The party crashers: Turmoil in the White House

Michaele and Tareq Salahi, a couple from Northern Virginia, are at the center of a controversy after they gained admission, uninvited, to a White House state dinner on Nov. 24, 2009.
By Jason Horowitz, Spencer Hsu and Roxanne Roberts
Monday, December 21, 2009

Case closed.

That's the verdict the White House has emphatically handed down on the embarrassing and troubling security breach a fame-craving Virginia couple performed during the Obama administration's first state dinner, on Nov. 24. But eyewitness accounts, a Secret Service criminal investigation, congressional hearings and an Obama administration internal review depict a far more complicated set of circumstances.

A month later, Tareq and Michaele Salahi's perplexing White House visit has revealed personnel failings and damage control maneuverings in the administration, institutional vulnerabilities in the security agency, and the perils of celebrity culture and political gamesmanship in Washington.

And yet one central part -- the participants and the discussion at a dinner planning meeting between representatives from White House social secretary Desirée Rogers's office and the Secret Service -- is being guarded by the administration as a virtual state secret. White House press officers decline to acknowledge the meeting or say who attended or what was said. Rogers declined to comment for this report.

"I'm sure we could find out," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, which has conducted hearings into the security breach.

Except that Thompson -- having received the White House's don't-go-there message -- refuses to find out. The players in that decision contributed to an unlikely chain of events -- some comical, some cautionary -- in which the exploits of two textbook cases in reality-TV exhibitionism ultimately weakened security around a president whose harm would cause national trauma and international crisis.

Trying for the elite invite

The Salahis say they believe, then as now, they were welcome to attend.

At 12:07 on Nov. 20, a representative of Half Yard Productions, a company shooting footage of the Salahis for a potential Bravo reality show called "The Real Housewives of D.C.," sent an e-mail to the media affairs office at the White House requesting confirmation that the Salahis had been invited to the state dinner and requesting permission to film the couple at the event, according to a person with knowledge of the Secret Service investigation, who was granted anonymity to discuss details of the inquiry.

The White House acknowledged that the e-mail did not get a reply, "as it was sent to a general inbox for generic press inquiries," said Nick Shapiro, an administration spokesman. He added that "the Salahis have never produced anything that showed they were invited."

Later that day, Paul Gardner, a Baltimore-based entertainment lawyer representing the Salahis in their capacity as aspiring reality-TV stars, received an e-mail from his secretary relaying a pressing request from a Pentagon official and friend named Michele S. Jones.

"Michele S. Jones just called regarding the State Dinner at the White House for Tuesday, November 24, 2009," read the e-mail, explaining that Jones needed to know the couple's full names, Social Security numbers and citizenships as soon as possible. "This information is very important to be admitted to the White House for anyone."

According to Thompson, who is familiar with a preliminary Secret Service report about the breach, Gardner knew Jones -- a Pentagon official, Facebook friend and former client -- and "introduced her" to the Salahis. Thompson's committee had little interest in Jones, because she was "just a staffer trying to be helpful," the chairman said. "You see a lot of that in this town."

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