The White House has been expanded and modified numerous times since its construction in the late eighteenth century. The original mansion was designed by Irish-born architect James Hoban. His design was one among many submitted during a competition held to pick the most suitable design for the house of the American President.
The first major renovation of the White House occurred in 1902 under President Theodore Roosevelt. Today, an entire complex of underground rooms and chambers exists on the lower levels of the mansion. In all, there are six levels or floors in the residence, three elevators, eight staircases, and 412 doors.
The Subterranean Bunker Under the White House
The Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), also known as the White House Bunker, is a reinforced underground shelter built for the protection of the US President and other government officials in times of emergency.
Its primary purpose is to function as a command center during emergencies, such as a war or a terror strike. Hence, apart from the necessities of survival, it is well-equipped with all kinds of communication facilities, including phones and televisions.
This impressive structure, containing enough supplies to provide for the President and other top leaders over several months, is located underneath the East Wing of the White House. Rumor has it that a new, more advanced bunker was recently built under the North Lawn, but we’ll talk more about that a little later.
The White House Bunker was built in the 1940s during World War II, under the auspices of the 32nd US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, ordered a huge expansion and modernization of the bunker, turning it into the state-of-the-art bomb shelter it is today.
President Trump’s Retreat to the Bunker Amidst Protests
In recent months, the Presidential Emergency Operations Center has been in at the center of public discourse as well as the news cycle. This is because President Donald Trump was reportedly rushed to the bunker by Secret Service agents, when protests against police brutality and racial injustice erupted in Washington D.C., following the death of George Floyd.
It is protocol for the members of the President’s immediate family – under the protection of the Secret Service – to be taken down to the bunker in the event of an attack or emergency. According to CNN, First Lady Melania Trump was taken down there along with her 14-year-old son, Barron, during the protests on May 31. News reports suggest that the First Family remained in the bunker for about an hour, although President Trump has insisted that he only went down there for an “inspection”.
In the past, the most well-known use of the White House Bunker was during the September 11 terrorist attacks. In her memoir, former First Lady Laura Bush described (in vivid detail) her journey into the bunker, talking about the various kinds of mechanical equipment that filled the underground structure; the old tile flooring; the large, airtight steel doors; and even the pipes that hung from the bunker ceiling.
There is little evidence to suggest that the bunker has seen much use in the nineteen years since then.
The Design of the White House Bunker
According to journalist and author Ronald Kessler, who conducted extensive research on the White House for his book “The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game”, the bunker is located five storeys deep underground and has intricate systems in place for storing food and even breathable air.
The top of the bunker is sealed off with thick, reinforced concrete walls and ceilings. This lack of contact with the world aboveground is meant to ensure that, in the event of a nuclear attack, the radiation would not permeate into the bunker or affect the people inside.
After the Second World War, when the Soviet Union successfully tested a nuclear weapon in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, the US had to prepare itself for the possibility of a nuclear attack.
At this point, the White House underwent a massive remodel and incorporated tons of extra security measures within its premises. After all, it had to be retrofitted for the previously unimaginable threat of nuclear warheads. Being able to evacuate the President and other leaders to a safe, subterranean location at a moment’s notice was the first step towards that goal.
Since the White House Bunker is a secure location meant to provide a safe haven to the President and other members of the administration, not much information is publicly available about the extent or nature of the renovation that it underwent post World War II.
However, according to a White House staffer in a video from National Geographic in 2012, some of the additional security measures that have been installed in the bunker since the days of its original construction include infrared sensors, fault-monitored alarm systems, and state-of-the-art access control technology.
The White House bunker comprises one or more conference rooms, offices, a deep underground command center, and other facilities. Huge, airtight, steel doors lead into and out of the bunker. These underground facilities are staffed and maintained by soldiers from the White House Military Office (WHMO), undertaking 12-to-24-hour shifts on a regular basis.
There are no definitive reports on how deep underground the bunker is located. However, experts and researchers from the Union of Concerned Scientists – a US-based nonprofit organization focused on science advocacy – have speculated that it must be at least 1,000 feet deep, if not more. This, however, seems to contradict speculations by author and journalist Ronald Kessler that the bunker may be around five-storeys deep.
However, the Union of Concerned Scientists – a US-based nonprofit organization focused on science advocacy – has provided solid reasons for their assertion that the bunker might be a thousand feet deep. The most powerful nuclear warhead in the American arsenal can create an explosion that reaches up to 1,000 feet underground.
Hence, the scientists assert that the bunker must have been designed to withstand an attack of at least that magnitude. Of course, when it comes to a top-secret underground bomb shelter built for the protection of the US President from unforeseen calamities, some disagreement among experts is only to be expected.
The Role of the Secret Bunker During 9/11
In 2015-16, photos were released by the US National Archives that revealed what the White House Bunker had looked like at the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks, when it was used by President George W. Bush and his staff.
According to Retired Lieutenant Colonel Robert Darling of the US Marine Corps, Vice President Dick Cheney was physically carried into the bunker by Secret Service agents, where he was joined by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and other members of the erstwhile Bush administration. President Bush, who was not in Washington D.C. when the attacks began, joined them much later in the bunker.
Darling, who later authored the book “24 Hours Inside the President’s Bunker, 9/11/01: The White House”, said that Secret Service agents wanted President Bush, who had just arrived from Florida, to stay overnight in the bunker. However, the President refused, and only used the bunker to meet with his National Security Council in the days following the attack.
Rumors of a New, More Secure Bunker
Rumors abound about the larger, newer, and more secure underground facility that was reportedly built, in recent years, under the North Lawn, which is adjacent to the West Wing of the White House. This multilevel bunker was apparently conceptualized and built in reaction to the 9/11 terror attacks.
Before the attack by al-Qaeda, the only other time the White House had had to be evacuated in response to an emergency was in 1814, when British troops entered Washington D.C. and set fire to the White House in retaliation for an attack by the Americans on the city of York in Ontario, Canada.
After 9/11, the national security operatives responsible for the President’s safety realized how difficult it would be to evacuate the inhabitants of the White House via road, in the event of another terrorist attack. Leaving Washington by vehicle would be almost impossible, as all the roads would be clogged with traffic once news of the attack spreads and people start panicking. Leaving by helicopter too would be quite risky when the country is under attack.
Hence, the idea scheme of a separate, secure, and subterranean bunker under the North Lawn was born.
The General Services Administration (GSA) commissioned a massive project to be built under the North Lawn, close to the Oval Office in 2010. Officially, this construction project was supposed to replace and update existing infrastructure in the White House, such as the underground sewers and the water supply system.
Work began with the excavation of a massive pit in front of the West Wing. However, the scale of the project and the secrecy with which it was being undertaken, led many to suspect that the real goal was something different than simply updating the existing White House infrastructure.
The GSA apparently tried many different tactics to maintain secrecy. They constructed a high fence around the site of the excavation, ordered subcontractors not to talk to anyone about their work, and even taped over company logos and other information on trucks driving into the White House premises. However, these precautions did not keep onlookers from speculating about the truth behind the construction activities taking place in the North Lawn.
To this day, many believe that a new bunker was constructed outside the White House, in order to provide more protection for the President and his top officials during an emergency. However, if this is true, very few details about this new bunker are currently known, although speculation abounds.
The General Services Administration declared, in 2010, that the renovation and upgradation of the White House sewer systems would cost $376 million. This led many in the media (including CNN and ABC News) to speculate that the huge sum of money was in fact being used to construct a new, more hi-tech subterranean bunker. It is believed that the air supply in the new facility is completely self-contained and that the bunker is stocked with enough food to feed large groups of people for months.
Ronald Kessler told the Washington Post that when the Trump family moved into the White House in 2017, the President was given a tour of the new underground facility along with a few of his trusted officials. Articles published by various media outlets – in consultation with Kessler, Darling, and other experts – suggest that the new bunker remains unstaffed so as to maintain secrecy. Quite aptly, the Washington Post called it the White House’s “subterranean break glass in case of emergency option”.
The Tunnels Under the White House
Apart from the Presidential Emergency Operations Center and the rumored new bunker under the North Lawn, the tunnels under the White House provide another potential escape route for the US President and his aides, in the unlikely event of an attack.
There are numerous tunnels under the White House, but only two of them are known to lead out of the premises entirely. One of these tunnels leads to the Treasury Building and can eventually be exited through an unmarked outlet on H Street. This tunnel was designed so that it could also serve as a temporary bomb shelter during wartime.
The other tunnel is shorter and leads to the South Lawn of the White House, from where the President can access his personal helicopter, Marine One.
Rumors over the years have also suggested that these tunnels have been used to sneak friends (and dates) into the White House for after-hour tours, by members of various administrations.