Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Virginia couple who crashed President Obama’s first state dinner are being called up to Capitol Hill on Thursday along with the director of the Secret Service to explain how security was breached at the gala White House event.

And Rep. Peter T. King, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, which will oversee the inquiry, insists that the White House needs to provide answers on why nobody from the social secretary’s office or liaison staff was at the party entrance to check guests, as has been the custom for state dinners.

“This is a time for answers,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and Homeland Security panel chairman. “This is not the time for political games or scapegoating to distract our attention from the careful oversight we must apply to the Secret Service and its mission.”

See related story: Couple to appear on ‘Today’ Tuesday morning.

Michaele Salahi, a potential cast member for the upcoming Bravo reality series “Real Housewives of Washington,” and her husband, Tareq, were able to gain access to the private state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh despite not having been invited.

The Associated Press reported late Monday that the couple communicated with Michele Jones, a special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, about going to the event, but Miss Jones denied that she helped the couple get in. Miss Jones said in a written statement issued through the White House on Monday evening that she never said or implied she would get the Salahis into the Nov. 24 gala.

“I specifically stated that they did not have tickets and in fact that I did not have the authority to authorize attendance, admittance or access to any part of the evening’s activities,” she said. “Even though I informed them of this, they still decided to come.”

Mr. King, the New York Republican who is the ranking member of the committee, last week began calling for hearings to examine how the Secret Service could have made such a mistake.

But Mr. King said in an interview Monday with The Washington Times that White House personnel may also be to blame. Late Monday, Mr. King asked Mr. Thompson to include White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers on the witness list at Thursday’s hearing.

Citing dozens of Christmas parties and other events he attended, Mr. King said someone from the White House’s social secretary office has always been stationed at the door to greet guests, for hospitality as well as security purposes, to make sure only those on the list are admitted.

Mr. King said he has witnessed one congressman’s daughter being denied entrance, and that two of his guests were once delayed 20 minutes when their names were omitted from a guest list.

“Unless the person is famous, the Secret Service has no way of knowing who they are, but the social secretary does. This is what they do, this is all they do,” Mr. King said.

“I think it’s essential to have someone there,” Mr. King said.

No one from the social secretary’s office was at the door during the event, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said during a White House press briefing Monday that the Secret Service agent should have picked up the phone and called the secretary’s office to confirm whether the Salahis, or anyone else, should be on the invitation list if they were not.

“The relay didn’t happen, because nobody picked up the phone to relay the information,” Mr. Gibbs said. “I mean, I appreciate the observation that somebody could or could not have been at a certain gate. But again, you could pick up the phone, just like I can pick up my phone in the office you don’t have to be standing in my office for me to convey information to you.”

Some lawmakers have called for criminal charges against the Salahis, who mingled with high-ranking officials and dignitaries at the White House last week. Although the pair shook hands with President Obama, the Secret Service has yet to press charges.

Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said a preliminary report, expected to explain how the incident took place, could be completed as early as this week. The report may not be made public, but Mr. Donovan concedes that the agency made a mistake in allowing the Salahis to enter the event.

“Those individual names were not on the list and we let them proceed. Our personnel at the gate did not call for assistance or clarification, and we let them go through,” Mr. Donovan said.

“It was a mistake and hopefully a reminder that everyone has to adhere to the procedures we have in place,” Mr. Donovan said.

Mr. Thompson said it was imperative that the committee get the full story about security deficiencies at the White House and learn what remedies are being applied to “ensure the strength of the Secret Service and the safety of those under its protection.”

“The intent of this administration may be openness and transparency, but a security breakdown that allowed anyone who looked the part to walk off the street into a state dinner is a slap in the face to the Secret Service employees who put their lives on the line to protect our form of government and its leaders,” Mr. Thompson said.

The security lapse could have created an even greater security threat of copycats, who might not be seeking 15 minutes of fame or a spot on a reality television show as the Salahis apparently were, Mr. King said.

“What makes the president secure is the belief the public has in the security of the Secret Service, and what this has done is encourage copycats who are psychotics, or terrorists, and want to hurt the president,” Mr. King said.

Mahogany Jones, a spokeswoman for the couple, said, “The Salahis are not ‘shopping’ any interviews or demanding money from any media networks to tell their story. At this time, the Salahis are not making any formal comments and are not making any arrangements to speak with press/media.

“The Salahis are not appearing on Larry King tonight, as they are not talking to any media forms at this time.”

Ms. Jones declined to comment to The Times on Monday about whether the Salahis will appear before the congressional committee.

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