Gate crashers spur WH security change
WASHINGTON (AP) – The White House will make at least one change to its screening practices for invitation-only events after an attention-hungry couple was able to crash the Obama administration’s first state dinner.
The White House social office will go back to making sure that one of its staff members will be present at the gates to help the Secret Service if questions come up, the first lady’s communication director Camille Johnston told The Associated Press Tuesday.
While Johnston maintained that this has been an existing policy, the White House and Secret Service have said that no such person was present last week as guests arrived for the dinner. Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley said the plan for the dinner did not call for a social office employee to be at the gate, but that agents also didn’t call the office to ask for assistance or clarification.
The Secret Service has taken the blame for letting the couple in without an invitation.
An administration official said Tuesday evening that a senior Pentagon official did try to get the Virginia couple, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, access to the White House state dinner, but later told them in a voice mail that she couldn’t get them in.
Last week’s White House gate caper has captivated a capital where high-end social life and celebrity eruptions frequently enliven the day-to-day business of governing.
President Barack Obama and the first lady, Michelle, were described Tuesday as angered by the incident, and the Salahis asked a national television audience to take their word that they were invited to the dinner for the visiting Indian prime minister.
Congress is about to mount an effort to get to the bottom of the episode. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan is expected to testify before the House Homeland Security committee about the incident on Thursday. The Salahis and White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers have also been invited to testify.
“I can tell you we did not party-crash the White House,” Tareq Salahi told NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday morning.
NBC’s parent company, NBC Universal, also owns the cable network Bravo. Michaele Salahi has been trying to land a part on an upcoming Bravo reality show, “The Real Housewives of D.C.,” and was even filmed by the Bravo show around town as she prepared for the White House dinner.
Tuesday evening brought further descriptions of the Salahis efforts to get invited to the exclusive dinner with the assistance of a senior Pentagon official, Michele Jones, a special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
An administration official, who had access to e-mails between the Salahis and Jones, said the couple contacted Jones, who replied that she would try to get them access to part of the state dinner and asked the couple for their Social Security numbers.
The official said Jones had her deputy e-mail the information to the White House Office of Public Engagement. An official there said he could not get the Salahis into the dinner, and Jones left the Salahis a voice mail with that information before the dinner. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the e-mails, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
At 1 a.m. Wednesday – hours after the dinner ended – the Salahis e-mailed Jones to say their cell phone battery had died and they just received her message, this official said. The Salahis wrote, “We ended up going to the gate to check in at 6:30 p.m., just to check in case it got approved.”
Jones later responded, “You are most welcome. I hear the smile in your e-mail. Am delighted you and Michaele had a wonderful time.”
The Salahis said on the “Today” show they had e-mails that would make clear they did not go to the White House uninvited, but said they could not yet provide them while they were cooperating with the Secret Service on its internal investigation of what happened.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, however, said Tuesday there was no misunderstanding – the Salahis were not invited to the dinner. Gibbs added that Obama and his wife were angered by the episode.
“One thing is clear, on the night of the state dinner incident the Secret Service was responsible for checking the names on the guest list,” Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said. “That was the plan… We have acknowledged our mistake in letting two individuals who were not on the guest list into the White House.”
At some previous White House state dinners and similar events, a member of the White House staff stood along side the Secret Service as guests arrived and were screened by security.
Even with a social office employee present at future White House events, Johnston said, “As always, the United States Secret Service will provide security and will control who has access to the White House grounds.”
The White House declined to comment on any other potential security changes.
Earlier this year, the Salahis attended a Congressional Black Caucus party – and questions have arisen about whether they were invited to that affair.
Muriel Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, said the Salahis were escorted out of the foundation dinner on Sept. 26. She said the couple was sitting at a $20,000-per-table section at the event where Obama was the keynote speaker. When other guests complained that someone was in their seats, the Salahis were asked to show their tickets. They were asked to leave when they couldn’t produce them.
“They didn’t argue,” Cooper said. “They just looked a little sheepish and were escorted out.”
Tareq Salahi told the “Today” show they were invited to that party as well and denied being escorted out.
Associated Press writers Ben Evans and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.