- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Virginia couple who crashed a presidential dinner met President Obama in the receiving line, the White House said Friday as a “deeply concerned and embarrassed” Secret Service acknowledged its officers had failed to follow “established protocols.”

A White House official did not make clear whether Michaele and Tareq Salahi shook hands with the president or spoke with him, but a photograph released Friday by the White House clearly showed Mrs. Salahi shaking hands with Mr. Obama.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of an ongoing Secret Service inquiry that could turn into a criminal investigation.

The Secret Service earlier this week had said the president was not in danger because the couple - like others at the dinner - had gone through magnetometers. But in light of their close proximity to the president, no such claim was made Friday.

The Salahis were not on the guest list and should have been prohibited from entering Tuesday’s dinner on the White House South Lawn for the prime minister of India, said Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan.

On Friday, Mr. Sullivan was apologetic in a written statement, saying the agency that protects the president is “deeply concerned and embarrassed” that procedures were not followed.

“As our investigation continues, appropriate measures have been taken to ensure this is not repeated,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin said officers at the checkpoint had a clipboard with names of the invited guests. Even though the Salahis’ names were not on it, they were allowed to proceed. The officers should have called either someone on the White House staff or their own personnel before allowing the couple past the checkpoint, Mr. Mackin said.

Earlier, Mr. Mackin said the Secret Service may pursue a criminal investigation of the Salahis.

Mr. Sullivan said, “The preliminary findings of our internal investigation have determined established protocols were not followed at an initial checkpoint, verifying that two individuals were on the guest list.

“Although these individuals went through magnetometers and other levels of screening, they should have been prohibited from entering the event entirely. That failing is ours,” he said.

Mr. Sullivan said it wasn’t good enough that his agency screened more than 1.2 million visitors last year to the White House complex and protected more than 10,000 sites for the president, vice president and others.

“Even with these successes, we need to be right 100 percent of the time,” he said. “While we have protocols in place to address these situations, we must ensure that they are followed each and every time.”

It is unclear what the couple told officers at the checkpoint that allowed them to go through the security screening. Federal law makes it a crime to knowingly and willfully falsify statements on matters within the federal government’s jurisdiction.

“As this moves closer to a criminal investigation there’s less that we can say,” Mr. Mackin said. “I don’t want to jeopardize what could be a criminal investigation. We’re not leaving any option off the table at this point.”

The Salahis’ lawyer, Paul Gardner, posted a comment on their Facebook page saying, “My clients were cleared by the White House, to be there.” He said more information would be forthcoming.

Several messages left at Mr. Gardner’s law firm on Friday were not immediately returned.

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