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White House Security Grilled Over Party Crashers

Friday, 04 Dec 2009 07:44 AM

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WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers grilled President Barack Obama's security chief on Capitol Hill over lapses that allowed an uninvited couple to sneak into an exclusive state dinner.

Mark Sullivan, director of the Secret Service -- the branch in charge of the president's security -- accepted responsibility for the fiasco at a hearing Thursday of the Homeland Security Committee in the House of Representatives.

Socialites Tareq and Michaele Salahi got past several checkpoints and into the White House where they shook hands with Obama and mingled with top-level officials at the November 24 state dinner honoring visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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"In our own judgment, a mistake was made," Sullivan said. "We cannot afford even one mistake."

Sullivan expressed "regret" over the breach, calling it "unacceptable and indefensible."

Three uniformed Secret Service officers tasked with manning checkpoints were suspended over the incident, Sullivan said.

But lawmakers were left with an incomplete picture of events, as the Salahis -- candidates to participate in the upcoming "Real Housewives of DC" reality TV series -- and White House social secretary Desiree Rogers refused to testify.

"I think it's wrong, I think it's stonewalling, I think it's an affront to our committee because this was a bipartisan request," said Republican Representative Peter King, referring to Rogers's refusal.

Rogers, 50, is an Obama confidante and part of a circle of White House advisors originally from Chicago. She has been widely criticized for failing to prevent the Salahis from attending the event, which has been overshadowed by the gatecrashing scandal.

King and other critics blasted her and White House officials for not having a staffer stationed alongside the Secret Service at the different checkpoints, standard protocol in previous administrations.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs earlier cited "the separation of powers" as the reason why Rogers would not testify.

King accused the White House of trying to protect one of its own and said Rogers should be subpoenaed.

Committee chairman Bennie Thompson said the Salahis could also be subpoenaed.

"We need this testimony to ascertain the extent of the security breakdowns from the perspective (of the) individuals who were active participants in those breakdowns," he said.

Meanwhile, Obama on Thursday praised his security detail.

"I could not have more confidence in the Secret Service," Obama told USA Today in an interview posted on the newspaper's website.

"They do an outstanding job. They have been with me since I was a candidate. I trust them 100 percent -- not just with me but with my wife and my children."

Still, Obama acknowledged that "the system didn't work the way it was supposed to."

The Salahis went through a metal detector, but security experts have said a determined terrorist could have found a way to inflict harm, including smuggling in a biological weapon.

Sullivan insisted security procedures were followed "without incident" for the other 1.2 million visitors to the White House in 2009.

The White House conceded this week it shares some blame in the flap, saying it should have done more to help Secret Service agents to make sure that only invited guests entered the complex.

Copies of emails exchanged between the Salahis and a Pentagon official obtained by ABC News on Wednesday show the pair lobbied hard for an invite, but apparently showed up to the event without one.

The emails were reportedly released by lawyers for the Salahis, and come after the White House released a statement from Pentagon official Michelle Jones denying she had procured tickets for the couple.

The email exchange appears to back Jones's version of events.

Copyright AFP. All rights reserved.

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