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The party crashers: Turmoil in the White House

By Jason Horowitz, Spencer Hsu and Roxanne Roberts
Monday, December 21, 2009; C01

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."

The Pentagon official's eagerness to assist the Salahis is evident in subsequent e-mails. She expressed confidence about getting the couple into an "Arrival Ceremony" for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, though she didn't give up on delivering the dinner. At 11 a.m. on Nov. 23, Tareq wrote Jones asking, "Do you know what time we would need to be there?" Later that afternoon, Jones replied that she had no tickets to the dinner, but assured the couple, "they do have your information in the event that extra tickets become available."

At 8:46 on the morning of the dinner, Jones sent an e-mail to Tareq explaining that bad weather had forced the closing of the arrival ceremony. "They are having a very small one inside the WH very limited space," she wrote. "I am still working on tickets for tonight's dinner."

"It is clear that there was misunderstanding about the arrival ceremony," said Stephen Best, the couple's attorney, with the Dewey & LeBoeuf law firm. "It was always understood by the Salahis that the arrival ceremony was part and parcel to the state dinner and at no point do the e-mails do anything to dispel this misunderstanding."

At 10 a.m., a black stretch Lincoln Navigator SUV chartered from Royale Coach and Limousine arrived to pick up the Salahis at their Virginia home. A few hours later, the Salahis finally boarded the SUV, where the driver, J.C. Mitchell, asked the couple if they "had everything they needed," Mitchell recalled in an interview.

The driver then took them to the Erwin Gomez salon at around 1:30, parked nearby and waited.

The couple, followed by an entourage of television cameras shooting for the Bravo reality show, made a grand entrance to the Georgetown salon. The appointment -- a makeup, blow-out and sari-fitting session -- lasted six hours and cost $230.42.

Michaele fluttered around the salon and pecked Gomez six times before taking a chair. When the stylist asked her how she scored the coveted invite, she exclaimed, "I'm just so blessed."

Members of the Homeland Security Committee would like to know what else she said at the salon and, according to committee staff, held conference calls on Dec. 11 and 15 with B. Robert Okun, vice president of NBC Universal, which owns Bravo, to discuss seeing roughly four hours of footage shot of the Salahis on Nov. 24. According to committee staffers, the video could be viewed as early as Tuesday.

"We're declining comment because it's an ongoing investigation," said Cameron Blanchard, a spokeswoman for NBC Universal who oversees communications for Bravo.

Abby Greensfelder, the owner of Half Yard Productions, said the couple unequivocally portrayed themselves as state dinner invitees.

"We took them at their word and filmed their preparations for the event," said Greensfelder. "Half Yard Productions had no part in planning their presence at the event."

At around 6 p.m., the Salahis and five members of a camera crew from Half Yard Productions got into the limo, which remained parked in front of the salon as they shot about a half-hour of footage. At that point it had come to all the passengers' knowledge, according to Mitchell, that they might not have their invitation.

Mitchell said the Salahis suggested that they had misplaced their formal invitation. "My sense was that they had an invitation and left it at home," Mitchell said. "They felt they were on a guest list and just needed their two forms of ID to prove who they were."

The camera crew tried to make the best of the situation, according to Mitchell. They filmed a "discussion about how they felt about misplacing their invitation," Mitchell recalled. "Tell us how you feel about misplacing your shoes, tell us how you feel about misplacing your invitation," Mitchell said the producers asked the Salahis.

The camera crew also shot Michaele talking to a friend on the phone about how excited she was about her evening's plans. "Oh, you'll never guess where I'm going tonight," she said into the phone, according to Mitchell. After the phone call ended, the production crew and the Salahis discussed what they thought was missing from that particular conversation, and decided to do a "second take," according to Mitchell, who had the impression that, in the second conversation, Michaele "may have been talking to someone involved in the filming."

By that point, the limo was en route to the White House, and when it pulled up to the pedestrian gate a few minutes later, a plainclothes Secret Service officer asked Mitchell for his name.

"I'm not on the list but my guest in the car should be," Mitchell recalled telling the officer. He then announced the Salahis as his passengers.

"They're just going to have to get out here," the officer responded, according to Mitchell.

At that point the Salahis and the crew got out of the car. After some last-minute sartorial and cosmetic touch-ups, the couple walked toward the entrance and the camera crew departed in a van that had been following the limo.

Heading into the dinner

That initial rejection should have triggered phone calls and set off security alarm bells, said Cathy Hargraves, a former White House staffer and George W. Bush-era hire who resigned in June after Rogers, the current social secretary, stripped her of most of her responsibilities supervising guest lists.

"I would have called the deputy social secretary, checked that they were not on our guest lists, and then told the Secret Service, 'Please don't let them in,' " Hargaves said. "Everybody would have been on the lookout for them."

According to Shapiro, the administration spokesman, social office staff were stationed at the east landing and available for calls from the Secret Service.

The couple proceeded to the pedestrian checkpoint, where they encountered two officers, a man and a woman, who checked names against a list.

"The female agent stated 'IDs please,' " Michaele wrote in a witness statement, signed by the couple and the Secret Service, which was obtained by The Post. Michaele stated that Tareq silently presented the couple's passports.

"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."

One guest, who requested anonymity to speak about an incident embarrassing to the White House, said he stood behind the Salahis in line as they proceeded through the second checkpoint, and told the officer, "You should have a helmet with a little flashlight on your head; it's hard to see."

Only one layer of security remained between the couple and access to the president. Inside the White House, the Salahis waited for their turn to pass through a magnetometer monitored by a half-dozen uniformed members of the Secret Service, according to the couple's statement. According to one guest in line, the couple struck up a conversation with CBS News anchor Katie Couric and boyfriend Brooks Perlin. Just small talk, according to the guest, but several members of the committee said they considered the chat a tactic to ease the Salahis' way through the last filter. The eyewitness in line said no one at that last screening checked the Salahis' names against a list.

The Salahis had gained entrance to the White House, and not a single staffer from the social secretary's office had laid eyes on them.

Checks and balances

The security system used to have checks and balances. Planning for a major event inside the White House, according to veteran Secret Service agents, usually included a deputy or at least an assistant to the special agent in charge of the Presidential Protective Division. According to former White House staffer Hargraves, planning meetings often occurred the day before an event, and everyone involved would do a tedious step-by-step walk-through, raising logistical and security concerns. Ultimately, the social secretary, who "was there 99 percent of the time," would approve the plan, Hargraves said. The White House declines to comment about any planning meeting -- even whether one took place.

The state dinner was the Obamas' opportunity to define on a grand social stage the elegance, openness and competence the new president promised to bring to Washington. And so former Secret Service officials were bewildered, several said, that the social secretary's office failed to do the minimum by stationing its own staff at the entrances.

The Secret Service resentment isn't reserved for its own ranks. "A secretary, or a person who is only at the White House for a limited time, perhaps as little as a single presidential term, is allowed to dictate orders to our superiors," lamented one former officer who served under the previous administration and did not want to be identified when criticizing the White House.

"Part of what keeps things working in the residence is keeping things rote so people are repeating the same procedures over and over," said Lea Berman, who served as social secretary for George W. Bush.

"If I were working a dinner with that many people, I would not have been the only one down there," said Hargraves, who added that she suspected the Secret Service was getting a raw deal. "They just go out of their way to accommodate us, and I feel bad it all has come down on them. There is plenty of blame to go around."

Hargraves said that she had nothing against Rogers personally and that all social secretaries have their own style.

Rogers has telegraphed her intention to break with the detail-oriented tradition and treat her position as that of a big-picture CEO instead of an event planner focused on china and flowers.

At a lunch at Cafe Milano with about a half-dozen social reporters in February, Rogers said her mission was to open the White House to new people. "She said it wasn't just going to be all VIPs and senators," said one attendee, who requested anonymity because it was an off-the-record meeting. "She said she was going to be more inclusive." Rep. Peter King (N.Y.), ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, has argued that subpoenaing Rogers is necessary to understand what occurred at the meeting that he believes led to the security breach.

"We still don't know what went on at that meeting," King said. "Why was this decision made?"

"I think we must hear from all sides in this matter," said Pennsylvania Rep. Christopher Carney, the only Democrat who voted to subpoena Rogers, in a statement to The Post. "This was a serious security breach, yet so far we have heard only one-third of the story."

Mingling at the state dinner

Once inside the White House, the Salahis freely sauntered down the East Colonnade, where, around 7:30 p.m., a uniformed military aide asked the couple how to pronounce their names and announced them to photographers and the assembled media in the Bookseller's area as Mr. and Mrs. Salahi. A few reporters recognized the couple and tittered about the aspiring reality-TV stars.

Their appearance so surprised Post reporter Roxanne Roberts that she immediately asked Courtney O'Donnell, the communications director for Jill Biden, to verify the couple's identity and asked why they weren't on a printed guest list released to the press. O'Donnell, who was wrangling reporters that evening, said she would try to find out.

Shapiro, the White House spokesperson, offered a different version of events.

He said O'Donnell's assignment that night was to handle logistics and movements of the press corps, not to oversee or deal with guests. "She told Roberts that she did not have that information," Shapiro said. "And that the question should be directed to the first lady's office."

About 15 minutes later, Katie McCormick-Lelyveld, Michelle Obama's press secretary, told reporters that all the guests had arrived and it was time to head back to the press room. It was a hectic scene, with a scrum of reporters asking her about the first lady's gown. In the middle of the fashion queries, Roberts asked about the couple: Were they Tareq and Michaele Salahi and, if so, why weren't they on the guest list? At that point, no reporters suspected the couple had crashed the party, and Roberts's question to the press aides did not suggest a security breach.

Shapiro said that McCormick-Lelyveld told Roberts she would look into it and asked Roberts to e-mail her. After deadline, roughly three hours later, Roberts followed up with that e-mail.

In the meantime, the Salahis followed the foot traffic. According to Best, the Salahis' attorney, the couple didn't see a table where guests picked up calligraphied place cards, climbed the stairs, mingled in the East Room and proceeded to the presidential reception line. In the Blue Room, a tuxedoed official standing next to the president asked for their official name card, at which point Tareq presented an America Polo's Cup business card, according to Best. The official introduced the couple to Obama, and they shook the president's hand. They then walked downstairs and draped their arms over Vice President Biden and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in an elegantly tented dining room erected outside the residence.

In the couple's telling, Michaele began to feel ill just shy of 9 p.m., which, as it happens, is when the invited guests took their seats. According to a staffer on the House Homeland Security Committee, an eyewitness reported the Salahis "causing a scene" by claiming "somebody was sick at home and it was a medical emergency." The Salahis statement said the couple turned to the White House usher, Rear Adm. Stephen Rochon, for help getting out -- a detail confirmed by a White House official speaking on background.

The couple then walked across Lafayette Square to the Hay-Adams Hotel for drinks and, at 9:08 p.m., a message -- "Honored to be at the White House for the state dinner in honor of India with President Obama and our First Lady!" -- popped up on their joint Facebook account.

At about 11:45 p.m., the Salahis called Mitchell, their limo driver, and said they were still inside the White House, but could be at the gate in 10 minutes. Mitchell said he picked them up at the southeast gate at 15th Street and drove them home.

"They were excited," Mitchell said. "They just had a great night at the White House."

In the early hours of Nov. 25, the Salahis e-mailed a thank you to Jones, the Pentagon official. "You are an Angel!" the couple wrote at 1:03 a.m. "We ended up going to the gate to check in at 6:30pm to just check, in case it got approved since we didn't know, and our name was indeed on the list!" At 2:04 a.m., they uploaded 12 photos under the label "White House State Dinner." At 7:57 a.m., Tareq responded to a Washington Post reporter's message sent via Facebook asking how he got in. "It was last-minute attending," he wrote.

By that point, the White House had gone into damage-control mode. At 9:30 a.m., salon owner Gomez received a call from a longtime client seeking Michaele's cellphone number on behalf of Rogers.

At 1:12 p.m., roughly 18 hours after the initial notification of the Salahis' attendance, a White House official confirmed, "They weren't invited."

Avalanche of questions

The embarrassing news quickly spread across blogs and onto front pages. The breach made splashy headlines in Indian newspapers. Right-wing fringe sites attempted to cast the Salahis as a nexus between radical Palestinian causes and Obama ("indicative of anti-Israeli sentiment deep within the recesses of the Obama administration," read a post on FreshConservative). Republican members of Congress, seeking to score political points, argued that the incident demonstrated the Obama administration was soft on national security.

On Nov. 27, three days after the dinner, the Secret Service showed up at the Oasis Winery in Hume, owned by Tareq's parents, but did not connect with the couple until around 3:30 p.m. at the Sheraton Hotel in Tysons Corner. The Salahis asked an attorney friend of theirs to come to the interview, which, according to an affidavit signed by that attorney and now in the possession of the Salahis' lawyers and the Secret Service, was broken up by Gardner, their entertainment lawyer.

Gardner called Jones, the Defense Department official, for a speakerphone conversation in which Tareq stated he understood he had been invited to the arrival or receiving-line ceremony. According to the affidavit, seen by The Post, in that conversation, "Ms. Jones never indicated that Mr. Salahi was either incorrect or mistaken in any statements made on the call," and "she stated, effectively, that this was a big misunderstanding."

Jones has declined repeated calls for comment.

Hours later, on Friday evening, the vacuum in the week's news cycle into which bad news is often dumped, the Secret Service agency issued a White House-coordinated statement from agency Director Sullivan accepting full blame. A Secret Service official alerting reporters to the statement characterized it as "falling on our swords." The White House then released a photo showing Michaele Salahi holding the president's hand, with Rogers mingling in the adjacent room in the background.

On Nov. 30, Jones said, "I am not going to say anything at this point at all. Oh, my goodness," when a Post reporter asked about her connection to the Salahis. Later that day, press secretary Robert Gibbs faulted the Secret Service for failing to call the social secretary's office for help. That evening the White House released a statement from Jones: "I did not state at any time, or imply that I had tickets for ANY portion of the evening's events."

By Dec. 2, the White House had had enough. Deputy Chief of Staff and administration fixer Jim Messina released a memo assigning responsibility to the Secret Service but also saying White House staff will be "stationed physically at the check points with the United States Secret Service" and "guests whose names are not on the guest list will be assisted by White House staff present at the check point for appropriate resolution."

Spokespersons for the White House and Secret Service reiterated that the security agency and the administration successfully work together on hundreds of events a year, and that the agents and officers undoubtedly are committed to serving their country and president.

"Enhancements will be implemented and any conceivable potential vulnerability will be resolved," said Secret Service spokesman Edwin M. Donovan.

Shapiro added that the internal White House review showed "we believe that we can do more, and we are doing more. White House staff is now physically stationed at the checkpoints with Secret Service officers."

On Dec. 3, the Homeland Security Committee's Democratic majority sought to shield the White House and not explore the intrigue about the role of Rogers, whom they refused to subpoena. Sullivan, while acknowledging that "it would have helped" to have had the assistance of Rogers's team at the checkpoints, stated that his agency "agreed" with the decision during the mysterious meeting, and accepted full blame for the security lapse.

In a subsequent executive meeting with lawmakers that was closed to the press, Sullivan guaranteed that the Salahis would be arrested, according to one attendee at the meeting who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. In the weeks since, Obama has said he was "unhappy with everybody who was involved," and King, the GOP leader of the committee, has demanded in vain to hear from Rogers directly and to learn any details about the meeting he believes is crucial to the security breach. As a last resort, he has sent -- and made public -- a letter to Rogers asking whether White House policy "interfered with, countermanded, or in any way conflicted with security considerations?" and filed a Freedom of Information Act request for materials related to the dinner.

His Democratic counterpart, who has final say in the matter, remains unmoved.

"I don't think that created the breach, in my mind," Thompson said of the meeting. "The Secret Service has identified the problem."

Staff writer Amy Argetsinger contributed to this article.

TUESDAY: The Tareq and Michaele love story.

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