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State dinner crashers met President Obama

The Secret Service says it's 'deeply concerned and embarrassed.' The agency is looking into how such a security breach happened at the White House and whether Michaele and Tareq Salahi broke any laws.

November 28, 2009|By Peter Nicholas and Josh Meyer

Reporting from Washington — President Obama met face to face with the Virginia couple who crashed this week's state dinner at the White House, officials acknowledged Friday, as the Secret Service said that it was "deeply concerned and embarrassed" by the breach of security.

A Secret Service spokesman also confirmed that the agency was conducting a two-pronged inquiry into whether the couple, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, broke criminal laws, and how the president's bodyguards came to let them inside what was supposed to be one of the world's most carefully secured buildings.

In a picture released by the White House on Friday, Michaele Salahi is shown clasping Obama's hand as he greets guests Tuesday in the receiving line in the Blue Room. Both are smiling. Her husband is shown looking on.

Pictures posted on Michaele Salahi’s Facebook page showed the couple standing next to a smiling Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

At no point during the party was the breach discovered; when they left, it was on their own, officials said.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said: "The Secret Service is deeply concerned and embarrassed by the circumstances surrounding the state dinner."

He added that the couple "should have been prohibited from entering the event entirely. That failing is ours."

The acknowledgment that the pair had gained access to the president is likely to inspire more calls for formal reviews of the incident. Even before Friday's admission, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) called for a congressional hearing on the matter.

Although the couple went through a metal detector, that is not sufficient to protect the president and White House officials, King said. A determined terrorist could have smuggled in biological weapons or grabbed knives and forks to inflict harm, he said.

"If these had been terrorists or psychopaths who had anthrax or training in the martial arts, and who were arm in arm with the vice president and Cabinet officials, they could in a matter of seconds have killed someone," King said.

The Secret Service typically does not detail its methods. But in his statement, Sullivan did say that the magnetometer, which detects weapons, was one of multiple levels of screening.

King, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said that he had asked the Secret Service to give a classified briefing next week.

Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin said that the agency would review what the couple told the Secret Service when they showed up at the White House for the party in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Experts said that the Salahis could face legal troubles if they made false statements in the course of gaining entrance to the party.

As part of the inquiry, investigators will interview the Secret Service agents and White House staffers who were at the dinner, and look at visitor logs and footage from security cameras. Obama has asked the agency to perform such a review.

Though the investigation may take days, the Secret Service already has admitted that there was a breakdown in procedure. In his statement, Sullivan said that preliminary findings show that at one checkpoint, no one verified whether the Salahis were on the guest list.

"The first thing we have to do is to identify what took place and ensure it doesn't happen again," Mackin said. "The second is to [see whether] the actions of the individuals involved included any misconduct."

An attorney for the Salahis did not return a call for comment Friday.

The incident is all the more surprising given the extraordinary security at the White House. People wanting to get in are routinely turned away by immovable Secret Service agents checking names against computerized lists of invited guests.

Both King and a former Secret Service officer said that a White House civilian aide should have been present to help monitor the arriving guests.

Joseph J. Funk, a veteran former Secret Service agent who oversaw presidential security details at events including state dinners, said that such state dinners are fluid affairs, with names coming on and off the guest list at the last minute due to cancellations and emergencies. White House officials can -- and often do -- approve such changes even as the event gets underway, Funk said.

But to prevent security breaches and the potential embarrassment of holding up a VIP, the White House has for years posted representatives at each security checkpoint so that they can instruct agents on how to handle people who show up unexpectedly and insist that they are on the list, Funk said.

"If they didn't have someone there, they should have," Funk said of the White House. "And if they did have someone there, then they made the mistake."

The White House's social secretary, Desiree Rogers, told the Associated Press that there was no one from her office at the checkpoint. In this case, the Secret Service said, it would not have made any difference had the White House assigned an aide at the checkpoint because none of the agents raised a question about the Salahis.

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

josh.meyer@latimes.com

Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.

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