WASHINGTON — The head of the Secret Service accepted full responsibility Thursday for last week's security breach at President Barack Obama's first state dinner, but he said that the president and Vice President Joe Biden were never in danger from a party-crashing couple who shook hands and posed for pictures with them.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told the House Homeland Security Committee that his agents were at fault for allowing uninvited Washington socialites Tareq and Michaele Salahi into a lavish state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He said the Salahis had shown their passports when asked for identification, then were allowed in.
Sullivan told the committee that three uniformed agents had been put on administrative leave in the wake of the incident.
"In our judgment, a mistake was made," he told the committee. "In our line of work, we cannot afford even one mistake. 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 added: "This is our fault, and our fault alone."
However, several committee members said it was unfair for the Secret Service to take full blame for the party-crashers, and that they thought that Sullivan was falling on his sword for the White House.
"We always expect the Secret Service to take a bullet for the president, but we don't expect Secret Service to take a bullet for the president's staff," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.
Sullivan was the lone witness at Thursday's hearing, in a room packed with onlookers, reporters and photographers from mainstream media outlets to television's "Inside Edition."
The Salahis, who've been angling to become contestants on the Bravo cable network's upcoming "Real Housewives of D.C." reality TV series, and White House social secretary Desiree Rogers, who oversaw logistics for the dinner, were invited to testify, but declined. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that White House staff members didn't answer to Congress.
Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ordered staffers to prepare the committee's first-ever subpoenas for the Salahis and have them ready to be issued next week. He warned that the couple could face charges of contempt of Congress if they fail to respond.
Rep. Peter King of New York, the committee's top-ranking Republican, said that Rogers also should be subpoenaed. King squarely blamed Rogers, saying that her office didn't sufficiently staff the dinner or carefully monitor the guest list. He said that usually at White House social events, a representative of the social secretary's office was at checkpoints alongside Secret Service agents to monitor the guest list.
"The reality is, social events at the White House is a shared responsibility. ... The social secretary's office was not standing there with the Secret Service," King said. "Not one person from the social secretary's office was standing there. Not one."
Thompson and other committee members shrugged off King's accusations.
"Social secretaries don't plan security, they plan parties," Thompson said.
Sullivan, however, did tell the committee that the Secret Service had a planning meeting with the White House before the dinner and it was decided there that Secret Service agents would have the sole responsibility of staffing the checkpoint that the Salahis entered.
Pressed by King on whether the couple would have gotten into the dinner if someone from the social secretary's office had been at the checkpoint with the agents, Sullivan said, "It would have helped."
Thompson rebuffed King's request to subpoena Rogers, saying that the Salahis, not Rogers, are the central figures in the breach.
"We cannot forget that amidst all the hullabaloo and uproar, the most important and indisputable fact is that a couple gained unauthorized access to the White House grounds because no one from the Secret Service prevented them from entering," Thompson said in his opening remarks. "There were undeniable planning and execution failures of the entire Secret Service apparatus."
Perhaps the most pointed questions to Sullivan came from African-American members of the committee. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., pressed him on whether the Secret Service has enough resources to protect Obama, the nation's first African-American president.
She cited claims by Ronald Kessler, the author of "In the President's Secret Service," that since Obama took office last January, death threats against the president had risen 400 percent from a rate of around 3,000 per year during George W. Bush's presidency.
Sullivan said the threat rate was now at the same level that it was for Bush and former President Bill Clinton.
Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., suggested that race might have played a role in the breach. She noted that the Salahis easily entered the White House, while she had difficulty with a Secret Service agent as she tried to enter Denver's Invesco Field at Mile High stadium in August 2008 to watch Obama accept the Democratic presidential nomination despite having a congressional pin and identification.
"I find it ironic that the Salahis were able to get in to the White House with such ease when I was basically detained by Secret Service just trying to get into Invesco Stadium to nominate my president," she said. "So there seems to be some standards about who is credible in their description of whom they are and where they belong and who does not."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2009