3 Secret Service Officers Put on Leave in White House Gate-CrashingBy GINGER THOMPSON and JANIE LORBER
New York Times
December 4, 2009
WASHINGTON — Three Secret Service officers have been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into how two uninvited guests managed to crash President Obama’s first state dinner last week, the director of the service said Thursday.
The director, Mark Sullivan, revealed the suspensions under heavy questioning from members of a Congressional panel looking into the incident.
Mr. Sullivan told the House Homeland Security Committee that an initial investigation had shown it was “human error” that allowed two aspiring reality television contestants, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, to penetrate security around the White House.
“I’ve asked myself these questions a thousand times over the last week,” a beleaguered Mr. Sullivan said to legislators. “And what I keep coming back to is that we didn’t follow procedures.”
“Do I like to see this? Do any of our people like to see this?” he added. “No, we don’t. We’ve been beating ourselves up over this.”
Legislators at the packed hearing seemed unsatisfied. They expressed outrage at the potential risk posed by the security breach at the nation’s most important address on such an exclusive occasion. They brought up security problems that arose during Mr. Obama’s inauguration, and asked whether there were systemic problems at the Secret Service.
Many pointed fingers at the White House, criticizing Mr. Obama’s social secretary, Desiree Rogers, for failing to post members of her staff at checkpoints alongside Secret Service agents, as has been standard procedure at most such events in the past.
“The Secret Service is expected to take a bullet for the president,” said Representative Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania. “But they’re not expected to take one for the president’s staff.”
Legislators aimed their most scathing remarks at the Salahis, the Virginia couple whose escapade has riveted the world. The Salahis declined to appear at the hearing.
Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and chairman of the committee, said he would move to issue subpoenas for the Salahis if they refused to appear next week.
Several other legislators described the Salahis as criminals who should be brought to justice.
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, held up posters showing the Salahis shaking Mr. Obama’s hand and posing with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. She read e-mail messages indicating the Salahis knew they did not have invitations to the state dinner, but decided to try to talk their way into the event anyway.
“This is a law enforcement issue that could have ended in a horrific incident,” Ms. Lee said, pointing at the posters. “The threat was severe.”
Mr. Sullivan, a career Secret Service agent who was appointed director in 2006, tried unsuccessfully to assuage the legislators’ concerns, saying Mr. Obama was never in danger the night of the state dinner on Nov. 24.
And he said Mr. Obama had not received more death threats than any of his recent predecessors.
Still, Mr. Sullivan acknowledged that the potential for harm was great. He said the Salahis had managed to get past three Secret Service checkpoints on their way into the dinner because uniformed officers did not follow procedures.
He said agents had been instructed to contact their supervisors if anyone came to a checkpoint who was not on a list, but that did not happen.
And Mr. Sullivan said he did not learn that uninvited guests had made it into the dinner until the next morning through newspaper reports and photographs that the Salahis had posted on their Facebook page.
Mr. Sullivan would not identify the three agents who allowed the Salahis into the dinner. But he told legislators they had been put on paid administrative leave until the end of the investigation.
“Beyond that, I would prefer not to go further,” Mr. Sullivan said. “But I will tell you that we are going to look at this, we’re going to find out what the culpability was, and we’ll take appropriate action.”
The White House responded to the criticism of the past several days by acknowledging Thursday that more could have been done to prevent the Salahis from getting into the dinner, and by announcing that from now on, there would be someone from the White House posted at checkpoints with Secret Service agents.
Still, the ranking Republican on the committee, Representative Peter T. King of New York, argued that the White House should share more of the blame. The Salahis, Mr. King argued, might never have gotten into the dinner if someone from the social secretary’s office — which created the guest list — had been working alongside Secret Service agents.
That kind of “layered security,” lawmakers said, was customary at most White House events.
Mr. King accused the White House of “stonewalling” for failing to send Ms. Rogers to answer questions at the hearing. But Mr. Thompson refused a request to subpoena her, saying: “The social office plans parties. They are not responsible for security.”