White House party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi declined an invitation to testify to Congress about their caper at President Barack Obama's state dinner last week, prompting a quick threat from a lawmaker that they will be forced by subpoena to face questions if they don't show up Thursday.
House lawmakers want answers in a hearing Thursday about how the couple managed to sail through security checkpoints while their names were not on a list of approved guests for the dinner. But their publicist, Mahogany Jones, said in a statement on the eve of the hearing that the couple had already provided information to two lawmakers as well as the Secret Service and would not come.
The Salahis believe "there is nothing further that they can do to assist Congress in its inquiry regarding White House protocol and certain security procedures," the statement said. "They therefore respectfully decline to testify."
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That didn't sit well with Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, which is holding the hearing.
"The Salahis' testimony is important to explain how a couple circumvented layers of security at the White House on the evening of a state dinner without causing alarm," he said in a late-evening statement. The committee "must understand the full scope of what went so terribly wrong on Tuesday night (Nov. 24) to ensure that security gaps are sealed. This can only be achieved by hearing both sides of the matter. "
He said: "If the Salahis are absent from tomorrow's hearing, the committee is prepared to move forward with subpoenas to compel their appearance."
In addition, the White House is refusing to send its social secretary to the hearing, citing the separation of powers and a tradition of not having White House staff testify to Congress.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan agreed to testify.
The couple said on TV they were invited to the dinner. But e-mails between the Salahis and a friend who works at the Pentagon show they were not invited to the exclusive party.
Jones said the couple's information makes clear they broke no laws, that White House protocol at the dinner "was either deficient or mismanaged" and that "there were honest misunderstandings and mistakes made by all parties involved." Lawmakers wanted to explore those questions and more for themselves, by questioning the couple and social secretary Desiree Rogers, herself a guest at the dinner, as well as the Secret Service.
The ranking GOP member of the House Homeland Security committee, Rep. Peter King of New York, was the first to ask that the social secretary be called to testify at Thursday's hearing.
By not sending Rogers, King said, "the White House is creating a needless confrontation and is raising serious issues about its judgment on the night of the state dinner."
Jones said the Salahis through their attorneys presented information to King and to Thompson's staff, that was similar to what they told Secret Service investigators.
The Salahis have been trying to land a part on a Bravo reality show, "The Real Housewives of D.C.," and were filmed by the Bravo show around town as they prepared for the White House dinner.
Defending the decision not to let Rogers testify, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs cited the separation of powers and a history of White House staff not testifying before Congress. Gibbs also said the first family is "quite pleased" with Rogers' performance.
In the past, at state dinners and similar events, a member of the White House social office or other White House staff stood with the Secret Service as guests entered. No one from the White House was with the Secret Service on Nov. 24. There were no plans for a White House staff member to be there, and it was the Secret Service's responsibility to make sure the guests were on the approved list.
"After reviewing our actions, it is clear that the White House did not do everything we could have done to assist the United States Secret Service in ensuring that only invited guests enter the complex," White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina wrote in a memo Wednesday to the staff about the new procedures.
The Secret Service has admitted it should not have let the Salahis in and is investigating how it happened.
The White House reviewed its policies as well. Messina decided White House staff would be at the security checkpoints at future events to help clear up discrepancies about guests, Gibbs said. From now on, a staff member also must check guests off the invitation list while the Secret Service makes sure they have been properly cleared.
On Tuesday night, when the White House threw a party for nearly 100 volunteers who spent the past few days decorating the White House for Christmas, a staff member stood with the Secret Service as guests arrived.
Wednesday afternoon, Secret Service Deputy Director Faron Paramore briefed some House members. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told reporters afterward that a Secret Service officer didn't follow security protocols.
"It's very clear that there was one person who allowed these two individuals to go" through the first security checkpoint, Issa said. "That's something that the Secret Service is clearly responsible for. I know a lot of people want to hold the White House responsible. At this point we're taking the Secret Service at their word. They made the mistake."
Copies of e-mails between the Salahis and a Pentagon official have undermined the couple's claims that they were invited to the state dinner honoring the visiting Indian prime minister. The Salahis pressed their friend, Pentagon aide Michele Jones, for four days to score tickets to the big event. By their own admission in the e-mails, the Salahis showed up at the White House gates at 6:30 p.m. without an invitation — "to just check in, in case it got approved since we didn't know, and our name was indeed on the list!"
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