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State dinner crashers exchanged e-mails with Pentagon official

The special assistant to the Secretary of Defense, who was appointed by Obama, said she clearly stated in correspondence with the couple that she could not extend any kind of invitation.

December 01, 2009|By Josh Meyer and Peter Nicholas
  • THEIR STORY: Michaele and Tareq Salahi are scheduled to be interviewed on NBC's "Today" on Tuesday.
THEIR STORY: Michaele and Tareq Salahi are scheduled to be interviewed… (Bill O'Leary / Washington…)

Reporting from Washington — As Congress prepares to examine how a Virginia couple crashed the first state dinner of the Obama administration, the pair may be pointing to e-mail correspondence they had with a senior Pentagon official as evidence that they were invited guests after all.


FOR THE RECORD:
State dinner: An article in Tuesday's Section A about Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the couple mistakenly admitted to a White House state dinner, misstated the former service rank of Michele S. Jones, special assistant to the secretary of Defense and White House liaison. She was command sergeant major of the Army Reserve, not a retired Army major. —

Federal authorities say Tareq and Michaele Salahi were mistakenly admitted by Secret Service agents who failed to verify that they were on the guest list. But authorities acknowledged Monday that in the weeks leading up to the dinner, the Salahis traded e-mails with Michele S. Jones, a top Obama political appointee at the Pentagon, in hopes of scoring an invitation.

One source close to the investigation said the couple produced the e-mails at the security checkpoint last Tuesday to show that they had been invited to the event. The Secret Service, which has interviewed the Salahis as part of its own investigation, has obtained copies of the e-mails.

On Monday night, the White House released a statement in which Jones said she did nothing to help the couple get into the dinner.

"I did not state at any time, or imply that I had tickets for ANY portion of the evening's events," according to the statement from Jones, whose title is special assistant to the Secretary of Defense and White House liaison. "I specifically stated that they did not have tickets and in fact that I did not have the authority to authorize attendance, admittance or access to any part of the evening's activities. Even though I informed them of this, they still decided to come."

Jones, who did not return calls seeking comment, is a retired Army major who was appointed in July.

Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman, declined to comment on the e-mails between Jones and the Salahis. He reiterated that the couple did not have invitations.

Ed Donovan, a Secret Service spokesman, also declined to comment on the e-mail exchange as it is "part of the investigation." "We're not discussing what occurred at the checkpoint except to say that our established procedures were not followed by our employee," he said.

A friend of the Salahis said Monday that the couple believed that they had been properly cleared to attend the event.

Casey Margenau, a real estate agent in northern Virginia, said the couple told him on Thanksgiving that they had received e-mail confirmation from a government official that they were on the list, at least for a pre-dinner reception.

"What they have told me is that they had an invitation and that they believed that they had a right to be there," Margenau said.

After entering the White House -- one of the world's most heavily guarded buildings -- the Salahis met and had their picture taken with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, prompting calls for investigations into the security lapse.

A similar incident in the Salahis' recent past emerged late Monday. WTTG-TV in Washington and the Associated Press reported that the couple sneaked into a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Awards dinner at which Obama spoke about a month ago. A foundation spokesman confirmed the report and said they were expelled.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, has scheduled a hearing for Thursday and will seek testimony from the couple and the Secret Service.

Last week, the Secret Service took blame for the White House episode.

But others contend the story isn't so simple. Members of Congress and former White House employees said it is exceedingly rare for the White House staff not to have assigned a person to the security checkpoint.

The White House's social secretary, Desiree Rogers, has said no one from her office was at the gate when the Salahis arrived.

Cathy Fenton, social secretary in President George W. Bush's White House, said her office would have posted someone to handle questions about the guest list while Secret Service agents focused on security.

"That was our established protocol -- only because it was our office that initiated the invitations and the Secret Service depended on us," said Fenton, who was social secretary from 2001 to 2005 and worked in the the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

Rep. Peter T. King of New York, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said Congress' inquiry needs to go beyond the Secret Service's actions.

"One way or another," King said, "the committee has to find out from the White House what happened, what their role was, and why for the first time in years -- maybe in history -- there was no one from the White House social secretary's office or staff at the security checkpoint."

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