The Who2 Blog

The White House Situation Room Clocks are Rather Interesting

President Barack Obama holds a meeting in the Situation Room to discuss the shootings in San Bernardino, California. Date: Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015. Here, the President receives an update on the investigation from FBI Director James Comey. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

As we were prowling the White House Flickr photo feed recently, this photo of the White House situation room caught our eye. It’s from December 5 of 2015; President Barack Obama is discussing the San Bernadino shootings with his team.

If we can ignore the sad occasion, there’s something quite gripping about the precision and variety of those clocks.

On the left the clocks read:

11:46 LOCAL
16:46 ZULU/UTC

If the President happened to be in, say, Seattle, then PRESIDENT would read 8:46. “Zulu” is military speak for UTC, or Universal Time Coordinated — that is, the time at the prime meridian in Greenwich, England. We used to call this Greenwich Mean Time.

In the background there’s a second clock, and it looks like this:

Istanbul to Paris

17:46 PARIS

Istanbul is the biggest city in Turkey. Al-Hasakah is a major city in Syria that was the scene of major battles with ISIL in 2015. Paris is Paris. It’s not clear how those cities were chosen, but presumably they’re left over from some earlier situation room discussion about the Middle East?

Let’s look back at some other situation room photos

President Barack Obama convenes a National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room of the White House to discuss the situation in Ukraine, March 3, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Here President Obama convenes a National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room to discuss the situation in Ukraine. The date is March 3, 2014.


The clock in back reads:

03:22 MOSCOW
01:22 KYIV
00:22 PARIS

Kyiv is what we used to call Kiev; it’s the spelling used by actual Kyivers in the Ukraine. Glad to see the White House is keeping up. And the clock is, obviously, germane to the discussion at hand.

President Barack Obama participates in the annual hurricane preparedness briefing in the Situation Room of the White House, May 30, 2012. Seated clockwise from the President are: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; Daniel Poneman, Dept of Energy Deputy Secretary; Eric Silagy, FP&L President; Brian Koon, Florida Director of Emergency Management; Major General Emmett Titshaw, Florida Adjutant General; Chief of Staff Jack Lew; and Craig Fugate, Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

Here’s President Obama taking part in the annual hurricane preparedness briefing on May 30, 2012. It’s a little fuzzy, but…

…I’m pretty sure that says PARIS-ROME-BERLIN back there, all at 16:44. That fits — all three are on Central European Time. Again, maybe this is a leftover from a previous meeting?

Or I wonder if Paris-Rome-Berlin is the default setting for all basic meetings? You’d think they’d do more of a world span: Tokyo / Rio de Janiero / Athens, or something.


In case you were wondering about the famous photo of the White House team watching the killing of Osama Bin Laden, there are no clocks visible. Turns out this was in a smaller one of the three conference rooms that make up the complete White House situation room complex.

The situation room was created in 1961 by McGeorge Bundy, the national security advisor for John F. Kennedy, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Here’s how it looked on February 3, 1977, with President Jimmy Carter at a National Security Council meeting shortly after he took office.

Jimmy Carter in Situation Room

Good grief, how gloomy! You’d want to start a war in there no matter what was going on. And who can tell what time it is?

Ronald Reagan Situation Room

Here’s how the situation room looked in 1986 as President Ronald Reagan listened to a briefing on Libya. Groovy wood panelling, yes, but no big clocks. It’s frankly better to have lots of clocks. Who says nothing’s improved in the last 30 years? The whole situation room was renovated and reopened in 2007, thank heavens.

This cool White House video from December 2009 shows the whole White House situation room complex, which includes not just the conference rooms but the high-tech watch floor and “surge room” as well. Fast forward to 03:38 and you can see that there are cool digital clocks all over.

So to recap: there are some big digital clocks in the main White House situation room, each showing the time in three separate locations. One version of the clock is constant with White House / presidential time; the other changes according to the discussion.

The only question remaining is: who sets the clocks? The left-hand clock stays the same, but somebody has to decide which cities to feature in the right-hand clock. Maybe there are arguments.  “Beijing!” “No, Singapore!” “Beijing!” “Singapore!”

Or “K-I-E-V!” “No, K-Y-I-V!”

That would be a fun job.

(All official photos from the White House; Obama photos taken by Pete Souza.)


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