Capitol Hill Bureau Chief
Michaele and Tareq Salahi may be the butt of late-night jokes, but a Congressional hearing Thursday left no doubt that Congress finds the safety of the president and his family to be no laughing matter.
The director of the Secret Service, Mark Sullivan, was the only witness at the hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, where questions ranged from the incident itself -- and how the Salahis talked their way into last week's White House State dinner -- to the security of the president and foreign dignitaries at the White House and the agency's operations and role in the nation's homeland security.
In his testimony and under questioning, Sullivan repeatedly took full responsibility for the breach of security last week when the Salahis, who had not been invited, gained access to a White House state dinner for the Prime Minister of India.
Sullivan called the Salahis entry "unacceptable and indefensible." He noted that his agency has processed 1.2 million visitors into the White House without incident this year, but added, "In our profession, however, there is not room for even one error." He also told the committee that the agents involved in the breach have been put on administrative leave with pay while an investigation continues.
In his testimony, Sullivan described the five security checkpoints for the evening, including the one where the Salahis entered, which were all manned by Secret Service agents with copies of the official White House guest lists. "These two showed up representing themselves to be on the list," he said. "When our officers looked at the guest list and did not see their names there, they allowed them to proceed to the next checkpoint."
Sullivan testified that the because the Salahis' names were not on any guest list, the officers at the check points should have contacted their supervisor, who should then have spoken with the White House staff available to answer any questions about approved guests.
Although White House staff frequently greet visitors at security checkpoints, Sullivan said the Secret Service had agreed to take responsibility for the evening's guest lists during a planning meeting between the Secret Service and White House staff prior to the dinner.
Despite his detailed testimony, members of Congress remained incredulous at the chain of events. When Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) asked, "How in the world could this couple get past the Secret Service?" Sullivan replied, "Sir, I've asked myself that question a thousand times in the last week." He continued, "This is our fault and our fault alone. If you want to blame somebody, blame me."
But members of the committee wanted more than one person to blame and specifically wanted to know what role the White House Social Secretary, Desiree Rogers, had played in the process of admitting guests to the dinner. Rogers was asked to testify at the hearing, as were the Salahis, but all three declined to appear.
"For Desiree Rogers not to be here . . . is wrong, stonewalling, an affront to our committee," said Rep. Peter King, the top Republican on the panel. "This is half a hearing; we're only getting half the picture," King said.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, defended the White House staff as "party planners, not security personnel," but Democrat Loretta Sanchez agreed with King.
"I have never seen just a Secret Service agent at the gate," Sanchez said, describing her own experiences visiting the White House. She said that a member of the White House staff had always greeted her at a checkpoint, in addition to Secret Service agent, at every visit she has ever made to the executive mansion.
"I thank you for taking responsibility," she said to Sullivan, "But there is a lot of responsibility that should be spread around on this."
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said he wants to hear from Rogers directly. "We do expect the Secret Service to take a bullet for the president, but we do not expect the Secret Service to take a bullet for the president's staff," Dent said. "It is critical that we hear from the Social Office on this."
Other members of the committee focused their time on the Salahis and the threat any security breach would represent, with the Prime Minster of India visiting the White House exactly one year after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) held up large copies of photographs of the Salahis at the state dinner posing with Vice President Biden and President Obama. "This is a severe violation and personal threat to the president and vice president of the United States," she said. "Severe."
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called the Salahis "con artists, hungry for publicity," and took Sullivan to task for not taking the president's safety more seriously. "This couple has pioneered a new way to breach security, " she said. "Forget about your barriers, forget about your checkpoints. Be a poseur, that will get you in faster than anything else."
Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) praised Sullivan for the usually impeccable work of the Secret Service, and said he feels the American people want the Salahis and anyone who helped them conspire to get into the White House to be prosecuted. "If the facts show that there has been a breach of the law, will there be a vigorous prosecution of the Salahis?" Green asked Sullivan.
"If laws were broken, it does not matter who broke them, we are going to pursue whatever options we have," Sullivan said, adding that a criminal investigation of the incident is ongoing.
Chairman Thompson announced at the end of the hearing that he is directing his staff to prepare subpoenas for the Salahis, and that they will be subject to charges of contempt of Congress if they continue to refuse to speak to his committee.
"I hope they will be as willing to talk to Congress as they have been to talk to media."
Despite a request from Rep. King, Thompson said he will not issue a subpoena for Desiree Rogers since she is not involved in the security of the White House, and the purpose of the hearing was to investigate security matters only.