WASHINGTON - Late at night in the Pentagon, there are few signs of activity other than that of cleaning crews given the Sisyphus-like task of polishing 17 miles of corridors scuffed by thousands of shoe soles every day. But 60 feet below the building's parking lot, inside a bunker reinforced by steel and concrete, the Army operations center is a hive of activity.
Inside the bunker, 24 hours a day, a watch team monitors the world for events large and small, ready to sound the alarm should a crisis erupt. The 12 to 15 officers and soldiers who work the overnight shift from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. have a curious job: They are part policy analysts, part hot-line counselors and part baby-sitters.
Equipped with state-of-the-art communications gear, not to mention television sets tuned to CNN, they monitor developments in China, North Korea, Iraq, the Balkans and other hot spots where, because of time differences, crises often develop while most of Washington is asleep.
They also spend a fair amount of time fielding telephone calls from parents worried about their soldier sons and daughters, putting off late-night cranks demanding to speak to the president and trying to keep tabs on the activities and mishaps of over half-a-million U.S. soldiers worldwide.
"Anything that happens to an Army soldier - anyone wearing a green uniform anywhere in the world - we get a report on it," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Anderson, chief of the operations center.
"It's like being in a fire department," said Capt. Tamra Testerman, who frequently commands the watch team. "Some nights we'll get three phone calls. Then we'll have nights with 300 phone calls."
All watch-team members have at least top-secret clearances. Regular sweeps are made with detector dogs searching for eavesdropping bugs or other intrusions.
There also is an emergency-action console equipped with a sophisticated communications system that allows the watch team instantaneous connections at the touch of a computer button to the White House, secretary of defense's office and Army commands around the world.
The high-tech, supersecret atmosphere of the operations center has drawn the attention of authors and movie makers. Novelist Tom Clancy spent hours there last summer researching his new book, "Op-Center." Representatives of film director Steven Spielberg visited several months ago to research what the Army's operating procedure would be if a comet hit Earth.
All that aside, the watch team spends a fair amount of time watching TV. A console holds five television screens, each attached to a VCR, tuned on a recent night to CNN, the O.J. Simpson trial and "A Current Affair."
"This is one of the few places in the Army where people watch television as part of their duties," Anderson said. "CNN does get information sometimes before we do . . . "
For emergencies, the team can consult written instructions that fill 67 yellow notebook binders, providing specific directions for scenarios ranging from terrorist attacks to members of Congress calling up requesting use of military aircraft.
"Everything is spelled out for them," Anderson said. "In theory, all they have to do is follow this check list."
Comprehensive as the notebooks are, they do not cover every event, particularly some dreamed up by late-night callers.
"During a full moon, we'll get a lot of the crazy calls - `I saw a UFO flying over the Potomac.' The sky is the limit," Testerman said. " . . . They've probably got (the operations center's telephone number) scrawled in crayon above the phone in the ward."
Anxious parents are also regular callers. "Their kid's in basic training or something, and they say, `My Johnny needs to come home,' " Testerman said. "And we're the PR arm of the Army, too. You can't say, `Well, Johnny needs to toughen up.' You need to handle it with understanding and sensitivity, because a parent has no other place to go."