Jewish World Review June 11, 2004/ 22 Sivan 5764
Big Brother really is watching
WASHINGTON While you were watching President Ronald W. Reagan's caisson wend its way up Constitution Avenue to the Capitol Rotunda on your television screen, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson was watching you on his screen.
Or, more accurately, watching out for you on numerous satellite video screens in his Washington-based "Command Center" - a surreal, high-tech, couch-potato fantasy located in a large, converted conference room a few steps from Thompson's office in a nondescript building on Independence Avenue.
Thompson gave me a tour of his universe Wednesday, a few hours before Reagan's body arrived in Washington for funeral ceremonies. The aptly named Command Center looks and feels like a hybrid of "Star Trek" and "ER." I half expected Spock and Leonard McCoy to beam down and report to Captain Thompson.
All four walls are filled with plasma television screens, the latest in display technology, including some with satellite videoconferencing capabilities. The floor space is filled with rows of tables and computers, and populated with men and women from various branches of the military as well as civilian experts in science, medicine and bioterrorism.
Thompson put this place and team together about two years ago following the anthrax attacks. Caught off guard and harshly criticized for his handling of the anthrax scare, he clearly doesn't intend to allow a repeat.
"This is the most exciting war room in the world," Thompson says with grim pride. With its own ventilation system, it is also impervious to bioterrorist attack.
If a bomb goes off, Thompson says, "we can stay."
There is solace in that knowledge, even if the technology that permits such preparation is chillingly Orwellian.
"What's your address?" Thompson asks. I give him a street number and a grid suddenly appears on a screen with a tiny computer-generated hand resting on the spot. When I asked if he could tell whether my assistant had shown up for work, Thompson laughed, but not much. In a few months, technology under development will allow his staff to zero in on a license plate.
Another wall is covered with one huge screen (which is really 10 screens cobbled together) that can project the entire planet as a flat, one-dimensional image with touch-pad access to location-specific information. An adjacent wall is home to four television screens that can pick up 4,000 stations. I lift a telephone receiver to hear the telecast from Al-Jazeera. Other screens map weather, storm damage and diseases.
Thompson points to a map of Asia where the avian (H5N1) influenza, a deadly disease, has infected millions of birds (geese, ducks, chickens) and taken a human toll in several countries, including Taiwan, China and Vietnam. This particularly lethal virus, for which there is no vaccine, is Thompson's greatest concern, he says.
Another screen reports on America's 6,600 hospitals. With a finger tap to the screen, Thompson can know instantly the capacity of every hospital in the nation: how many beds, doctors, nurses, etc.
Next to the hospital screen is a grid of The Cloister, the Sea Island, Ga., resort where the G8 (Group of Eight) summit was meeting. From Command Center in Washington, Thompson and his 24/7 crew can direct emergency teams to just the right door - or hospital. A similar mobile surveillance center is deployed in Georgia.
HHS has "multiple" mobile facilities, but Thompson won't say how many. He could tell me, of course, but then he'd have to kill me. That's a joke, but Thompson doesn't laugh much. The former Wisconsin governor, who left office with an 82 percent approval rating, is a serious man these days. Bearing the burden of saving hundreds, thousands or millions of lives in the event of a WMD puts job-related stress in fresh perspective.
Wednesday night was solemn as more than 17 personnel from the Defense Department, as well as various health and emergency agencies, kept close watch over Reagan's entourage and the Georgia summit. Thompson stepped out to attend the formal reception at the Rotunda, but stayed in constant contact with the center throughout the evening. As you were sleeping, Thompson's Command Center was not.
It is an odd sensation to find comfort in the knowledge that your government is watching, but so it goes in the age of terrorism. The movie is us, and "remote control" isn't just a channel changer anymore.
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