Secret Service: We messed up
- Article by: ALICIA ROSS with BEVERLY MILLS
- United Features Syndicate
- November 27, 2009 - 11:32 PM
WASHINGTON - The celebrity-seeking couple who sneaked into a state dinner this week came face-to-face with President Obama and his wife, Michelle, the White House said Friday in a disclosure that underscored the seriousness of the security breach and prompted an abject apology from the Secret Service.
A White House spokesman said the couple, Michaele and Tareq Salahi of Virginia, met the president and First Lady in a receiving line at their first state dinner, honoring Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. That disclosure coincided with a statement in which the director of the Secret Service, Mark Sullivan, said his agency was "deeply concerned and embarrassed" by the events at the dinner Tuesday night.
"The preliminary findings of our internal investigation have determined established protocols were not followed at an initial checkpoint, verifying that two individuals were on the guest list," Sullivan said.
"Although these individuals went through magnetometers and other levels of screening, they should have been prohibited from entering the event entirely," Sullivan said. "That failing is ours."
Shortly before the disclosure from the White House and the statement by Sullivan, the Secret Service said it wanted to interview everyone connected with the episode, including the Salahis, and had not ruled out criminal charges.
"Everyone who has some information to contribute" will be contacted, said James Mackin, a spokesman for the Secret Service.
Mackin stopped short of saying that his agency would seek to file charges against the couple. "We haven't ruled anything out," Mackin said.
Sullivan said his agency had "safely processed" more than 1.2 million visitors last year and screened more than 7 million at campaign-related events. But, he added, "Even with these successes, we need to be right 100 percent of the time. While we have protocols in place to address these situations, we must ensure that they are followed each and every time."
Sullivan's comment was reminiscent of observations made during the inquiries into the failures of government agencies before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- that the agencies had to be right every time because terrorists could triumph by succeeding only once.
The unfolding episode of the uninvited attendees is sure to inspire more talk about the worth of celebrity for its own sake, and the willingness of some people to pursue it. On a more official level, there are certain to be exhaustive reviews about how security broke down.
Earlier Friday, two Secret Service agents visited a Virginia winery, founded by Salahi's father, in search of the couple. Oasis Winery in Hume, Va., is an hour's drive south of Washington.
The lawyer for the Salahis, Paul Gardner of Baltimore, issued a statement on Friday in which he repeated his assertion that his clients had been "cleared, by the White House" to be at the event, and so were not really "crashing." Gardner declined to elaborate, but Mackin said he had no idea how Gardner could make such a claim.
Friends describe the 40-something pair as "fun-loving" and unabashed about pursuing the spotlight and playing the debonair couple who know and are known by all the right people. Casey Margenau, a longtime friend of Tareq Salahi, said he had talked with the couple on Thursday. He said the couple believed that they "really were invited guests."
Interviews and court records also show the couple have a far less glamorous side. These documents and statements include dozens of civil suits alleging nonpayment for services, a long-running feud with Tareq Salahi's parents about ownership and control of the 108-acre winery and claims the couple made about accomplishments that can't be verified.
Last year Michaele told a Washington Post reporter that she had been a Washington Redskins cheerleader, and she has been photographed at several alumni events. But the cheerleaders' director of marketing, Melanie Coburn, wrote in an e-mail: "We have no record of her being a member of the Washington Redskins Cheerleaders."
The Washington Post contributed to this report.
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