Secret Service’s Sullivan Takes the Hot Seat

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Head bowed, U.S. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan mumbled (or maybe his microphone is just too far away, but for those of us in the room he’s incredibly hard to hear) his way through a morning of tough questions at a House Homeland Security Committee oversight hearing about how a social climbing couple managed to breach White House security to crash the Nov. 24th State Dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Tareq and Michaele Salahi brazenly snapped photos with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Vice President Joe Biden and, the White House admitted a day later, even shook hands with President Obama on the reception line.

“How in the world did a couple get through all the way to the President of the United States?” asked an incredulous Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican.

“Sir, I’ve asked myself that question about a thousand times over the last week,” Sullivan responded.

Sullivan, the sole witness to appear of the four invited (including the Salahis and White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers) shouldered full blame for the breach, calling it “human error,” “indefensible,” and “unacceptable.” He recounted the events of that night, saying an agent noted that the couple was not on his list but allowed the couple to pass on to the next check point, any way. He said instead of having Office of the White House Social Secretary’s staff present at check points to greet guests and double check their names, that the service had “agreed” in a meeting with White House staff the week before to shoulder that responsibility. “I acknowledge that is very rare and I haven’t seen that happen all that often,” Sullivan said, refusing to say if it move was at the urging of the Service or the White House, only saying, “The U.S. Attorney’s Office has asked me not to comment on an ongoing investigation.”

In the event of a discrepancy on the list – such as the Sahali’s names not being on it – the agents were meant to call Rogers’ staff and someone would double check. “I regret that on Nov. 24, established protocol and procedures were not followed,” Sullvian repeated over and over. The agents involved, he said, have been placed on administrative leave pending the plethora of investigations that have been launched. Nevertheless, he said, given the fact that the couple went through metal detectors and were searched, “I’m confident that there was no threat to the president.”

Members on both sides of the aisle expressed frustration that the White House had invoked separation of powers and withheld Rogers from their grilling. “It’s the Secret Service’s job to take a bullet for the president but not the president’s staff,” remarked a wry Rep. Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican. Echoed Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, “In my opinion you’ve been a good soldier and taken responsibility,” he said as Sullivan uttered his thanks. “In my opinion, and it’s just my opinion, that responsibility should be shared.”

Before the hearing, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson said he felt he could get approval for a committee subpoena of the Salahis within a week. “If the Salahis are absent from tomorrow’s hearing, the committee is prepared to move forward with subpoenas to compel their appearance,” Thompson told reporters in the corridor outside the committee room. Ranking Member Peter King in his opening statement  that he wants Rogers is added to the subpoena. “Obviously the Salahis’ testimony would be significant, and the Committee should do whatever is necessary to obtain it,” King said. “It is far more important, though, to obtain the testimony of White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers. The White House should not be allowed to stonewall by refusing the Committee’s request that Ms. Rogers testify. What is the White House trying to hide?”

From the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue this morning, Michael Scherer tells me the White House is making the case that presidential aides rarely testify on the Hill, and only for very serious matters. In a gaggle this morning, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs noted three major reasons for White House staff testifying in recent decades: Watergate, the Whitewater investigation and the 9/11 attacks. “I don’t think even Peter King would have the audacity to put the Salahis in the trifecta,” he said.

As Scherer wrote in a story this morning, invoking separation of powers for a Social Secretary is an eye raising move. A 2007 report from the Congressional Research Service recorded 74 instances of presidential aides testifying before Congress since World War II.  Six of those testimonies concerned Watergate, 36 concerned the 1990s investigation into Whitewater or the related Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan Association, and nine testimonies addressed security after the 9/11 attacks by Tom Ridge, President Bush’s Homeland Security aide. The other 23 testimonies came for a wide variety of reasons, including Wallace H. Graham, physician to the President Truman, who testified in 1948 about his investments in the cotton commodities market. Several Clinton aides testified with regard to fundraising scandals. And in May of 2000, Dimitri Nionakis, associate counsel to President Clinton, testified about White House mismanagement of its e-mail system.  And for all that the White House is trying to down play the incident as not important enough for Rogers’ time, on Capitol Hill Obama’s Democratic colleagues were taking the issue very seriously. “This hearing is not about crashing a party at the White House. Neither is it about “wanna-be” celebrities or reality television,” Thompson said in his opening statement. “On the contrary, this hearing is about real world threats to the nation.”

Though he’d earlier on left the door open for a subpoena of Rogers, Thompson declined King’s request at the end of the hearing (I can just imagine the profane call he likely got from Rahm sometime this morning that changed his mind). Speaking to two empty seats with the name plates “Tareq Salahi” and “Michaele Salahi,” Thompson did say he plans on subpoenaing the party crashers. After the hearing. King gaggled with reporters. He predicted the Salahis would show up when rather than be held in contempt of Congress, but said they’d likely plead the 5th. Addressing Gibbs’ comments this morning, King said, “I can’t believe that the White House Press Secretary would say that the security of the President of the United States in not important,” King said. Asked whether that was really Desiree Rogers’ job, King shot back: “The fact is, as the Director testified today, if the security arragnements were made in joint meetings with the Secret Service and the Social Secretary’s Office, they were an intregral part in the security plan for the White House at this event. So for them to duck responsibility now is disgraceful.”