Everybody's heard of the Pentagon. The name instantly conjures up the five-sided building that serves as the headquarters of the American military. But very few people have wandered through it, as has 60 Minutes II Correspondent David Martin.
He explored some of the Pentagon's 17.5 miles of corridors and its top-secret command centers. He discovered that some parts of the Pentagon are a wreck; some, in fact, may be hazardous to your health.
Sitting on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, surrounded by a sea of cars belonging to the 23,000 people who work there, the Pentagon covers 34 acres. That center courtyard alone is 5 acres. It looks massive and impregnable, with 6.5 million square feet of floor space. It is a fitting symbol of the world's most powerful military.
But behind that façade, says Lee Evey, lurks "a time bomb ticking. It's a 56-year-old building that needs to be renovated. It's got to be fixed."
Evey is in charge of overhauling a building riddled with hazardous materials, including 10,000 tons of asbestos.
"The building is filled with asbestos, lead-based paint, PCBs, diesel fuel contamination," he explains. "If it's bad, you name it, we've got it."
To some, it might sound more like a toxic-waste dump than a building.
No one realized so much asbestos and other hazardous materials had been used in the original construction of the Pentagon until its deteriorating condition finally made it impossible to postpone any longer a top-to-bottom renovation. That was six years ago, but the overhaul fell behind schedule and went $250 million over budget.
Evey was brought in to renovate the renovation.
"When I came onto the job, I went out and looked at what the condition of the sites were and what the problems were and the problems we had in the program, and I went back to my office, sat down in my desk, closed the door and said, 'What the hell did I ever do to deserve this?'" Evey says.
Sightseers on tours learn the Pentagon is the world's largest federal office building; some 100,000 people take the official tour each year.
The tour guides are carefully chosen and well rehearsed with 10 days of practice in marching backwards. They painstakingly memorize the building's vital statistics.
But if you want the Tiffany of tours, hitch a ride with the guide they call the Queen of the Pentagon, Marian Bailey.
"We have just entered the corridor of the secretary of defense's office, and on the right there's a picture of President Eisenhower, and up just a little bit further is General Eisenhower, says Bailey in one presentation. Not only did she know Ike, she knew Mamie.
Bailey has been working in the Pentagon as long as there's been a Pentagon, most of it on the switchboard.
She arrived in January 1942. "They actually broke ground on September the 1(st), 1941," says Pentagon historian Alfred Goldberg.
The United States was just months from entering World War II when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered that a building be constructed to bring the American military under one roof. The plans were drawn up in just four days, Goldberg says.
"They worked around the clock under floodlights and eventually had a peak strength of almost 15,000 people working on the building," he says. "That's how they brought it into completion in less than 16 months."
The Pentagon went up one wedge at a time as a no-frills model of efficiency designed to make the walk from one part of the building to another as short as possible. The end product was the size of three Empire State Buildings and was configured in the distinctive shape that provides the structure with its name and its mystique.
The Pentagon would not be quite as famous if it were a square or a rectangle, according to Goldberg. "Somehow 'pentagon' seemed to take on a meaning of its own," he says.
Goldberg may be the official historian of the Pentagon, but years of putting through phone calls for all the top generals has made Bailey the mother lode of Pentagon gossip.
"Most people, or hardly anyone, knows that there's three bodies were buried in cement during the construction of the building," she says, attributing the deaths to construction mishaps but declining to elaborate further.
Evey's renovation hasn't come across any bodies yet. But he did discover a truck that had been buried during the original construction.
Who knows what else is hidden?
For one thing, Evey notes, "beneath the Pentagon there's a labyrinth of tunnels." Basements and sub-basements go two floors below ground level. "They have television cameras monitoring them, etcetera, to make sure that intruders don't get in," Evey says.
Some of the Pentagon's five sides extend for "a considerable distance," he says, adding, "I prefer not to tell where they go or how far."
And it's not just tunnels. There are offices and command centers down there where people put up with poor ventilation, frequent power outages and leaking pipes. Evey once found raw sewage dripping onto workers' desks. This, he says, is the real Pentagon.
"I didn't take this job to renovate the Pentagon so that generals could have nice offices," he says. "Generals already have nice offices. This is where the real people in the Pentagon work."
Four floors up it's another world: the pristine center of power where Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen oversees a desk the size of a small aircraft carrier.
"It's not like, quite like an aircraft carrier that we're landing on. But a lot of dollars do pass through this desk," Cohen says.
Behind it is one of the most exclusive and secure phones in the world.
"This is a classified phone system whereby I can talk to the president, talk to any of the commanders-in-chief of...our commands..across the world," Cohen explains. "If I want to talk to European Command or Space Command or Strat Command, I just pick this up and hit a button, and I'm on."
He doesn't have to worry about people listening in. "It's all scrambled," Cohen says.
Back in the basement, the telephone lines are also scrambled, but in a different way. Some 16,000 miles of cable wire the Pentagon together.
"This is all the stuff that we have to track down when we go in to renovate an area. You know, all those 16,000 miles of wires - this is where they end up," says Evey.
It's a rat's nest that has built up over the years, and no one's sure anymore what's connected to what. Evey's team once cut the wrong cable and knocked out 3,000 phones.
"I wish that most of the Pentagon looked half as good as what you see people's ideas of the Pentagon are like in the movies. But it ain't that way," Evey says.
At least one place resembles the movies: the National Military Command Center where watch teams monitor the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"To enter the area, you have to have a secret clearance or be escorted," says General Bill Wagner, the director of current operations. That maze of offices and cubicles is the real nerve center of the Pentagon.
It comes complete with elevator music. "This is here to create background noise so that if anybody were trying to get an electronic surveillance, it would impede that process," Wagner says. "No eavesdropping allowed."
Who chooses the music?
"I think it's the younger people in the command center that get to choose the music," Wagner offers.
In a building with 7,748 windows, eavesdropping can be a real problem.
Up on the roof, the Russian Embassy is clearly visible in the distance. That means the Russian Embassy can train its listening devices on the building and on the small forest of antennas and satellite dishes that connect the Pentagon to the rest of the world.
"It's posed quite a challenge to us....We had to do a survey of all the antennas up here, find out who they belong to, what they were good for or what they were used for," Evey says.
Evey finally discovered that the antenna forest is filled with dead wood. "They were really not connected to anyone. They had just been abandoned in place, but nobody had realized it," he says.
But there are still plenty of working antennas and newly laid fiber-optic cable to feed up-to-the-moment intelligence from all over the world into the Command Center.
So what happens if the unthinkable occurs and all of a sudden missiles come out of Russia?
A conversation would take place among the people whose movements are tracked on a board in the Emergency Action Room.
Lt. Col. Randy Odom explains the different colors. "If they're green, they're traveling, and we maintain a means of communication with them. If theyre purple, they're in or around their office and we can easily gain access."
If he got the order from the president, Odom would take some keys from around his neck and open a safe that contains the nuclear release codes.
"If we go into that safe, everyone in this building will know that I am in that safe," Odom says. "Once we open the doors, various alarms go off, sirens and lights, flashing lights as well."
It is covered with cloth. "In the interest of national security we prefer not to show it," Odom says. That's so people won't see what the code box actually looks like.
Says Odom: "I have multiple means on this side of the room of getting the word out to all the geographic and functional commanders-in-chief in the field, and from there, it's just - it's in God's hands."
Well, to be more precise, it's in a lieutenant colonel's hands.
In movies such as Dr. Strangelove, nuclear war starts in a big conference room with the president and his generals sitting around a table.
That's what this room was originally built for. It's affectionately known as the Dr. Strangelove Room. But with modern communications, it's no longer necessary to get everybody in the same room.
Besides, the folks at the Pentagon like to make their decisions in small rooms. That includes rooms like the one called The Tank, where General Henry Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
"This is a secure conference room. And it is one which we bring the chiefs so they can discuss openly, frankly and without worry that it'll appear in the newspapers or be on television," says Shelton. "It's as close to a leak-proof room as we have anywhere in our government."
Evey is worrying about a different kind of leak, down where the sun never shines. "This area began leaking some months ago. As you can see the ceiling's caved in," Evey says.
He is wondering how he is ever going to fix this building and keep it running at the same time.
Copyright 2000 CBS. All rights reserved.