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Sunday , November 29 , 2009
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Crashers in shaking range
- Singh by side, Obama gets greeted by uninvited socialite
White House picture shows Michaele shaking hands with Obama. Manmohan Singh is next to the US President

Washington, Nov. 28: The couple who crashed Tuesday night’s state dinner shook hands with Barack and Michelle Obama, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh standing next to the US President, a photograph released by the White House shows.

The revelation underscored the seriousness of the security breach and prompted an abject apology from the Secret Service, responsible for the President’s security.

The photo, released last night, shows a smiling Michaele Salahi clasping Obama’s hand with both of hers as husband Tareq looks on. Singh is partly visible on Obama’s left, standing a few feet away.

A White House spokesman said the face-to-face encounter took place in the receiving line in the Blue Room as the Obamas greeted each of their nearly 400 invited guests before moving to a tent on the South Lawn for the dinner.

The Secret Service has “not ruled out” criminal charges against the couple, spokesman James Mackin said, and its agents sought to interview the Salahis at their family winery in Hume, Virginia, yesterday. The couple weren’t there and the investigators sought them out at another address in Linden, Virginia.

Secret Service officials said the agency wanted to interview everyone connected with the episode. Secret Service director Mark Sullivan said the agency was “deeply concerned and embarrassed”.

He suggested the couple had been screened for weapons, but should not have gained entry. “That failing is ours.”

Domestic security experts said the episode raised serious questions about protection for the President. Ronald Kessler, author of In the President’s Secret Service, said threats against the President had increased 400 per cent since Obama took office.

New York Times News Service and Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

Gossip blogs and incredulous guests floated several theories to explain how the sneak-in happened. One scenario suggested the Salahis, who have been photographed at social events with Indian embassy officials, persuaded one of their Indian friends to get them on a special guest list.

“Neither the embassy nor anyone from the embassy was involved in any way in their getting into the White House,” said Rahul Chhabra, an embassy official. “Nor did we request any invitation for them.”

One guest at the dinner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was behind the Salahis in line as they entered the White House.

He watched the couple make it past two security checkpoints, only one of which checked photo IDs. The poor light led this guest to remark to the agent that “you should have a helmet with a little flashlight on your head; it’s hard to see”.

“This poor guy was getting his eyes close to the paper trying to see our names,” the guest said.

“They were just behind us,” said another guest, who noted that security only asked once for photo identification.

Sant Singh Chatwal, an Indian hotelier who attended the dinner, said that after passing through security checkpoints and a metal detector, guests gave their names to a woman positioned at a small table at the foot of the stairs. The woman then handed the guests a place card with his or her name and table number elegantly scrawled in black ink.

“It wouldn’t be that hard to go through the receiving line, because once you’re in, you just go by,” said the guest behind the Salahis.

“You’re supposed to give a card with your name on it, which I assume they didn’t have, but that doesn’t make a difference; you just keep walking and you say ‘Hi’ to the President and you go down to the tent.”

A third guest, who said that Secret Service agents never asked to see any of his personal identification and only asked his name, recalled seeing Michaele Salahi “grinning ear to ear” during the cocktail reception in the East Room.

At the south end of the room, guests lined up for the receiving line with the Obamas and Manmohan Singh. Guests gave their names to staffers, who whispered the information to the President.

After the handshake, the couple entered the dinner tent, where they posed for pictures with Vice-President Joseph Biden and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Guests sat down about 8.45pm; it is unclear when or how the crashers left the White House grounds.

The couple’s lawyer, Paul W. Gardner, asserts the Salahis had been “cleared, by the White House” to be at the event, and so were not really “crashing”. Gardner declined a request to elaborate on his assertion.

Secret Service spokesman Mackin, however, said he had no idea how Gardner could make such a claim.

Most of the guests had received an engraved invitation from the White House about a week before the party. Invitees were asked to RSVP to a recorded phone line with their name, social security number and date of birth for criminal background checks. Those planning to arrive by car were asked to provide the make, model, licence-plate number and driver information.

On the night of the party, NBC’s Brian Williams saw the Salahis’ SUV turned away ---- and the crashers and a film crew jumped out and continued on foot.

Mackin said the security failure occurred at the initial checkpoint, where guests present their names to an agent. He said the Salahis should have been turned away when their names did not show up on the guest list, but instead agents waved them on to the next checkpoint.

White House officials refrained from publicly criticising the Secret Service. “The men and women of the Secret Service put their lives on the line every day to protect us; they are heroes, and they have the full confidence of the President of the United States,” said Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman.

The Salahis are aspiring reality-show celebrities. For months, the couple have been trailed by camera crews with the cable channel Bravo as it prepared for a new show, The Real Housewives of DC.

By the sometimes twisted logic of reality TV, it is hard to tell whether the publicity surrounding the state dinner would help or hinder the couple’s goals.

The Salahis have not officially been selected for the Housewives show. “The decision as to who will be included in the series will not be made for several months,” Bravo said.

New York Times News Service and Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

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