House hearing keys on Secret Service role and Rogers's absence

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Under questioning, Sullivan revealed a planning meeting in which the White House and Secret Service collaborated to set the protocols for the evening of the state dinner. Asked by Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) whether that idea came from the White House or his agency, Sullivan replied, "I don't know that." Sullivan said there was a policy in place to reach out to White house staffers in the event of confusion on the guest line.

"We should have called them," Sullivan said.

The members of the committee took turns recalling their experiences as White House guests.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said a White House staffer always met her on her way into the president's residence. "There has always been somebody out there," she said, adding: "I've never seen this happen before."

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a security expert, said that entering the White House shouldn't be like Christmas shopping at a "big-box retailer," and she contrasted White House security with the smooth security procedures she witnessed entering a Bruce Springsteen concert.

Clarke wanted to know why the Salahis were able to waltz into the White House, especially after "I was basically detained" trying to get into the Denver stadium where Obama accepted his party's nomination.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) wanted to know whether Obama faced a greater threat to his security than past presidents.

Sullivan said that published reports claiming that Obama faced a 400 percent increase in death threats were incorrect. "I'm not sure where that number comes from," he said. The number of threats against Obama, he said, "are the same level as it has been for the last two presidents."

The committee members reserved their sharpest words, however, for one another. When King proposed a subpoena for Rogers, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) harangued him for "muddying waters with an administrative actor, if you will." She steered the focus back to the Salahis, or, as she called them, "the perpetrators."

Thompson, who had at first allowed King to invite Rogers to testify, seconded her complaint, declaring that any effort to force Rogers's testimony "is out of order at this point."

After the hearing, King said he was surprised the chairman shut him down on the Rogers front.

"I don't know why he agreed in the first place" to extend an invitation to Rogers to testify, King said. "And to be honest with you, after today's testimony, I'm more convinced than ever that she should testify."

King also responded to a shot from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs earlier in the day. Gibbs had argued that a long history of "allowing White House staff to provide advice to the president confidentially and not have to testify before Congress" applied to Rogers.

"I don't think even Peter King would have the audacity to put the Salahis in the same trifecta as Watergate, 9/11 and some of the financial deals," he said.

King responded through reporters that "the only audacity I have, to coin a phrase, is the audacity of hope that this White House would be honest."

But much of the drama was drained from the hearing by the absence of the Salahis and Rogers.

A nameplate reading "Mr. Sullivan" reserved a seat for the lone witness at a long wooden table in front of the dais and horseshoe of committee members. Off to the left, along with a pitcher of water and a big black phone, another nameplate read "Mrs. Salahi."

"Why don't you sit down?" one committee staffer, gesturing at the chair, asked a female colleague before the hearing began.

"I'm not going to be her, thank you," the colleague snapped back.

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