- The Washington Times - Friday, December 4, 2009

This time, they were actually invited - in fact, they were the guests of honor - but they didn’t bother to show up.

Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the Northern Virginia couple and reality-television show wannabes who crashed a White House state dinner last week, skipped an invite to appear Thursday before a congressional committee probing the security breach. How rude.

But it was another no-show that really ticked off Rep. Peter T. King, ranking Republican of the House Homeland Security Committee. Desiree Rogers, President Obama’s social secretary, went so far as to invoke the Constitution, citing the separation of powers as her reason for turning down an invitation to testify. No Miss Manners, she.

Complaining that the committee didn’t even get an RSVP from the glamorous director of the White House Social Office, the New York congressman griped: “I think it’s wrong. I think it’s stonewalling. … This is not a separation-of-powers issue.”

Even though the VIP guests didn’t drop by for the party, the media poured into Room 311 of the Cannon House Office Building before the meeting’s 10 a.m. start. Upwards of 30 photographers crowded around the one witness on the guest list - Mark Sullivan, director of the U.S. Secret Service.

But unlike the 400 winers and diners at the Nov. 24 state dinner - who supped on green curry prawns with caramelized salsify, roasted potato dumplings with tomato chutney and sweet pear tatin - Mr. Sullivan was served only crow, ice-cold.

Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, said the breach could have led to “a night of horror.” Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican, called the fiasco a “royal screw-up.” Rep. Jane Harman, California Democrat, said security at a recent Bruce Springsteen concert she attended was better than the White House’s.

And Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican, bluntly asked the question on everyone’s mind: “How in the world could this couple get past the Secret Service … and get right up to the president?”

Again and again and again, Mr. Sullivan choked down the crow, sometimes speaking so softly he could barely be heard over the clicking camera shutters.

“I’ve asked myself that question a thousand times over the last week and what I keep coming back to is - we didn’t follow procedure. Do I like to see this? Do any of us like to see this? We don’t like to see this,” he said, his voice trailing off. “We’re beating ourselves up over this.”

But lawmakers decided to beat him up, too.

How did you find out about the party crashers? he was asked.

“We did not discover that on our own,” he said quietly.

Well then, how?

“Facebook,” he said, to titters in the back of the room.

Still, the hearing delivered real news: Three Secret Service officers have been put on administrative leave, with pay, over the incident, which is still under investigation. Mr. Thompson vowed to subpoena the Salahis to compel their testimony and threatened to hold them in contempt of Congress (although he pooh-poohed Mr. King’s call to subpoena Miss Rogers, saying her office does not play a vital role in White House security).

And for the first time, an official narrative took shape. The details from the night, according to Mr. Sullivan, are these: There were three vehicle checkpoints and two pedestrian checkpoints. The Salahis strolled up to the checkpoints near 15th Street and Alexander Hamilton Place, on the southeast side of the White House.

Questions so far anyone? Yes, Mr. Thompson. “What is the procedure if they are not on the list?” the chairman asked. “The procedure should be that they would not be allowed entry,” Mr. Sullivan replied. Secret security techniques, indeed.

But that’s not what happened that night. Mr. Sullivan said when the Salahis arrived, the officer at that gate “looked at the list, did not see their names on the list,” but then allowed them to proceed to the next checkpoint to see if they were on the list there.

That shocked Rep. Mike D. Rogers, Alabama Republican, who said the couple “could have been bad guys, could have been carrying chemical or biological weapons on them.”

Not so, said Mr. Sullivan. “I’m confident in telling you there was no threat to the president,” he said, and later offered to divulge in closed session the “countermeasures” that apparently protect the president from anthrax and ricin delivered from inches away, as the Salahis got that evening.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, California Democrat, was incredulous that the White House did not have staffers onsite - but not just for security reasons.

“Why would you all agree that no person from the White House be standing there, first of all, to greet guests?” she asked, adding that every time she’s been there, that’s been the procedure.

Near the end of the hearing, Mr. Sullivan made a frank - even shocking - admission. “Our level of training for these types of events probably isn’t where it should be. … We’re not where we need to be, but I see us improving every day.”

So, maybe it’s better that you’re not invited to one of the 17 holiday parties and 11 open houses over the coming weeks. Safer to look at the Christmas decorations at whitehouse.gov - no checkpoints and no invitation required.

Joseph Curl can be reached at jcurl@washingtontimes.com.

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