WASHINGTON — The ease with which a Washington area couple breezed uninvited into a White House dinner has exposed gaping holes in the security shield around President Barack Obama, experts warned Tuesday.
Socialites Michaele and Tareq Salahi managed to skirt a tight security cordon to gain access to last week's state dinner at the White House, one of the most exclusive and highest-security social events of the Washington social calendar.
But experts say their success at crashing the party, held in honor of visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was more than a breach of protocol -- it was a massive security lapse that could have caused untold damage if the intruders had harbored malicious intent.
The breach was "certainly a serious matter for anyone to have direct personal access to the president of the United States who has not been pre-approved through appropriate security measures," said David Laufman, a former Department of Justice official and Washington-based expert on domestic security matters.
The lapse is particularly worrisome, Laufman said, "with respect to a president who, by published accounts, is the subject of a more dangerous threat environment than perhaps any president in our history."
News reports earlier this year said that Obama has been subject to threats at the rate of about 12,000 per year -- a four-fold increase over threat against his predecessor George W. Bush, who received about 3,000 a year.
Last week's security lapse prompted the House Homeland Security to schedule a hearing for Thursday focusing on "deficiencies" in security planning that allowed the Salahis to get into the event.
The committee's Democratic chairman, Bennie Thompson, said he has invited the couple to testify, as well as top US Secret Service officials.
"This is a time for answers, recognition of security deficiencies past and present, and remedies to ensure the strength of the Secret Service and the safety of those under its protection," Thompson said in a statement this week.
"My confidence in the management of the Secret Service hangs in the balance," Thompson said.
Security experts said that although the Salahis went through a metal detector, a determined terrorist could found other means to inflict harm, including using the dinner cutlery as a weapon, or smuggling a biological weapon into the White House.
"It could have been catastrophic," said Peter King, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, speaking to New York's Newsday newspaper last week.
"They could have brought chemical or biological weapons. I'm talking about terrorists -- not these two wackos.
"If these had been terrorists or psychopaths who had Anthrax or training in the martial arts, and who were arm-in-arm with the vice president and cabinet officials, they could in a matter of seconds have killed someone," said King.
He said the dangers are particularly acute at events like the state dinner where Washington's top echelon of movers and shakers were all mingling in the same venue.
"Everyone is together," King said. "There are no barriers. They could have just grabbed any kind of knife or small fork."
The event was attended by long roster of Washington's most high-powered officials, as well as luminaries from the entertainment and business worlds, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Meanwhile, the Salahis spoke out for the first time Tuesday, insisting that they had in fact, been invited to attend the exclusive event.
"We were invited, not crashers," said Michaele Salahi, speaking to NBC's "Today Show" program.
"There isn't anyone that would have the audacity or the poor behavior to do that... certainly not us," she said.
The couple was said to have aspired to take part in a popular US reality show, and possibly hoped to use their attendance at the gala White House event -- photos of which they posted on their website -- as a springboard.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the couple was not on the guest list for the event and there had been no misunderstanding.
"They had been told on a number of occasions that they did not have tickets to that dinner," Gibbs told NBC.
"This wasn't a misunderstanding. You don't show up at the White House as a misunderstanding."
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