Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan issued the statement below today in response to reports that Virginia couple Michaele and Tareq Salahi attended Tuesday’s White House State Dinner, despite the fact that they allegedly did not have invitations. According to the statement, the Secret Service’s internal investigation determined that “established protocols” were not followed at the “initial checkpoint” to determine whether the individuals were on the guest list. The statement also stated that the individuals still went through the magnetometers and others levels of screening. The Secret Service took responsibility for the event, noting that the “failing is ours.”
The Secret Service and Director Sullivan deserve credit for taking responsibility for the situation, however the facts may play out. As I noted in a post last month, the Secret Service is an agency that is underfunded, overwhelmed, and in need of more resources and personnel. With just 3,200 Special Agents and 1,300 Uniformed Division Officers, there is certainly a need to plus up its national efforts. (I still maintain that the Department of Homeland Security should explore merging the Federal Protection Service, which recently moved over to the National Protection & Programs Directorate, with the Uniformed Division in light of the similar mission of the two entities though that is a different issue than the one discussed herein).
With regards to the State Dinner fiasco, there is a delicate balance that the Secret Service must maneuver for major events. For regular White House visits, people visiting have to be pre-cleared through the WAVES system, presenting identification upon confirmation that they are on the WAVES list. Reporters, with permanent White House credentials have a different process.
For major events, the Secret Service is often tasked with quickly checking photo IDs of VIPs, many of whom are certainly not used to being asked who they are, against a printed list. Once checked, the guests, often dressed up to the nines in tuxedos and evening gowns (as in Tuesday’s incident), are shuffled through a magnetometer. Assuming that is the scenario that played out on Tuesday, it should not be surprising that the Salahis – dressed for the part and used to circulating in power-broker (or wanna-be power-broker) circles – slipped through the gates and onto the red carpet. Based on past observations of White House events, it is safe to say the printed lists are not always perfect or foolproof and that invitees whose names do not appear properly or at all can be frustrated and difficult – making the jobs of the Secret Service much more difficult.
That does not, however, excuse the failings of Tuesday night, especially considering that the Salahis managed to get their picture taken with Vice President Biden and allegedly met President Obama in the receiving line. If protocols were not followed then the Secret Service will need to determine the action(s) to be taken, whether they be criminal charges against the couple, disciplining the officers involved, and/or taking other appropriate steps to assure that such an incident does not occur again. The agency should also be allowed and encouraged to put in place processes that are more sophisticated than those used by bouncers at elite night clubs, even if VIPs and others have to be turned away at the White House gate. What should not happen, however, is increased bashing of the Secret Service to gain political points or push an agenda of moving the Secret Service out of DHS. If anything, Tuesday’s incident further demonstrates the need to shore up the Secret Service.