By Jason Horowitz, Roxanne Roberts and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Getting to the president is not supposed to be this easy.
The White House said late Friday that Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the Virginia couple auditioning for a Bravo reality show, not only got past layers of experienced, executive-branch security but also shook the president's hand in the Blue Room of the White House during the Obamas' first state dinner. Late Friday, the White House also released a photo of Michaele Salahi's audience with the president, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh smiling nearby.
The security breach has caused hand-wringing inside the White House, bewilderment among Tuesday night's guests -- and late on Friday, prompted an apology from the Secret Service.
A statement by Director Mark Sullivan said the agency was "deeply concerned and embarrassed by the circumstances surrounding the State Dinner" and added that "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."
Sullivan suggested that the couple had been screened for weapons, but should not have gained entry. "That failing is ours," he said.
Agents from the Secret Service -- which, according to spokesman James Mackin, has "not ruled out" criminal charges against the couple -- sought to interview them at the Salahi family winery in Hume earlier Friday. The couple wasn't there, and the investigators sought them out at another address in Linden.
Reached by telephone Friday evening, the couple's attorney, Paul W. Gardner, declined to comment. In an e-mail to Bloomberg News, Gardner added, "My clients were cleared by the White House to be there."
According to Mackin, the security failure occurred at the initial checkpoint, where guests present their names to an agent. He said the Salahis should have been turned away when their names did not show up on the guest list, but instead agents waved them on to the next checkpoint.
"We know at this point that the failing was at that first one," Mackin said in an interview late Friday. "They should have been turned away."
How the couple -- he decked out in a tuxedo, she in a red sari -- made it past the second checkpoint, however, is still unanswered. Mackin said the Salahis were not included on the list of invited guests, and a source familiar with the investigation added that the Secret Service's Office of Professional Responsibility is looking more broadly at whether their names had ever been put into the security force's computer network.
At this point, the source said, "we don't have any indication they were on any list or ever in the system."
The notion of a couple breezing into the White House and getting waved through by Secret Service agents and other security proved so hard to believe that gossip blogs and incredulous guests floated other explanations. One such scenario that gained traction suggests the Salahis, who have been photographed at social events with Indian Embassy officials, persuaded one of their Indian friends to get them on a special guest list.
"Neither the embassy nor anyone from the embassy was involved in any way in their getting into the White House," said Rahul Chhabra, an official at the embassy. "Nor did we request any invitation for them."
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said he was preparing a letter to the House Committee on Homeland Security requesting a full investigation into the matter and added that if the Salahis' names had been added to any list, "that raises a whole separate issue."
King added that in his experience attending White House functions, administration staff from the social secretary's office always accompanied security officers at checkpoints because staffers had a greater familiarity with the invitees on a guest list, and were in a better position to make judgment calls about unexpected guests.
King noted that Social Secretary Desirée Rogers acknowledged that "there was nobody there from the social staff" at the gate.
For most guests, Tuesday's state dinner began with an engraved invitation from the White House delivered about a week before the party. Invitees were asked to RSVP to a recorded telephone line with their name, Social Security number and date of birth, for criminal background checks. Those planning to arrive by car were also asked to provide the make, model, license plate number and driver information.
On the night of the party, cars were admitted at the entrance at 15th and E streets. NBC's Brian Williams saw the Salahis' SUV turned away -- and the crashers and a film crew jumped out and continued on foot.
Most of the guests walked to the steps of the East Entrance, where Secret Service agents held the list of invited guests. The steps are wide; people clustered in loose lines and offered photo identification.
One guest at the dinner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about an incident embarrassing to the Obama administration, stood behind the Salahis in line as they entered the White House.
He then watched the Salahis make it past two security checkpoints, only one of which checked photo IDs. The poor light led this guest to remark to the agent that "you should have a helmet with a little flashlight on your head; it's hard to see," the guest recalled saying. "This poor guy was getting his eyes close to the paper trying to see our names."
"They were just behind us," said another guest, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak critically, noted that security only asked once for photo identification.
Sant Singh Chatwal, an Indian hotelier who attended the dinner, said that after passing through security checkpoints and a metal detector, guests gave their names to a woman he assumed was a member of the social secretary's office, positioned at a small table at the foot of the stairs. The woman then handed guests a place card with his or her name and table number elegantly scrawled in black ink.
"It wouldn't be that hard to go through the receiving line, because once you're in, you just go by," said the guest behind the Salahis. "You're supposed to give a card with your name on it, which I assume they didn't have, but that doesn't make a difference; you just keep walking and you say 'Hi' to the president and you go down to the tent."
A third guest, who said that Secret Service agents never asked to see any of his personal identification and only asked his name, recalled seeing Michaele Salahi "grinning ear to ear" during the cocktail reception in the East Room.
At the south end of the room, guests lined up for the receiving line with the Obamas and the Indian prime minister. Guests gave their names to staffers, who whispered the information to the president. Late on the Friday of a long, holiday weekend, the White House released a photo by Samantha Appleton of the couple greeting the president.
After the handshake, the couple entered an elaborate tent erected on the South Lawn, where they posed for pictures with Vice President Biden and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Guests sat down about 8:45 p.m.; it is unclear when or how the crashers left the White House grounds.