Watch and Crisis Management Officers, from left: Chukwudi Nwadibia, Jasmine Lopez, Lauren O’Doherty, Emily Yu, and Hermes Grullon, who participated in the Pickering Fellowship, stand outside the remodeled Operations Center, August 2022. Photo courtesy of Iris22 Productions
By Mackenzie Miller-Green and Vincent Cilli
“State Ops, this is Laura.” Alerted by the sound of a metallic chirp, Watch Officer Laura MacArthur answers an incoming call. It’s a duty officer at a Caribbean post, reporting that a powerful hurricane has changed course and is heading straight for the island. James Asuquo-Brown III—a Crisis Management Officer on shift—overhears the news and moves into action, working with the emergency action officer to draft a Department of State-wide alert. The Watch seamlessly coordinates a conference call with the affected embassy and seventh floor principals, while Asuquo-Brown III and his Crisis Management and Strategy (CMS) team contact the executive secretary and the regional bureau to organize a task force.
MacArthur and Asuquo-Brown III are two of the 75 employees in the Operations Center (Ops), the Department’s 24-hour crisis management and communications hub. Every new officer passes through an intense recruitment process, completing one of the most rigorous training programs the Department has to offer. After training, these officers join close-knit teams in one of Ops’ two offices: the Watch and CMS. They spend the next 12 to 24 months fielding calls from U.S. citizens in distress, alerting principals to late-breaking developments, connecting the secretary of state and his senior staff to foreign interlocutors, and organizing Department-wide crisis response efforts.
Starting this fall, Ops will finally have a space to match its mission when it moves to a new, dedicated, state-of-the-art facility at the heart of the seventh floor of the Harry S Truman Building. Occupying 21,000 square feet across from Mahogany Row, the new Ops space is half the size of a regulation football field. It features a large open floor plan equipped with the latest communication technology. Bright LED lighting flanks the glass entrance, stadium seating surrounds the new principal’s conference room, and the Watch floor features an isolation booth for sensitive translation and note-taking during the secretary’s calls.
Over the past 61 years, the intense, high-profile, team-first nature of the work in Ops has made the office an incubator for leadership within the Department. Today, it is more common than not to see Ops or the Line—Ops’ sister office in the Executive Secretariat (ES-S)—on the resumes of the Department’s senior leaders. This progress is impressive considering the humble origins of Ops.
Ops first opened in 1961, when Department officials posted an officer in a windowless room equipped with a cot, a pitcher of water, and a telephone. Fifteen years later, Ops added three dedicated crisis management specialists, an office that eventually evolved into CMS—the Department’s primary risk management and crisis response platform. CMS organizes task forces and monitoring groups in response to terrorism, civil unrest, and natural disasters. It also assists posts with contingency planning to manage risk to Department personnel and facilities more effectively. Crisis management officers don’t just collect and publish lessons learned from previous crises to ensure continuous improvement for the Department. They also provide regional bureaus with modern, real-time crisis management tools and robust networks across the Department and the interagency that are the foundation of the Department’s broader crisis response efforts.
As for the Watch, that lone officer with a cot and a pitcher of water has now been replaced by a robust, 40-person, 24/7 communications center.
Under Secretary of Political Affairs Victoria Nuland described the Watch as “the engine room of U.S. diplomacy.” It alerts Department principals to breaking news; produces timely briefs for the secretary and other Department principals; and directly supports more than 400,000 telephone and video engagements per year, thousands of which include the secretary and their senior staff.
Day and night, Watch officers maintain situational awareness across 12-hour shifts, providing policymakers with critical context from posts that goes beyond the headlines. The Watch also serves as the Department’s de facto 911 service, meaning no two shifts are alike.
“One night you could alert on missile launches and brief Department leadership while they’re still in the air,” says Watch Officer Jennifer Sheldon. “The next night there’s a major earthquake and you’re managing hundreds of emergency calls. This office definitely keeps you on your toes.”
The new space also reunites Ops with its sister offices in the ES-S—the Line, the Records unit, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) branch. While many know of the Line’s support of the secretary’s domestic and international travel, ES-S is also the link between bureaus and the Department’s senior leadership. It manages the daily flow and complete lifecycle of policy paper, from the initial tasking and editing process to communication with the interagency, the proper maintenance and retirement of records, and the processing of FOIA requests—actions that directly intersect with the Ops mission.
Bringing Ops and ES-S back into a single workspace reestablishes the seventh floor’s “one-stop operational shop.”
“Having everyone back together in one space will help principals get what they need more quickly, and also underscores that we are all truly one team,” said Records Officer Bruce Thompson.
Line Officer Danielle Nesmith expressed similar thoughts, describing the new office space as bringing a “renewed sense of purpose and reinvigorated energy” to the Executive Secretariat.
Also playing a critical role in support of the Ops mission is ExecTech, which provides 24/7 technical support and ensures the secretary has access to secure communications—whether at home, at post, or at 38,000 feet. Department Secure Voice provides employees with high quality, secure voice communication around the globe, while Bureau of Information Resources Management Secure Communications provides secure video communication for the secretary and Department leadership. From the Executive Secretariat, the General Services, Budget and Fiscal, and bureau Security teams moved mountains to make the new space possible.
“This project required close collaboration across multiple bureaus,” said Nick Porter, senior bureau security coordinator. “It’s a great example of the Department incorporating best practices and lessons learned from the security perspective. The new space will securely and capably empower the next generation of U.S. diplomacy.”
Although Ops had humble beginnings, the Department was ahead of its time in 1961, becoming the first federal agency to create a dedicated 24/7 operations center. Following the creation of State Ops, the White House quickly followed suit, establishing the Situation Room. By 1962, the Department of Defense reorganized various Pentagon offices into what is today known as the National Military Command Center. With the inauguration of its new home, Ops—and the people who work there—will once again be housed in a facility worthy of the federal government’s first and most distinguished foreign affairs communications center.
Mackenzie Miller-Green is a Watch officer in the Operations Center. Vincent Cilli is a crisis management officer in the Operations Center.