White House security under review before state dinner was crashed

In this White House photo, President Obama greets the uninvited Michaele Salahi and Tareq Salahi at a state dinner on Tuesday.
In this White House photo, President Obama greets the uninvited Michaele Salahi and Tareq Salahi at a state dinner on Tuesday. (Samantha Appleton/white House Via Getty Images)
By Michael D. Shear and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009

The bizarre breach at the White House state dinner last week lends new urgency to a review of Secret Service procedures that was begun after President Obama's inauguration, and threatens to revive questions about how much security is enough for the country's elected leader.

A senior Secret Service official said a "top-to-bottom" review of the agency's protective department was ordered shortly after Obama began his term amid the highest threat level for any recent president. The results are due soon, said spokesman James Mackin.

But Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the Virginia couple who waltzed, uninvited, into the White House and shook hands with Obama on Tuesday night provided new evidence that in a democracy, it is far from impossible to breach the bubble of security around the chief executive.

The breakdown stunned the top aides to the first African American president and forced a rare apology from the director of the Secret Service. And it led to predictions that security around the first family will rapidly become more intense.

"A tight system will be tightened even more," said William H. Pickle Jr., a former Secret Service agent who led Al Gore's vice-presidential detail and headed Senate security from 2003 to 2007. "I would encourage the White House social office to buy umbrellas before the next event, because you can be sure the Secret Service will be doing their job, and it may be that visitors will be out there for a very long time."

Security experts called the breach an indefensible breakdown that will almost certainly lead to changes within the Secret Service, which regularly reviews procedures after incidents such as a September 1994 crash of a stolen plane on the White House grounds. At the same time, they cautioned against exaggerating any actual threat posed to Obama.

A source who had spoken to senior Secret Service officials said the Salahis were allowed inside in violation of agency policies by an officer outside the front gate who apparently was persuaded by the couple's manner and insistence as well as the pressure of keeping lines moving on a rainy evening.

"Rather than stand there and get wet, he went ahead and let them go," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending his contacts.

Once inside, the couple were identified by a Washington Post reporter, who asked two White House staffers early in the evening about their absence from the guest list and raised the issue with them in an 11 p.m. e-mail. A report on what occurred that night -- including their movements inside the White House -- is expected in a matter of days.

Letting uninvited guests onto the executive complex is a breach of security procedures that never should have happened, experts said. But they said it is a "once in a million" breakdown that is unlikely to inspire potential assassins to infiltrate White House social events, because the odds against success are so great.

Agency supporters noted that the public learns only of its failures, not its successes, and that it has generally avoided major scandals that have embarrassed the CIA and FBI.

"Every day it goes right. Every night we go to bed, there are folks who come on duty keeping that place safe," Mackin said. "Agencies from around the world that have the same responsibilities as us come to us for counsel."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company