The White House, Washington DC
18 April, 1987
The Situation Room was located on the basement level of the White House, far away from the prying eyes of White House employees, visiting guests, diplomats and the host of others who might have daily business on the surface-level floors. There were no windows to allow those on duty the chance to glean an indication of weather conditions in the world outside, or the time of day. Perched on a wall in the watch area were five clocks. Each one displayed the current time of London, Moscow, Peking, Tel Aviv, and Washington DC respectively. Situation Room staffers were grateful for the inclusion of DC time because it allowed them to keep track of the current time without having to rely on time zone math to do so.
On this early morning, the watch team on duty took little notice of the time. The team members had come on duty at 2300 hours and would be undermanned until 0400. The scheduled duty officer, and two analysts were absent for different reasons. One analyst had a flight delay while returning home with his family from vacation and was going to miss the entire shift. The other had arrived back in the US two hours ago from a conference in Ottawa. He would be in by 0400 for the second half of the watch.
The duty officer was missing because his wife went into labor around dinnertime the previous night. The couple was now at Georgetown University Hospital happily awaiting the birth of their second child. Luckily, the DO had enough foresight to arrange coverage ahead of time, preventing the overnight watch team’s shift from becoming an unmitigated disaster.
Major Dan Ellicott, USAF, was that coverage. He agreed to cover his friend without giving the matter a second thought. After all, he had two children himself. Ellicott would be leaving around 0400. He’d managed to convince his own relief to come in early, allowing Ellicott to get home and enjoy a couple hours of sleep at least before it was time to help his wife get the kids off to school in the morning.
The first hour of the new watch team’s shift went by at a brisk pace. Being short-handed placed extra responsibilities and tasks on everyone’s shoulders. For Ellicott, his primary function as the overnight DO was to ensure that the President and National Security Adviser were kept up to date on the current world situation. This task largely involved pouring over dozens of cables, wire service reports, and news broadcasts from potential or real-time crisis areas.
The current stream of inbound information was light and did not include anything critical that might necessitate a message or phone call upstairs. Every fifteen minutes or so, a US Army sergeant walked up to Ellicott’s desk in the watch area and dropped off a new stack of documents for review. The Air Force officer read over one through, scribbled a handful of notes in the margins, and then delivered them to the intelligence analyst on duty. The analyst this morning, a National Security Council staff member, would then decide if the information was worthy of including in the watch team’s morning summary, or one of the more significant daily briefs that await the President and NSC principals.
The world on this morning was quiet so far, Ellicott was happy to see. The national and international media had gone into a quiet period concerning coverage of the Iran-Contra scandal. It was a nice diversion, Ellicott reflected, but wouldn’t last much longer. For the last six months or so, the burgeoning scandal had dominated NSC and Situation Room activities. It certainly hadn’t helped that some of the alleged main players in the scandal were NSC staffers, and senior administration officials. Ellicott had arrived here from the Air Force Chief of Staff’s office in early January as the replacement for one of the twelve or so DOs and NSC staffers who resigned in November and December of ’86 over the scandal. Ostensibly, the reasons for these hurried departures were chalked up to health issues, and desires to spend more time with family members. The Situation Room grapevine told a more unofficial story. Ellicott was inclined to believe it was more accurate and closer to the truth, but he never voiced this opinion to anyone besides his wife.
Professionally, once all of the Iran-Contra related grief was set aside, Ellicott was fulfilled by his work at the NSC. But he was uncertain how much longer he’d be here for. There were only six months remaining on his DC tour, and even though time spent in Washington was essential to future career advancement, Ellicott was eager to return to flying.
It was approaching 0115 hours. In the corner of the watch area was a television set tuned to CNN. Twenty-four hour news was a still rather recent and untested element of journalism. It held great, untapped potential for the future, Ellicott surmised. But there were still some bugs to be worked out. On the plus side, CNN sometimes broke stories and provided accurate, timely information to the Situation Room staff faster than the CIA, or Pentagon. The counterbalance to that lay with the news channel’s often less-than-objective tone. In some cases, especially concerning Iran-Contra, CNN’s purposeful editing of story context increased the workload for DOs like Ellicott, who occasionally had to inform the President, or NSC Principals that the events reported by CNN were incorrect.
Ellicott glanced at the television screen and wondered how long it would be until the previous day’s sports scores were displayed. Mid-April was a busy time of year in the sports world. The baseball season was underway, hockey playoffs were just starting and the NBA post-season was a few days away from commencing. He wanted to get an update on the west coast scores and considered changing the channel to Headline News briefly to satisfy his curiosity.
Before he could do that, the Army NCO came into the center and brought a single sheet of paper to the DO’s desk.
“What have you got for me there?” Ellicott wondered.
“Just received this over the wire, sir,” the short, balding E-7 announced as he handed it over. “From Reuters. Moscow.” Ellicott scanned the sheet. It had come from a Reuters correspondent in Moscow who was reporting gunfire in the vicinity of Red Square. That was all.
“Gunfire?” Ellicott wondered aloud. Not a common sound in Moscow, especially near the Kremlin, he knew. “That’s interesting,” he concluded.
“Maybe a mugging, sir?” the sergeant speculated lightly.
I doubt it,” Ellicott chuckled. “Street crime is something our friends in Moscow don’t see very often. At least not that I’ve heard. Probably just rehearsal for the May Day parade or something and the reporter got spoofed.” He stretched and yawned. “Let me know if anything else comes over the wire about Moscow.”
Ellicott went over to the cubicle where the watch team’s intelligence analyst was working. They discussed the wire service report for a few minutes and the civilian agreed with his assessment. The gunfire probably had to do with May Day preparations or something similar. With this task complete, the Air Force officer returned to his desk and found a new pile of cables and messages waiting. Without giving the Reuters wire another thought, Major Ellicott sat back down and dove into the new batch of work.
Twenty minutes later the black phone on the desk chirped, startling him. He recovered and answered it. “Situation Room. Duty officer.”
“This is the watch officer at State Department Ops,” a very serious sounding, and unfamiliar female voice said at once. Ops was the shorthand name for the operations center in the basement of the State Department building. It was manned 24 hours a day with a staff similar to the one in the White House Situation Room and performed almost identical duties. “We’ve just received flash traffic from our embassy in Moscow. There are tanks and a lot of Russian soldiers in the streets around the embassy compound and in other parts of the city. A short while ago an explosion was heard in the direction of Red Square and now columns of smoke are visible. Do you have any information on your end?”
“No,” Ellicott responded at once. Then he remembered the Reuters wire report and mentioned it.
“Yeah, we got that over here too,” the woman at State confirmed. “Also, it appears Moscow radio and television have gone off the air. Stand by for a minute.”
“Right.” Next to the phone was a pad and pen. Ellicott started writing down the information provided by the State watch officer as he awaited her return. Gunfire and explosions in Red Square. Troops and tanks in the streets. Radio and television off the air. Whatever was going on in Moscow, it was serious.
The watch officer came back on the line in under a minute. “I’m sorry about that. It’s becoming a zoo here. More reports are coming in and the wire services are really picking up on it now. I have to go, but if you hear anything on your end please share. I haven’t had time to get in touch with CIA or the Pentagon.”
“I’m calling the NMCC when we hang up,” Ellicott assured her. “I’ll get back to you after I speak to them.”
“Thanks, I’d appreciate it. Okay, let’s get moving. We have a lot of work to do and I think we’ll both need to start waking people up soon.”