Don't blame the White House for party crashers

Why are pundits trying to say White House staffers, not the Secret Service, are responsible for last week's lapse?

Published December 1, 2009 11:32PM (EST)

As the party-crashing Salahi family made the national TV debut they'd long dreamed about Tuesday, a new take on their escapades at the White House started percolating among some pundits and bloggers. In this alternate spin, the people responsible for the uninvited arrival at last week's state dinner were not the Secret Service, whose main job is to guard the president and the executive mansion -- but rather, the White House staff, and by implication, President Obama. After all, why blame the agency that's already admitted responsibility for a screw-up when you can blame the victims instead?

The short version of this interpretation of last week's events -- as popularized on "Hardball" Monday night, and on conservative blogs like and Michelle Malkin's -- goes like this. Since no one from the White House Social Office was standing by at whatever gate Tareq and Michaele Salahi used to enter the building last Tuesday night, it's not fair to blame the Secret Service for letting them in. "It seems like every time I've been there... they always have somebody there that says, 'Oh, Chris, good to see you,' or whatever," MSNBC's Chris Matthews said Monday night. "It's always a double-check. It's not just the Secret Service." Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the top GOP member on the House Homeland Security Committee, told Matthews he wants the panel to investigate the White House staff when it looks into the episode. "Why didn't you have someone there?" King asked. "Why is this different from any event that I'm aware of in the last 15 to 20 years not to have someone there?"

The Washington Post's Roxanne Roberts, who also appeared on Matthews's show Monday, seems to think the White House staff messed up. Roberts, one of the writers of the Post's gossip column, broke the news that the Salahis had crashed the party. But she also says that since she asked two of First Lady Michelle Obama's press aides why they were there if they weren't on the guest list, the couple should have been removed. "The minute I realized they were not on the list, I asked a White House staffer to verify their names and explain why they were not on the list," Roberts wrote on a Post chat on Monday. "I told the same thing to another staffer a few minutes later. This was before the Salahis went through the receiving line with the president, and they could have been pulled aside and quietly questioned. I can only assume the staffers believed anyone already inside the White [House] was allowed to be there. Big mistake, and I'm grateful nothing serious happened." On MSNBC, she went even further. "This is a relatively inexperienced White House staff when it comes to these kinds of things," she said. "When a reporter says to two people, 'You know, they're not on the list,' it should have raised a couple red flags... They didn't, as far as I can tell, do anything about that."

Here's why this whole thing is preposterous. Like Matthews, I've been to social events at the White House in the past, since both Democratic and Republican presidents like to throw holiday parties for the press. And yes, it's true, there's usually some low-level Social Office staffer standing outside the gate checking to see whether the people in line for the security screening are on the guest list. But ultimately, it's the Secret Service that decides whether to let people onto the White House grounds (by federal law, according to Ron Kessler, author of a book on the agency). The White House staff -- who are appointed by each administration -- can put people on a list for access, but visitors only get in after the Secret Service runs a check on them. This is true for parties and official business alike; I've seen reporters credentialed by Congress and approved by the White House to go by for a news event get turned away at the gates because their names weren't in the computerized access system.

Besides that, why should a couple of questions from a reporter to the press office automatically set off red flags? It's easy for Roberts to say, looking back on the event, that the Salahis should have been pulled out of the dinner; as the world now knows, they weren't supposed to be there in the first place. But if her questions had led to an intervention last week, that would still only have helped get the Secret Service off the hook for a mistake. It isn't up to the First Lady's press staff to figure out who is or isn't supposed to have access to the building. Which is probably why Secret Service director Mark Sullivan has already apologized for the incident. "Although these individuals went through magnetometers and other levels of screening, they should have been prohibited from entering the event entirely," Sullivan said in a statement last week, calling the agency "deeply concerned and embarrassed" about the episode. "That failing is ours."

Fortunately, this whole argument is about who's to blame for a security lapse that didn't wind up doing anything except giving some pathetic celebrity hounds more exposure than they could have ever dreamed of. But turning it into yet another example of how Obama's administration is turning out to be "amateur hour" -- as RedState's Erick Erickson put it -- is disingenuous. Figuring out how the Secret Service blew it is important, so there isn't another more dangerous mistake in the future. Flipping the story around to make it about Obama is just a distraction.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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