White House Sinkhole Is A Reminder Of The Bunkers That Are Buried Beneath It

Reporters gawking at the sinkhole on the White House lawn probably don't realize there is far more under there than just soaked dirt. 

A sinkhole has opened up along the North Lawn of the White House and the press and social media are having a field day with it. But the earthen anomaly can serve as a reminder that there is much more to the White House than what meets the eye. For seven and a half decades, a bunker has sat deep below the East Wing of the presidential estate. And no, it is not the famed Situation Room located in the basement of the West Wing. This is an entirely different and far more secure facility, and it in recent years it was likely augmented by a much more extravagant and modern complex buried deep beneath the western side of the North Lawn adjacent to the West Wing. 

A labyrinth of passageways and rooms exists beneath 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the extent of which the public really doesn't know. Much of this infrastructure was born of the atomic age when the White House was gutted and rebuilt under the Truman Administration between 1948 and 1952. This project included the establishment of the secretive secure facility we now know as the President's Emergency Operations Center, or PEOC. 

National Archives

The White House seen totally gutted during the Truman renovation.

The facility actually dates back to World War II. At least a part of the space was originally built as a bunker for FDR, but with the Truman renovation, the bunker was expanded and drastically updated for a new era where atomic weapons and the fallout they produce posed massively greater dangers than traditional high-explosive bombs and other forms of attack.  

Prior to 9/11, the facility existed in a form that was far from lavish and was highly limited in regards to how many occupants it could support within its hermetically sealed vault-like interior during a crisis. Lacking the convenience of the Situation Room, but offering far greater protection, the PEOC was there for the President and Vice President, their families, and only their closest aides to survive a surprise emergency. 

The sparse facility is described in Garrett Graff's marvelous book Raven Rock (read our in-depth interview with Graff here) as having a cot-lined hallway, a 600 square foot operations and communications room, a small briefing area, and a large command room dominated by some big-screen TVs and a conference table that can seat 16 people. When in use, a specialized U.S. Army engineering unit out of Fort Belvoir sits ready to dig out its occupants if need be.

In 2015, a series of photos that were taken throughout the day of Dick Cheney on 9/11 were released. They offer an incredible look at the mood and actions of the White House top staff on that day, and they are the first images released that show the PEOC. You can see more of them here.

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The Bush Administration cabinet, with the then FBI Director Mueller in the foreground, watch the President's Oval Office address while still inside the safety of the PEOC's vault-like walls.

During and immediately following the attacks on 9/11, Dick Cheney, various members of the Bush cabinet, First Lady Laura Bush, and eventually President Bush, huddled in the sparse bunker. In Laura Bush's memoir Spoken From The Heart, she recounts being raced down to the dungeon-like facility on that fateful day, writing:

I was hustled inside and downstairs through a pair of big steel doors that closed behind me with a loud hiss, forming an airtight seal. I was now in one of the unfinished subterranean hallways underneath the White House, heading for the PEOC, the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, built for President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. We walked along old tile floors with pipes hanging from the ceiling and all kinds of mechanical equipment...

...I was ushered into the conference room adjacent to the PEOC's nerve center. It's a small room with a large table. National Security Advisor Condi Rice, Counselor to the President Karen Hughes, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, and Dick and Lynne Cheney were already there, where they had been since the morning. Lynne, whose agents had brought her to the White House just after the first attack, came over and hugged me. Then she said quietly into my ear, "The plane that hit the Pentagon circled the White House first."

The First Lady continues to describe being rushed down to the PEOC again later that evening:

We did finally climb into our own bed that night, exhausted and emotionally drained. Outside the doors of the residence, the Secret Service detail stood in their usual posts. I fell asleep, but it was a light, fitful rest, and I could feel George staring into the darkness beside me. Then I heard a man screaming as he ran, "Mr. President, Mr. President, you've got to get up. The White House is under attack."

We jumped up, and I grabbed a robe and stuck my feet into my slippers, but I didn't stop to put in my contacts. George grabbed Barney; I grabbed Kitty. With Spot trailing behind, we started walking down to the PEOC. George had wanted to take the elevator, but the agents didn't think it was safe, so we had to descend flight after flight of stairs, to the state floor, then the ground floor, and below, while I held George's hand because I couldn't see anything. My heart was pounding, and all I could do was count stairwell landings, trying to count off in my mind how many more floors we had to go. When we reached the PEOC, I saw the outline of a military sergeant unfolding the ancient hideaway bed and putting on some sheets.

At that moment, another agent ran up to us and said, "Mr. President, it's one of our own." The plane was ours.

What was discovered by Bush's staff, and in particular Vice President Dick Cheney, was that the facility was alarming underprepared for dealing with a fast-moving crisis. Cheney couldn't reach key personnel—there wasn't even a line between the bunker and the nearby Situation Room. The TVs couldn't video conference and provide audio from news networks at the same time. The facility didn't even have the systems needed for the President or Vice President to address the nation. At one point, the CO2 was rising in the bunker because it was only built to handle a small number of people within its sealed environment. 

In the end, command and control capabilities on that historic day were notoriously lacking. Essentially, it seemed as if the President and Vice President had the option of surviving in the cocooned facility or running the country, but not both. 

With the specter of the 9/11 attacks looming large, the PEOC was drastically upgraded to be more capable of tying the President into their command and control network and the outside world. New communications systems and enhancements to environment systems were installed largely at the direction of the Vice President who had dealt with continuity of government planning over the vast majority of his career. It still wasn't ideal, but the facility would at least hopefully be able to overcome some of the critical shortfalls experienced on 9/11.

Then, in 2010, part of the North Lawn adjacent to the West Wing of the White House was dug up and barriers were erected around the hole to hide part of a highly secretive a $375M construction project from the prying eyes of the very nearby media. The secrecy definitely brought on its own amount of media scrutiny, with stories popping up everywhere about how Obama was building a mysterious 'super bunker' under the White House lawn.

Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

The largest construction project in over 60 years at the White House kicked off in 2010. The four-year, $376 million project is being supervised by the General Services Administration (GSA), which says the work is needed to upgrade underground utilities such as water and sewer lines and electrical conduits. By all indications, it went far beyond just a utility upgrade. 

Dubbed officially an air conditioning and mechanical systems upgrade, by almost all accounts part of the project included a new, massively expanded, PEOC—one replete with the latest communications, computer systems, and environmental technologies that could allow the President and their staff to operate unimpeded for extended periods of time during a crisis. In other words, we are likely talking about a fortified, deeply buried, five-story office building—an underground emergency White House if you will—that is in itself akin to a giant SCIF, which would also make it an ideal locale for holding highly sensitive meetings. 

For years, steel beams and concrete disappeared into the chasm and an army of contractors worked away at what was literally a hole in the ground. But today, by looking at the area, you would have no clue what lies beneath. 

Google Earth 

The North Lawn of the White House just off the West Wing ripped up during the mysterious multi-year White House construction project. It was literally right in front of where the press post up on a daily basis.

This new and improved facility could also seemingly offer the Secret Service more options when it comes to deciding where and when to move the President, Vice President, their families, and key members of their staffs, during a crisis. In the past, the decision would have to be made to move them to other continuity of government sites, like Camp David, Raven Rock, and Mount Weather, or shelter in place. With similar capabilities of those other sites now available on the White House grounds, the option of staying put is likely far more attractive for all but the direst of circumstances. 

Considering how fast an attack or a major crisis could occur, it is questionable if there would be enough time for Marine One to launch from its alert site at Anacostia and make it to the White House and scurry the President off to a remote and highly secure location in time. With this in mind, a new and greatly enhanced PEOC certainly would seem to be long overdue. It's also worth noting that an armada of other military helicopters is also on alert to move other administration officials off to secure locations scattered around the region, from the northern Allegheny Mountains own to the Carolinas. 

It's also worth noting that the sinkhole seems to exist along the perimeter of where the new construction took place in 2010-2012. But that doesn't necessarily mean the two are directly related. Washington DC was fittingly built on a swamp remember and it has been a particularly wet stretch for the Capital. But it's funny that such a small thing would grab so much attention from the press when there is likely a state of the art command center and continuity of government bunker right below their feet. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com