At least two people who weren’t invited, we now know. Just how reality-TV-wannabes Michaele and Tareq Salahi managed to crash last week’s first State Dinner (See TIME’s photos here.) has been the subject of back-to-back front page stories in the Washington Post and another one in the New York Times. The story raises some serious questions about White House security, given how close they got to the President and the Indian Prime Minister, as well as so many other high-ranking government officials.
As of now, the Secret Service is blaming the debacle on a breach at a single checkpoint, though they are being vague on the details. My own experience with these things is both limited and dated. Back in 1999, I attended a similar dinner the Clintons threw in honor of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji. (According to the Washington Post account of that dinner, I got invited under the “White House always throws a bone to reporters who follow the president” exemption. Whatever. I was very, very happy to be there for what turned out to be a very cool experience.)
But what I know from that dinner tells me there were a number of places where things went wrong:
The first thing to know is what makes entering the White House for one of these big social events different from, say, getting in for a routine interview or a briefing. For state dinners, invited guests are allowed to drive a car up to the building. The guards go over your vehicle, including putting something that looks like a gigantic dental mirror under it, and then you are sent up the driveway to the White House, where a uniformed military officer takes your keys and parks your car.
According to NBC’s Brian Williams, the Salahis got caught in that initial screening. This from today’s NYT story:
In interviews broadcast on NBC on Thursday, Mr. Williams said the couple’s vehicle was turned away, adding, “Actually the first ring of Secret Service security had worked.”
“After their vehicle was turned away, they hopped out,” Mr. Williams said. “What attracted our attention was there was at least one camera trailing them. And a makeup woman got out and fixed the woman’s hair and then started powdering the man’s forehead.”
Okay, the checkpoint worked. But why did they then just let this unauthorized couple go on their way? Shouldn’t they have been at least a little suspicious that they would try to get in through another gate? (Hint to Secret Service: The fact that they then got out of their car, and did a quick touch-up, suggests that they were not planning to go home and spend the rest of the evening watching TV and doing laundry.)
According to The Times and other reports, the Salahis apparently managed to get in at a pedestrian entrance around the block. (This gets to another difference between this kind of event and a more routine visit; at a social event, you are not issued a little tag to wear around your neck identifying you as being there for an appointment.)
The Washington Post speculated:
A savvy pair of crashers, dressed to the nines, might arrive on foot at the visitors’ entrance, announce their names — then express shock and concern when the security detail at the gate failed to find them on the guest list. On a rainy night like Tuesday, with a crowd of 300-plus arriving, security might have lost track of or granted a modicum of sympathy to a pair who certainly looked as though they belonged there. If their IDs didn’t send up any red flags in the screening process, they would be sent through the magnetometers and into the White House.
This does not at all square with my experiences at those magnetometers. I’ve shown up any number of times when someone hadn’t sent the gate the required information–full name, birthdate and Social Security number–and (believe me, I’ve tried) whining has never gotten me anywhere. Sympathy is not their strong suit; nor should it be.
I’m not the only one has that impression, according to the NYT:
Representative Peter T. King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, called for a Congressional investigation, saying in an interview Thursday that he was shocked at the lack of security at the White House on Tuesday night. Since 2003, the Secret Service has been part of the Department of Homeland Security.
“Obviously, somebody dropped the ball,” said Mr. King, of New York. “I mean, you’re talking about the president of the United States and the vice president and a powerful world leader, the prime minister of India.” The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was the guest of honor.
Mr. King said he had seen people turned away from similar White House events, including a congressman who brought his daughter instead of his wife, whose name was on the list. He also raised concerns about the Secret Service’s assertion that Mr. Obama was safe because all guests passed through metal detectors.
“The fact they went through the magnometer is incidental,” he said. “They could have had anthrax on them. They could have grabbed a knife from the dining room table.”
Is it possible that the couple was cleared in for some other purpose, and by some office other than the Social Office? If that were the case, they would have been on the list to be cleared. But their formal clothes should have set off a red flag of their intended destination in the building.
Now we get to the part that I really don’t understand. Their entry to the pre-dinner reception was announced. You can see the video here. (Michaele, in particular, seems to be treating this as a Hollywood red carpet walk, stopping and posing and stopping and posing. People in Washington generally don’t.) What happened here? Wasn’t someone standing there with a roster? (My dim recollection is that someone was when I attended that dinner in 1999.) * update below
And once they were in, shouldn’t all the happy snaps with people who didn’t know them (seen here on Michaele’s Facebook page) have made someone think, what’s up with these folks? Again, this is not typical behavior at these kinds of events.
The couple is not saying anything, though their attorney issued a statement through their publicist that “states emphatically that the Salahis did not ‘crash’ this event. We look forward to setting the record straight very soon.”
And I look forward to hearing their explanation, too. Word is, they’ll be on Larry King on Monday night. A word of advice: Get there early. That security at CNN can be a real bear.
UPDATE: In response to my inquiry about how they got announced: No one is speaking on the record. But my understanding is that guests just wrote their names and titles on a card, and handed it to the emcee.