjacent executive office building. This proximity to the Oval Office suggests that the facility is designed for the President to be able to get there quickly.
Presumably, if the White House were affected by an attack that made the outside air dangerous to breathe, the Secret Service would not want to evacuate the President by taking him outside. (There is direct access to the Colonnade and the Rose Garden from the Oval.) Some speculate that since the Oval Office itself is being so significantly renovated–work could last for more than a year–the plan might be to install direct access from the Oval to the new underground structure bunker, a sort of emergency exit or “trap door.” I’m told by one former White House official that there is a crawl space beneath the existing Oval Office, but that there’s not, as yet, any way to evacuate the President without taking him out of the office itself, whether outside or through the West Wing. That could change.