The head of the Secret Service asserted Thursday that the security breach at last week's White House state dinner was an aberration and President Barack Obama was never at risk. Mark Sullivan said three uniformed officers have been put on administrative leave.
The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, said the country is fortunate the affair didn't end in a “night of horror.”
Appearing before Thompson's panel for questioning, Sullivan acknowledge mistakes were made and that the Secret Service must have a “100 percent” performance record.
Thompson, D-Miss., also said that Congress needs to talk not only to Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the couple who got in without invitations, but also to White House social secretary Desiree Rogers. All three have declined to appear. Thompson said he is likely to authorize a subpoena for the Salahis to testify. And the top Republican on the committee, New York's Peter King, said if Thompson doesn't subpoena the White House social secretary, King will.
King accused the White House of “stonewalling” in not permitting Rogers to appear. He said he thinks the White House is either afraid of something or doesn't want to take any heat for last week's incident.
Thompson said at midday that the Salahis could be cited for contempt of Congress if they continue to shun the committee's request that they proceed. He said he has asked staff to prepare subpoenas for the pair, and said “my door remains open.” King indicated he would continue to press for Rogers to appear as well. The two appeared to differ on whether Rogers should be subpoenaed.
Thompson said at the outset: “This hearing is not about crashing a party at the White House. Nor is it about wannabe celebrities.” He said the purpose is to better protect the president.
“We're not concerned about agency embarrassment,” he said. “The security gaps at issue cannot be explained away as missteps by a few frontline employees. There were undeniable planning and execution failures of the entire Secret Service apparatus,” Thompson said. “We're all fortunate that this diplomatic celebration did not become a night of horror. … We must dissect every fact … and after we do these things, we need to give thanks that no lives were lost,” he said.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told the panel that “in our judgment, a mistake was made. In our line of work, we cannot afford even one mistake.”
Sullivan, who had previously acknowledged a failure in procedure by his agency, was the lone witness at Thursday's hearing. “I fully acknowledge that the proper procedures were not followed … This flaw has not changed our agency's standard, which is to be right 100 percent of the time,” he said.
He said that “as an agency, we will continue to remain our harshest critic.”
Thompson asked Sullivan what went wrong. “What we find is if the protocols are followed, we would not run into this situation,” the Secret Service chief replied. He said in this case, normal procedures were not followed, although he did not elaborate.
Asked whether there was a risk posed to people attending the dinner for the visiting prime minister of India, Sullivan said he was confident that it did not and said that “it did not pose a risk to the president.”
Asked if he was comfortable making that statement, Sullivan replied that he was.
The Secret Service chief did say he felt that in the future, there must be someone from the White House staff present at checkpoints for social event guests.
Asked by King if the pair had been able to penetrate the White House if a representative of the White House had indeed been present for clearance assistance, Sullivan replied, “It would have helped.”
On the eve of the hearing, Thompson said: “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.”
Thompson's statement swiftly followed one by the couple's publicist, Mahogany Jones, who said the Salahis had already provided information to Thompson and the committee's top Republican, as well as to the Secret Service.
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.”
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 to ensure security gaps are filled, Thompson said.
The White House also took some responsibility for the foul-up. “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,” Jim Messina, deputy chief of staff, wrote in a memo to staff Wednesday.
Still, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs cited the separation of powers and a history of White House staff not testifying before Congress in explaining why social secretary Desiree Rogers, herself a guest at the dinner, wouldn't be coming.
A senior White House aide, Valerie Jarrett, defended Rogers' refusal to appear, telling a network news show Thursday morning that executive staff members have been allowed to testify to Congress only in rare circumstances in the past.
Jarrett said on ABC's “Good Morning America” that there was no need for Rogers to attend the hearing and answer questions because “we think we've really answered the questions fully.” Jarrett pointed to Messina's memo being posted on a public Web site, saying the administration was keeping faith with Obama's promise of transparency in government.
Copies of e-mails between the Salahis and a Pentagon official have clouded 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. on Nov. 24 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!”
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 TV show around town as they prepared for the White House dinner.
At past state dinners and similar invitation-only events, a member of the White House social office or other 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.
From now on, the White House says, someone from the social office will be present to help the Secret Service if questions arise.