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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.

"All of the talking was done by Mrs. Salahi," said a House Homeland Security Committee member familiar with the Secret Service report, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Javaid Tariq, a founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and a dinner guest, said many people have asked if the similarity between his and Tareq's names led to a case of mistaken identity at the gate. But Tariq said he arrived before the Salahis, and the same female officer checked his name against a list and "didn't ask for identification."

The woman had been on the force for four years, and usually maintained a post inside the White House or command center, said one source familiar with the agency's initial findings who did not want to be identified discussing an ongoing probe. She has been put on administrative leave, along with two male officers.

"There is a question about the individuals," said Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. "Not about their skill level, but about their experience level."

Lines of defense

The Salahis' stunt spotlighted longstanding tensions between the Secret Service's plainclothes agents and uniformed officers, a management challenge that some agency insiders say may have played a role in the lapse.

Special agents, guardians of the president since 1901, tend to be better trained, educated and skilled than uniformed officers, and dominate the upper ranks of the agency. Officers -- a force with origins in a White House police unit that was transferred from the D.C. government in 1930 -- tend to be younger, lower-paid and assigned to crucial but unglamorous posts outside the White House, with correspondingly high turnover rates.

Secret Service directors have struggled to strike the right balance of agent oversight of the uniformed-division perimeter security operation, stretching limited staff. Another problem has been creating desirable career opportunities for uniformed officers, including indoor posts, without leaving the least-experienced officers to staff the first line of defense outside. But that night, one junior officer's decision began an unraveling that ultimately embarrassed the president.

"At the end of the day, the core, basic responsibility of uniformed division officers is security of the White House complex," said one former agent with experience in a previous administration, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the agency. "Agents are supposed to manage that, but they have yielded to pressure."

The pressure on that damp, chilly night was multiplied by hundreds of the president's friends, donors and esteemed guests. Tourists and polite policy advisers waiting for appointments is one thing, but a high-profile huddled mass including Sens. John Kerry and Chris Dodd and former secretary of state Colin Powell is another.

The officers, in effect, saw a threat to their own professional prospects. "They don't want to go to Timbuktu because they offended the president on the first big dinner," said Souder, who voted against subpoenaing the Salahis, in protest of both the White House refusal to make social secretary Rogers available to the committee and the way Democrats shut down an attempt to subpoena her.

Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, a George W. Bush appointee whose testimony in Homeland Security hearings has been called "the Sullivan preservation tour" by staffers, has said no video exists of the first checkpoint, according to a committee staffer. Ralph Basham, agency director from 2003 to 2006, acknowledged friction within the Secret Service, as in any law enforcement agency, but said the notion it contributed to the breach was "erroneous."

The couple walked with other guests to the second checkpoint about 50 yards away, at the foot of the White House steps, where, according to committee staffers, two male officers checked the guests in. According to the Salahi statement, Tareq "again presented both our passports. The agent examined them, said 'thank you,' and reviewed paperwork that was on a clipboard. He also appeared to make a checkmark."

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