By Michael D. Shear and Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009 6:16 PM
A top Defense Department official corresponded with Tareq and Michaele Salahi in an effort to get them into last week's White House state dinner, according to sources familiar with an investigation into the security breach. On Friday the couple turned over copies of the email exchange to the Secret Service investigators.
Sources said the e-mails were sent from Michele S. Jones, the special assistant to the Secretary of Defense and the Pentagon-based liaison to the White House, who lists the Salahis' lawyer, Paul W. Gardner, as one of her 50 friends on the Facebook social networking site.
Several people familiar with the Jones-Salahi correspondence argued the e-mails support the Salahis' case that they were cleared to attend Tuesday night's gala.
"There was e-mail correspondence confirming they were legitimately supposed to be there," said Casey Margenau, a close friend of the couple. "They understood they were invited."
"I did not state at any time, or imply that I had tickets for ANY portion of the evening's events," Jones said in a statement released by the White House late Monday. "I specifically stated that they did not have tickets and in fact that I did not have the authority to authorize attendance, admittance or access to any part of the evening's activities. Even though I informed them of this, they still decided to come."
Reached by phone at her office at the Pentagon early in the day and asked about the e-mails, Jones said, "I am not going to say anything at this point at all. Oh, my goodness."
Asked how she knows the Salahis and why she would have tried to get them into the White House, she said, "I am not going to say anything at this point at all. In fact, I am going to terminate the call right now because I am not sure what in the world is going on here."
White House and Secret Service officials have insisted that the Salahis received no invitation to the dinner honoring the prime minister of India, and were never officially cleared by anyone in the White House to be there. A White House aide added that Jones had no authority to grant such access in the first place. The Secret Service has apologized for lax procedures that allowed the Virginia couple to get through two checkpoints.
The e-mails apparently do not contradict that version of events, but are described as having given the Salahis the confidence to get dressed up, mingle with some of the most powerful Washington players, and post snapshots of their presence at the party on their Facebook page.
The e-mail exchange is said to include assurances from Jones that she was trying to score an official invitation, complete with seats at the dinner, for the couple. By the time they arrived in line, the couple believed that Jones had succeeded in getting them approved only for the cocktail reception and a handshake with the president, sources said.
The House Homeland Security Committee on Monday invited the Salahis and the Secret Service to testify for a Thursday hearing about the security lapse. Neither the Salahis nor the investigators have confirmed they will attend. "The investigation is ongoing," said Malcolm Wiley, spokesman for the Secret Service. "We don't have anything we are ready to release. We hope to have some additional information soon." The Salahis have declined to comment through their publicist and attorney, amid reports that they had been seeking payments from media organizations to tell their story.
The publicist, Mahogany Jones, denied that in a statement today, saying that the couple is not seeking to make money from the incident.
"There's a possible criminal investigation on the Salahis," Gardner said when reached today by phone. "I can't comment."
Other than the apparent online link to Gardner, it is unclear exactly how Michele Jones, a decorated career military officer and army trailblazer, is connected to two Virginia socialites best known for their polo events, troubled Fauquier County vineyard and reality-TV aspirations.
Jones, a former top sergeant major in the Army who endorsed President Obama and was a featured speaker at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, was appointed to her current government post in July.
According to the Army Web site GoArmy.com, Jones entered the service in 1982 and was the first woman to serve as a class president at the U.S. Sergeants Major Academy. As the 9th Command Sergeant Major of the Army Reserve, a position she held between 2002 and 2006, she visited soldiers throughout the country and at bases around the world and relayed concerns to leaders in the Army, Department of Defense and Congress.
In an interview this month with the Old Town Crier, a local Virginia publication, Jones described herself as a "salsaholic." She also discussed her active duty service in Operation Desert Shield/Storm and work in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Uzbekistan. Jones, who held the highest noncommissioned officer position of any woman in the Army, retired from the service in March 2007.
A little more than a year after her retirement, Jones addressed the Democratic Convention on August 2008, saying "Senator Obama truly exemplifies what a commander-in-chief should be: a leader who understands the threats we face and who cares for every young man and woman under his command." On Sept. 15, the Obama campaign's Web site, Organizing for America, listed Michele S. Jones, first female command sergeant major of the Army Reserve (retired), in a post titled "Hundreds of National Women Leaders Throw Support Behind Barack."
On the eve of the president's major speech on Afghanistan policy, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs today was inundated by reporters' questions about the Salahis and the security breach at the state dinner.
"Look, the reason there's an investigation is the president and the White House has asked for that to happen," Gibbs told reporters before news of the e-mails became public. "So I think, suffice to say, the president is rightly concerned about what happened last week."