WASHINGTON (AP) - This time they're invited, but they don't want to come.
Congress wants to talk to the husband and wife who slipped through security into last week's state dinner at the White House. But on the eve of Thursday's hearing by the House Homeland Security Committee about how they did it, Tareq and Michaele Salahi declined to show up for questions.
Their decision brought an immediate threat from a lawmaker to force their appearance under a subpoena.
"The Salahis' testimony is important to explain how a couple circumvented layers of security at the White House on the evening of a state dinner without causing alarm," Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, the committee chairman, said in a late-evening statement. "If the Salahis are absent from tomorrow's hearing, the committee is prepared to move forward with subpoenas to compel their appearance."
The statement swiftly followed one by the couple's publicist, Mahogany Jones, who said the Salahis had already provided information to Thompson and the committee's top Republican, as well as to the Secret Service.
The Salahis believe "there is nothing further that they can do to assist Congress in its inquiry regarding White House protocol and certain security procedures," the statement said. "They therefore respectfully decline to testify."
Jones said the couple's information makes clear they broke no laws, that White House protocol at the dinner "was either deficient or mismanaged" and that "there were honest misunderstandings and mistakes made by all parties involved."
Lawmakers wanted to explore those questions and more for themselves. The committee "must understand the full scope of what went so terribly wrong on Tuesday night (Nov. 24) to ensure that security gaps are sealed," Thompson said. "This can only be achieved by hearing both sides of the matter."
As well, the White House refused to send its social secretary to answer questions about the dinner debacle.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan agreed to testify before the committee. He's said the security breach was his agency's fault.
The White House also took some responsibility for the foul-up. "After reviewing our actions, it is clear that the White House did not do everything we could have done to assist the United States Secret Service in ensuring that only invited guests enter the complex," Jim Messina, deputy chief of staff, wrote in a memo to staff Wednesday.
Still, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs cited the separation of powers and a history of White House staff not testifying before Congress in explaining why social secretary Desiree Rogers, herself a guest at the dinner, wouldn't be coming.
Copies of e-mails between the Salahis and a Pentagon official have undermined the couple's claims that they were invited to the state dinner honoring the visiting Indian prime minister.
The Salahis pressed their friend, Pentagon aide Michele Jones, for four days to score tickets to the big event. By their own admission in the e-mails, the Salahis showed up at the White House gates at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 24 without an invitation - "to just check in, in case it got approved since we didn't know, and our name was indeed on the list!"
The Salahis have been trying to land a part on a Bravo reality show, "The Real Housewives of D.C.," and were filmed by the TV show around town as they prepared for the White House dinner.
At past state dinners and similar invitation-only events, a member of the White House social office or other staff stood with the Secret Service as guests entered the event. No one from the White House was with the Secret Service on Nov. 24. There were no plans for a White House staff member to be there, and it was the Secret Service's responsibility to make sure the guests were on the approved list.
From now on, the White House says, someone from the social office will be present to help the Secret Service if questions arise.
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