- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2009

The White House has changed its policy for invitation-only parties and will now station staffers from its Social Office at guest entrance gates to prevent uninvited people from being admitted, first lady Michelle Obama’s communications director Camille Johnston said.

The move comes a week after a single Secret Service agent checking names at the White House door was responsible for the slip-up that allowed a Virginia couple to crash President Obama’s first state dinner, a top agency official told lawmakers Wednesday.

The agent “asked them their name but he was convinced that they were supposed to be there and that maybe a mistake had been made,” said Rep. Edolphus Towns, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which received the private briefing with Deputy Director Faron Paramore.

Mr. Towns, New York Democrat, said the Secret Service will continue to investigate the security breach that allowed Tareq and Michaele Salahi to mingle with guests at the dinner honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and meet the president and vice president face to face.

Former Bush administration officials said it was standard policy for their White House personnel, typically someone from the social secretary’s office, to be stationed just beyond the security checkpoint to welcome guests and make sure they were on the invitation list.

“This is a comedy of errors, and the White House staff, certainly the social secretary’s office, is as much to blame as the Secret Service,” said Brad Blakeman, deputy assistant to President George W. Bush for scheduling and appointments from 2001 to 2004.

“It’s terribly bad manners not to have [social secretary officials] out there greeting guests,” said Mr. Blakeman, especially during events such as state dinners, which he described as the “Super Bowl” of White House events.

Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said there was never a plan to have such staffers there to check guests off the list for the Nov. 24 state dinner, attended by more than 300 guests. Social Office staffers were available to the Secret Service throughout the evening but were not stationed full time at the entrance gates.

The House Committee on Homeland Security will hold a public hearing Thursday morning on how the mishap occurred at the gala event.

“The Secret Service has admitted that they made the mistake. We take them at their word,” said Rep. Darrell Issa of California, ranking Republican of the oversight committee, adding that changes in the system of security checks must be accomplished.

“We cannot have the president protected by a system that relies on zero human error,” he said.

The new policy comes just in time for the White House holiday season, which kicked off Tuesday night. Some 50,000 guests will attend 17 holiday parties and 11 open houses over the coming weeks, and many will have their pictures taken with the president and first lady.

“Social Office staff will be present to continue to assist guests and the United States Secret Service should any confusion arise,” Miss Johnston said. “As always, the United States Secret Service will provide security and will control who has access to the White House grounds.”

Mr. and Mrs. Obama were described on Tuesday as angered by the incident. The Salahis asked a national television audience Tuesday morning to take their word that they were invited to the gala event.

Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan is expected to testify. White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers has declined to appear, and Associated Press reports that the Salahis also have declined to appear, but could be compelled to do so by subpoena.

c Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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