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The risk posed by Obama's uninvited guests

By Jo-Ann Armao

I can recall a Thanksgiving when this country was mourning the loss of its youthful, handsome president. And because of the memory of those horrible days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I am having a hard time being either amused or nonchalant — as some seemingly are — about the Virginia couple who crashed Tuesday’s state dinner at the White House.

All I can imagine is what would have happened if this duo were guilty of more than bad manners. What if they had been after something more sinister than attention?

Would-be reality-TV stars Michaele and Tareq Salahi, as the world now knows, weren’t invited to President Obama’s first state dinner. That didn’t stop them from sashaying past multiple layers of supposedly high security to hobnob with, among others, Vice President Biden, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. The Secret Service, which is supposed to protect the president, has acknowledged the breach but isn’t saying much. [UPDATE: Looks like the Secret Service is finally saying that it really failed here. It is right to be embarrassed, but much more must be known, like why did this couple think they could get away with such a stunt?]

Officials did try to assure us that the potential harm to the president was minimal, if not nonexistent, because everyone entering the White House goes through metal detectors. And we don’t know how close the crashers got to Obama. [UPDATE, 7:04 p.m.: It's now emerged that they met the president.] But it’s plausible, as Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) told the New York Times, that the Salahis could have had an undetectable weapon on them, such as anthrax, or picked up a knife from a dinner table. In a world where terrorists can commandeer airplanes using household items, even the unimaginable is possible.

We were supposed to learn some lessons from 9/11. But this and other high-profile security lapses — the parents of “balloon boy” launching an unregistered craft into airspace, say, or the sluggish reaction of federal aviation officials to the two errant Northwest pilots — make me wonder if we’ve become complacent as memory fades. Equally troubling is the notion that this shameless couple could be anyone’s idea of American reality.

By Jo-Ann Armao  | November 27, 2009; 4:34 PM ET
Categories:  Armao  | Tags:  Jo-Ann Armao  
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You are so right to call attention to the dire risks posed by these crashers, and particularly the insightful opinion or Rep. King. Of course, anybody invited--officially--could have been carrying anthrax, or swine flu for that matter. Also, I agree with Mr. King that Congress should hold hearings on this breach and look into actions of the Secret Service for two reasons: I have it on good faith that Rep. King has never been responsible for an error or oversight by himself, his family or his staff in his entire life, and second, that nothing including legislation should preempt wasting the time of the people representatives. I for one don't ever vote for any legislators who spend foolish time dealing with matters of public policy.

Posted by: newenglin | November 27, 2009 6:08 PM | Report abuse

The Secret Service is a "buck stops here" agency and they are willing to bear the ultimate responsibility, but perhaps we should look further.
Where were staff members from the White House social office?

In previous administrations, they were at the gate with guests lists for which they were responsible. The social office staff would have worked on those lists for weeks, if not months, sent the invitations, received the acceptances, and seated the tables. They would have known that this couple was not on the list and could have refused them entry.
The Secret Service is responsible for security, but what if they had turned away important guests because of a staff error? That's why the social office staff should have been there.

Desiree Rogers was a guest at the dinner, strolling the red carpet in designer duds, rather than working as she is paid to do by taxpayers. Junior staff from the social office were invited guests, enjoying a big party, rather than performing their duties at a major WH diplomatic event.
What are we paying these people for?

Posted by: parkbench | November 27, 2009 11:15 PM | Report abuse

Real life can always come up with more possible ways for a security system to fail than the planners can anticipate. Thus even the best system needs to be tested in a robust way. Even though these people were not "official testers" they did provide that function and did find a hole in the security wall. For that they should be thanked.

Better them than a killer.

Posted by: gary4books | November 28, 2009 6:01 AM | Report abuse

Interesting you should mention the "balloon boy" hoax---both these situations involve people wanting to get on reality TV
shows. So that is our new "reality"---dealing with the one created by people wanting to be on TV.

Posted by: martymar123 | November 28, 2009 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Not only did they shake hands with the President and pose with the Vice President, but the Indian Prime Minister is in the background of the photo of her shaking hands with Obama.

I too remember assassinations in this country. I've read about women suicide bombers in other countries. We are living in a potentially dangerous world that trumps any "reality" TV show.

Posted by: annetta3 | November 28, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Present at the party were the President, Vice President and Speaker of the House. God forbid they had been terrorists.
I agree that the White House Social Secretary and the Secret Service are equally responsible. This is no laughing matter.
All the success of the first state dinner has been diminished by this inexcusable lapse in security. Mrs. Obama take note.

Posted by: citizonic | November 28, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

For those that are saying they should be thanked, I don't believe it!
These two should be charged just like the balloon boy parents for lying to federal officials and for trespassing. Because they are both good looking or may be from a higher society background means nothing. It has been reported one man jumping over the WH fence spent 6 month in jail for that. Martha Stewart was only convicted and sent to prison for lying to the FBI not for the crimes they charged her for with insider trading.
If these two are allowed to face no consequences, then it encourages others and the next time and even more attractive blond or brunette might do more than shake hands. Fancy rings can hold poisons or anthrax and easily pass metal detectors. It will also lead wanna be's to see if they can try and top this breach with something even more adventurous. It will set a very bad precedent if only the SS face consequences.

Posted by: justmyvoice | November 28, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

The situation that happened at the first White House Dinner is the most absolute incompetence of security all the way around. I am reading that the social secretary Desiree Rogers is to blame. I do not understand how any uninvited guest ever were driven or walked or "waltzed" in to this distingushed event!
This is to the First Lady Michelle Obama:
I hope you understand how important this is that someone "CRASHED" your party.
There have been times in my life that I wanted to speak with a very popular author and musician. I walked in to the back area of a book signing because I told security I lost my way to the stage. I also was able to get to a fantastic musician because I acted as though I was with the "rest of the party".
Hopefully someone will get the facts of how I got through is nowhere compared to what happened at THE WHITE HOUSE. I can not believe this couple will not be told what a negative, disrespectful, irresponsible ,shameful act this was to our President. It is almost like children behaving badly and instead of being punished they get money and a reality show. What the heck?

Posted by: loridell3 | November 28, 2009 11:38 PM | Report abuse

Yes, Congressional folk should stop showing off and wasting resources: let the Secret Service do their investigation and report...

Meanwhile, one hopes that Mrs. Obama will have some strong words with her Social Secretary, and some apology will be coming from that Office, for partying rather than working...

And one prays that whatever charges can be brought against the would-be stars will be and dim their lights.

Posted by: esthermiriam | November 30, 2009 12:36 AM | Report abuse

Most people are shocked by this incident simply because most of us would have thought it would be impossible to walk into a White House function so easily. The most important man on the planet in, allegedly, one of the most guarded home and office on earth, yet two complete strangers brazenly smile and con their way in to a state Banquet.

Had this been just a ’domestic’ event at the white House it would indeed have been horrifying. However, what is truly horrifying, and deeply embarrassing not just for the secret Service, The white House officials and staff, but the entire population of the United States, is this gate crashing took place at a dinner for the Prime Minister of the world’s most populous democracy.

Some Americans may find this incident highly amusing but it has caused ripples of amazement and anger in India where people have realised the President of America is not safe even in his own house and their own Prime Minister may have been at risk. And let it not be forgotten two Prime Ministers of India were assassinated in 1984 and 1989.

This incident is no laughing matter. The gatecrashers cannot be allowed to profit from what was a stupid prank even if it has exposed not just a crack but a whopping great chasm in Presidential and White House security.

Posted by: geoffreymcnab | November 30, 2009 7:47 AM | Report abuse

Has the Secret Service or whoever staffed those metal detectors never heard of plastic guns? Or plastique?

This is a very serious offense, given the viturpitude heaped upon the first bi-racial president of a very racist country AND the fact another country was depending upon US to keep their head of state safe.

Posted by: quacker | November 30, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I am far from a supporter of our current President. BUT HE IS OUR PRESIDENT.

When I heard the story I was just as outraged as I am now. This is totally unacceptable and I expect many people to lose their jobs because of this.

While I hesitate to agree with congressional hearings, they would, at the very least (I hope) focus on the entire breakdown of the system.

I have no doubt that the Secret Service will deal with their failures quickly and effectively. They are the best, and while not perfect, we can count on them to get it right.

I do doubt that others on the White House staff will recieve the same scrutiny without congressional hearings in the light of day.

Folks, this could have been disastrous and heads should roll.

This is our Chief Executive and no excuses should ever be accepted for lapses in his security. Regardless of party.

Posted by: kenskorupski | November 30, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Not the first time the Obama White House has had gatecrashers.


Posted by: MikeLicht | November 30, 2009 7:04 PM | Report abuse

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