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White House gatecrashers have security impact

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Dec 04, 2009 at 11:13am IST

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Washington: Three US Secret Service officers have been put on paid leave for their role in letting an uninvited socialite couple breeze into President Barack Obama's dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and shake hands with both.

The agency, charged with protecting the president and visiting dignitaries, had identified the agents who had worked the security checkpoint from where an aspiring reality TV contestant Michaele Salahi and her husband Tareq slipped in to join the party, lawmakers were told Thursday.

"Established procedures related to entering the White House were not followed at the initial checkpoint," Secret Service director Mark Sullivan told the House Homeland Security Committee. "A mistake was made. In our line of work we cannot afford even one mistake."

HELLO THERE! President Obama greets Michaele Salahi (C) and her husband Tareq (R) at the White House.

Sullivan took responsibility for the security breach calling it "unacceptable and indefensible." But he said Obama and Manmohan Singh were never in danger. The officers failed to follow procedures that require them to call a member of the White House staff if they are approached by people seeking entry who are not on the guest list, he said.

Sullivan testified that there was a lone agent at the initial checkpoint where Tareq and Michaele Salahi entered the White House grounds. He acknowledged that if someone from the social secretary's office had been there, the couple may have been stopped.

At many past events, there has been a White House representative present to help identify guests, Sullivan said. He added that it was decided Wednesday that that will be done in the future.

But the top Republican on the Committee Peter King was not satisfied. He accused the White House of "stonewalling" as it refused to let Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, who planned the dinner testify before the committee

He said the only way to determine what happened in the exchange between the Salahis and the gate guard November 24 was to have someone from the White House fill committee members in. "We can't do it unless we have someone from the White House having the guts to come down here and testify, instead of hiding behind a phony claim of separation of powers," King said.

But the committee's Democrat Chairman Bennie Thompson Thompson said he didn't see a reason for Rogers to testify, because the hearing was focusing on security issues.

After Sullivan's testimony, Thompson announced that he had asked staff to prepare subpoenas for the couple in an attempt to make them testify. If they continue to rebuff the oversight request, they could be found in contempt of Congress, he said.

At one point during Thursday's hearing, a staffer raised a poster-sized photo of Michaele Salahi posing with Vice President Joe Biden at the event. The Salahis were asked to appear before the committee Thursday but didn't. "Maybe they didn't show because they were on the guest list," quipped Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick.

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