Secret Service apologizes for ticketless couple's access
Questions linger over checkpoint breakdowns at White House dinner
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Getting to the president is not supposed to be this easy.
The White House said late Friday that Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the Virginia couple auditioning for a Bravo reality show, not only got past layers of experienced, executive-branch security but also shook the president's hand in the Blue Room of the White House during the Obamas' first state dinner. Late Friday, the White House also released a photo of Michaele Salahi's audience with the president, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh smiling nearby.
The security breach has caused hand-wringing inside the White House, bewilderment among Tuesday night's guests -- and late on Friday, prompted an apology from the Secret Service.
A statement by Director Mark Sullivan said the agency was "deeply concerned and embarrassed by the circumstances surrounding the State Dinner" and added that "the preliminary findings of our internal investigation have determined established protocols were not followed at an initial checkpoint, verifying that two individuals were on the guest list."
Sullivan suggested that the couple had been screened for weapons, but should not have gained entry. "That failing is ours," he said.
Agents from the Secret Service -- which, according to spokesman James Mackin, has "not ruled out" criminal charges against the couple -- sought to interview them at the Salahi family winery in Hume earlier Friday. The couple wasn't there, and the investigators sought them out at another address in Linden.
Reached by telephone Friday evening, the couple's attorney, Paul W. Gardner, declined to comment. In an e-mail to Bloomberg News, Gardner added, "My clients were cleared by the White House to be there."
According to Mackin, the security failure occurred at the initial checkpoint, where guests present their names to an agent. He said the Salahis should have been turned away when their names did not show up on the guest list, but instead agents waved them on to the next checkpoint.
"We know at this point that the failing was at that first one," Mackin said in an interview late Friday. "They should have been turned away."
How the couple -- he decked out in a tuxedo, she in a red sari -- made it past the second checkpoint, however, is still unanswered. Mackin said the Salahis were not included on the list of invited guests, and a source familiar with the investigation added that the Secret Service's Office of Professional Responsibility is looking more broadly at whether their names had ever been put into the security force's computer network.
At this point, the source said, "we don't have any indication they were on any list or ever in the system."
The notion of a couple breezing into the White House and getting waved through by Secret Service agents and other security proved so hard to believe that gossip blogs and incredulous guests floated other explanations. One such scenario that gained traction suggests the Salahis, who have been photographed at social events with Indian Embassy officials, persuaded one of their Indian friends to get them on a special guest list.