11.30.09

What the Usher Knows

As the probe of the White House gate-crashers continues, Sandra McElwaine talks to the former head of operations at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. about what went wrong.

The mystery over how the White House gate-crashers pulled off the security breach of the year continues to puzzle Washington. Even Gary Walters, who stepped down in 2007 after 20 years as the White House chief usher, hasn’t a clue as to how they got in. He is totally baffled by this daring caper and its serious implications. “As far as I know, it’s only happened once before—during Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration,” Walters says. “It was a freezing day and a tourist dressed in the same trench coat worn by members of the Marine band somehow joined the group and just marched in.”

But that episode was “accidental,” Walters explains. “The man thought he was part of the tour and Secret Service found him quickly and politely ushered him out.”

That was not the case with Michaele and Tareq Salahi, aspiring TV reality stars who managed to avoid detection and sneak into the closely guarded executive mansion last Tuesday night in order to mix and mingle with a gaggle of celebrities and the First Family as the Obamas hosted their first state dinner.

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For Walters, who worked at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for 37 years all told, the whole escapade is mind-boggling. “How in the world could this happen at the White House?” he wonders aloud, noting that last Tuesday was the first time that a representative from the social secretary’s office was not at the East Gate during a function to check computerized lists, meet and greet guests and resolve any potential pitfalls.

“You have to have someone from the White House who knows the participants and can assist a guest in case they forgot their ID, or have a problem,” Walters says. “That’s standard procedure, and this was a real faux pas.”

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The Secret Service has issued an apology, and is investigating what went wrong. Who at the White House bears responsibility? Speculation has fallen on Social Secretary Desiree Rogers. Newsweek reported that the Cathy Hargraves, whose job it was to supervise and plan state dinners, left last June. According to Hargraves, Social Secretary Desiree Rogers told her, “We don't feel we have a need for that anymore. In these economic times, I don't think we're going to have very many lavish expensive dinners. It wouldn't look very good.”

The glamorous and highly visible Rogers, who was at the dinner, opted to come as a guest and work the room rather than tend to duties behind the scenes. She swanned about in an elaborate pearl-embossed Comme des Garcons creation, oblivious to the intrusion.

Hargraves told Newsweek the absence of a social office employee at the gate might have made a difference. During her tenure, she said, it was not uncommon for guests at state dinners to arrive only to discover that their names hadn't been placed on the official guest list. In such situations, she maintained, she always refused the person entry until she could verify that they had actually received an invitation. (The White House declined to comment on Hargraves’ account, according to the Newsweek report.)

Walters says Hargraves was “dismissed”—and calls her a highly competent person who did a good job. “She compiled the lists and was at the gate for state dinners.”

Walters downplays speculation that the audacious hoax might have been an inside job. “It’s possible but unlikely-the risk is too big,” he says.

But Walters sees plenty of blame to go around. “There were so many red flags, there was obviously a slip up in procedures in both the social office and the police.”

He points to all the pictures taken of the shameless couple; only one of them, the shot with Obama, was an official White House photo. The others with Joe Biden and Rahm Emanuel were snapped by someone else. That by itself should have been a warning sign, according to Walters. “We discourage cameras and taking pictures in the White House, some one should have caught onto that right away,” he says.

The three introductions that take place before a state dinner should have offered further warning signs, Walters says. The first takes place as guests enter the White House; the second, when they arrive in the East Room for the reception; and the third takes place when guests are introduced to the president and First Lady in the receiving line. “Somebody should have known something at some point,” he insists.

Another mystery is how and when the Salahis left the White House. They were not seen or seated at the dinner, but no one can remember or identify their exit route. “Checking in is very important,” observes Walters, “not checking out.”

The security breach took place at the beginning of a busy season at the White House. Between 8,000 to 15,000 people are scheduled to swarm through the historic manse in the coming weeks for innumerable receptions and holiday parties. Walters anticipates that the Salahi episode will create a significant change in practices and plans. “Everyone will pay a lot more attention,” he predicts. “And there’s going to be a lot more training sessions for the police at the gate.”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Washington Post, Time and Forbes.