Secret Service director questioned about Salahis
Friday, December 4, 2009
Bennie Thompson got the memo.
In a high-profile House hearing on Thursday, Rep. Thompson (D-Miss.), the Homeland Security Committee chairman, squashed Republican efforts to subpoena White House social secretary Desirée Rogers and put the blame for Tareq and Michaele Salahi's uninvited entry into the White House squarely on the Secret Service. That's just where the administration had signaled it wanted blame to go, in a Wednesday-night memo to White House employees.
The White House kept Rogers away from the proceedings in Cannon 311, and the Salahis declined to appear, though Thompson began a process to subpoena the Virginia couple for a future hearing. That left Mark Sullivan, the Secret Service director, who said that three of his agency's employees had been put on administrative leave.
"This is our fault and our fault alone," Sullivan said before a standing-room-only crowd, crammed with TV cameras and tabloid columnists.
Under intense questioning about how the responsible employees will be held accountable, Sullivan said, "Right now, the individuals who have been identified have been put on administrative leave and beyond that I would prefer not to go further, but I will tell you we are going to look at this and find out what the culpability was, and we will take the appropriate action."
Democrats mostly stuck to the tone in White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina's memo, which allowed that staff from the social secretary's office should accompany Secret Service agents at gate checks from now on, but heaped most of the blame on the president's protectors.
"The administration has been very good at staying focused themselves and they have tried to get everyone to stay as focused as they can," said panel member Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), in an interview after the hearing. She nevertheless insisted that she reached her own conclusion that the Secret Service alone was responsible for the breach. "They can't make everyone be focused, but they try."
During the hearing, Thompson said the Salahis "remained at the White House because no one from the Secret Service asked them to leave," and expressed relief that "no lives were lost."
But Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), the committee's ranking Republican and a driving force behind the hearing, harped on the gaping absence at the hearing. "I asked Desirée Rogers to come here," King said, not to "make this a vendetta" but because he wanted to know why the social secretary's staff hadn't worked at gate checks with agents, as they had in past administrations. "We're getting half the picture," he said.
"For the record," Thompson countered, "a social secretary wouldn't have had any responsibility" in stopping the couple. That was, he said, the duty of the Secret Service alone.