By Michael D. Shear and Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
E-mails turned over to the Secret Service show that Tareq and Michaele Salahi had sought a top Defense Department official's help to gain access to last week's White House state dinner.
People familiar with the inquiry into how the Salahis were able to attend Tuesday's gala, even though they weren't on the official guest list, said the Salahis exchanged e-mails with Michele S. Jones, special assistant to the secretary of defense and the Pentagon-based liaison to the White House. It was unclear how well the Salahis know Jones, but Jones includes the Salahis' lawyer, Paul W. Gardner, as one of her 50 friends on Facebook.
Several people familiar with the Jones-Salahi correspondence, including some who requested anonymity because it's part of an ongoing investigation, said 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 did not receive an invitation to the dinner honoring the Indian prime minister, 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.
"There's a possible criminal investigation on the Salahis," Gardner said when reached by phone. "I can't comment."
The Salahis will be interviewed Tuesday morning on NBC's "Today" show, the network said Monday evening.
Also Monday, the House Homeland Security Committee invited the Salahis, Secret Service Director Mark J. Sullivan and White House Social Secretary Desirée Rogers to testify Thursday about the security lapse. Rogers, who was responsible for the guest list, told the Associated Press last week that no one from her office was at a security checkpoint. The Secret Service, the White House and the Salahis' publicist and lawyer all declined to comment on who would attend the hearing.
Other than the apparent online link to Gardner, it is unclear exactly how Michele Jones, a decorated Army trailblazer, is connected to two Virginia socialites best known for their polo events, troubled Fauquier County vineyard and reality-TV aspirations.
Jones, a top sergeant major in the Army Reserve who endorsed President Obama and was a featured speaker at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, was appointed to her government post in July.
According to 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 ninth 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" and discussed her active-duty service in Operation Desert Shield/Storm and work in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar and Uzbekistan. She held the highest noncommissioned officer position of any woman in the Army and retired from the military in March 2007.
A little over a year after her retirement, Jones addressed the Democratic National 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 on Monday 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."
Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.