Working in the White House: An Alumnus Inside the "Bubble"

Author: Josh Stowe

In 1988, Kevin Dunay left Notre Dame with a doctoral degree in psychology. This year, he returned to campus with a presidential motorcade.

Dunay, director of the White House Situation Room, accompanied President Obama during his May 17 visit to deliver the University’s commencement address.

It was a surreal experience, Dunay says. As Air Force One passed over campus, he phoned his former professor Dan Lapsley, who is now chair of the Department of Psychology, and arranged to meet. After landing, Dunay savored a brief glimpse of his old campus while the motorcade whisked Obama to the Joyce Center. Dunay met only briefly with Lapsley, then grabbed an impromptu photo with the University’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., before commencement ceremonies began.

When Obama took the stage, Dunay had seated himself beneath the bleachers, where he scanned intelligence alerts from the White House Situation Room and prepared for the next stop: Indianapolis. “I needed to decide what to hand off to the president and what to hold on to—how bizarre,” he says. “That is what I mean by surreal.”

CIA Work: Many Jobs, One Career

“I chose the public sector and the CIA as I felt that I would be exposed to such a variety of fascinating situations,” Dunay says, “and I have not been let down.” Indeed. Since joining the agency, he has analyzed imagery, worked in personnel security and counter-intelligence, and helped to study and exploit publicly available information, including some culled from terrorist websites. He has traveled extensively and visited major cities around the world. And before coming to the White House, he managed a unit that gleaned intelligence from videos terrorists made.

In January 2008, the CIA assigned Dunay to work with the White House Situation Room team, and he served during the final year of President Bush’s administration before working for President Obama.

“Our role is to provide situational awareness intelligence updates to the president and the rest of the White House senior staff on a regular basis, regardless of their location—a 24-7 operation,” he says. “Basically, we let the president know what he needs to know. In my capacity as director of the White House Situation Room, I also have traveled domestically with the president to advise him on national security matters on behalf of General James Jones, his National Security Advisor. So in this capacity, I shadow his movements and either pass information or brief him—providing the continuous situational awareness, which is why I never leave the bubble.’”

Taking the 3 A.M. Phone Call

Living and working in the bubble may be exciting, but it also carries its share of headaches. Most jobs allow for time off to unplug from the daily grind, but the duties Dunay and his colleagues share don’t afford them the luxury of a typical work-life balance.

“Those of us who work in the West Wing somewhat let go of any normal personal or family life. It is a conscious decision we all make,” he says. “The major challenge we have is that we really have no down time in this job. We are always on.’ The operational tempo does not really respect weekends or holidays. Those are just other days in the week that we work. Even when I am not in the West Wing, I am always connected via secure communication devices, even in my house. So the job constantly follows me. I get woken up a lot at night on a regular basis, sometimes twice, even three times.”

The most nerve-wracking aspect of the job for Dunay is taking a late-night or early-morning phone call about a developing situation.

“We have to determine who we alert as to the breaking event—basically what important people do we wake up?” he says. “It is a tough situation as we do not want to wake folks up if they should not be, but we also do not want folks to be surprised. So I go over the information and make the best decision I can, and then go lay back in bed. I never fall back to sleep. I just lay there hoping I made the right decision.”

Even when he arrived for Notre Dame’s commencement, Dunay wasn’t able to indulge in the nostalgic sightseeing that alumni typically enjoy. “I so much wanted to take a walk around campus, but that could not happen as I could not leave the bubble,” he says. The walk would have to wait.

Finding Humor in Football

Although Dunay’s job carries grave responsibilities, it is not without its lighter moments, many of them involving his alma mater’s gridiron prowess. For instance, he couldn’t escape the Notre Dame football jokes even when he was en route for commencement. “I was teased a lot in the West Wing prior to the trip,” he says, “and on Air Force One before we landed.”

Dunay takes the teasing in stride—he’s used to it by now. “I rather proudly have worn a Notre Dame lanyard with my White House badge since I arrived at the West Wing in 2008,” he says. “This has been tough during football season.”

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