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Original New York Times article (copy below)


Ridge Guides Tour of New Situation Room to Coordinate Action in Crises

WASHINGTON, May 8 If foreign or domestic terrorists strike the United States again, Tom Ridge and his crisis coordinators at the Office of Homeland Security now have a situation room of their own, a decidedly medium-tech operation of ordinary telephones, flat-screen television sets and off-the-shelf computers.

It is a place rich in history. In World War II, code breakers labored in the same buildings to crack Germany's secrets. But today the Threat Monitoring Center and its related areas seem somewhat less than the kind of hardened bunker designed to survive an attack on Washington. It occupies the first and second floors of an aging building guarded by a mix of the Navy police and hired officers from Wackenhut, the company from Florida that also guards nuclear power plants, prisoners and corporate executives.

Mr. Ridge, whose authority has been questioned and whose organization has been faulted for coordinating everything but controlling nothing, gave reporters a tour of the center this morning, before a veil of secrecy falls over it.

He showed off conference rooms where live television hookups will allow the Pentagon, the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to talk to one another, the kind of coordination that never quite came together on Sept. 11.

"This is a key part of our national strategy," Mr. Ridge said, holding court in the monitoring and coordination center. "We didn't realize it, but we needed something like this."

But if Hollywood is looking for an updated version of the White House Situation Room, the Pentagon's secure Tank or the F.B.I. Operations Center, they will not find it here.

The television monitors this morning were tuned to CNN, Fox News and "Divorce Court," until one of Mr. Ridge's aides turned off the marital discord. Based on Mr. Ridge's description, communications with local officials appear largely dependent on commercial telephone service, which jammed on Sept. 11 in New York and Washington.

But in ordinary times, that may be enough. Mr. Ridge hopes that most of his staff of 100 or so officials, borrowed from other agencies, will be based here while he keeps a small staff at the White House.

If a crisis should erupt, there is reason to question whether the new center could keep operating. Unlike the White House Situation Room, it is not underground. For reasons they would not discuss but that seem mostly to have to do with nearness to official Washington Mr. Ridge's staff members decided not to place the center well away from the capital. It is 4.3 miles from the White House.

Is that not uncomfortably close, Mr. Ridge was asked, if a "dirty bomb" exploded near the White House or biological attacks hit the capital?

"We needed to get up and get moving," he said. "And this is what we have for the time being."

Outside experts say it may be just be far enough from downtown to keep running in case of a nuclear attack. The Wisconsin Project for Nuclear Arms calculates that a medium-size nuclear device detonated near the Mall would cause extensive damage and radiation downtown, where the White House, Federal Bureau of Investigation and State Department crisis centers are situated.

But everything north of the vice president's residence, three miles away, would most likely survive, and Mr. Ridge's new center is just beyond that radius. A "dirty bomb," a crude device that releases radiological material, would presumably damage just a few blocks.

Mr. Ridge said his goal was simply to ensure that federal fiefs talk to one another in times of calm and, certainly, in times of crisis. On Sept. 11 and again as anthrax moved through the mail, the government had difficulty gathering experts and had problems conveying information.

In quieter times, Mr. Ridge said, the officials "will do what the president asked us to do, assess the threats we face."

Eric Paulos / admin@eiu.org