Written by Roger Aronoff
The evidence clearly shows that the congressional investigation of the White House Gatecrashers is being controlled and limited. Homeland Security Committee chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS), now the subject of an Ethics Committee investigation, has made it clear that he wants to limit the investigation. Is he trying to protect White House officials with something to hide?
Ignoring evidence of White House connections to the alleged gatecrashers, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, Thompson will not subpoena DesirÃ©e Rogers, the White House social secretary who is a very close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama.
As a result of the stonewalling and cover-up, and after several weeks of sensational media coverage, we are still no closer to answering the question: How did the Salahis get into the Arrival Ceremony of the first Obama White House state dinner on November 24, honoring the Prime Minister of India, when they were not officially invited and their names were not on the list?
The White House has consistently acted as if it has something to hide. Though an initial letter from the committee requested Ms. Rogers' attendance at the December 3rd hearing held by the committee, the White House claimed executive privilege, or separation of powers, as the reason for her to not have to testify.
This is the same White House that promised openness and transparency.
As I alluded to in a previous column, the evidence indicates that the Salahis are publicity seekers and possibly con-artists. But the verdict is still out as to whether or not they actually "crashed" the state dinner or were waved on through by White House officials aware of their connections to a notorious Obama friend and associate, pro-Palestinian activist Rashid Khalidi.
An article from the Loudon Times, which covers the area where the Salahis have resided in Virginia, has delved deeper into their activities and their reputation among their neighbors: "While their current whereabouts are not confirmed, what is known about the Salahis is that their past includes a bankrupt winery; a long string of civil suits, some of which involve Loudoun businesses; cars and at least one boat repossessed; a residence in foreclosure; and his elderly parents evicted from their home."
In addition, according to the article, Charles Muldoon says he was asked by Tareq Salahi to help him organize the inaugural America's Cup polo match help raise money for lymphoma cancer research through Journey for the Cure, Salahi's "personal charity."
According to the Loudon Times, "Not only did virtually no money go to cancer research, he [Muldoon] said, but many of those who participated in the event were not paid for their work, for the supplies they had to purchase, for their time and effort. Salahi, Muldoon claims, even went so far as to stiff the local civic club that provided for parking cars."
More unwelcome attention to the Sulahis came from a blogger known as TaxGirl, who found that the Salahis have failed to file some of their corporate tax returns, had tax liens filed against them, and were spending money on items such as Redskin luxury boxes while failing to pay some of their taxes that were due.
The Foreign Connection
The controversial financial shenanigans are one thing. Even more important, however, is a possible foreign connection to one of President Obama's close friends.
But other than Joseph Farah's work at WorldNetDaily, there has been virtually no attention paid to Tareq Salahi's links to Rashid Khalidi. According to the Internet publication, "Tareq Salahi served on the board of the American Task Force for Palestine, where Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi served as vice president...Khalidi is a harsh critic of Israel. He has made statements supportive of Palestinian terror and reportedly has worked on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization while it was involved in anti-Western terrorism and was labeled by the State Department as a terror group."
Khalidi's relationship with Barack Obama became a major controversy during the presidential campaign. It is not known what kind of relationship Khalidi and Obama still maintain.
NBC's Conflict of Interest
Rather than probe this relationship, which may account for Obama's Middle East policies, the NBC Today Show featured the Salahis on the air on December 1st for an interview with Matt Lauer. Lauer started out by asking them if NBC was paying them in any way for the interview, to which they said no.
The truth may be more complicated. According to an article on the popular website Gawker, "As applicants to appear on Bravo's The Real Housewives of Washington, D.C., Tareq and Michaele Salahi had signed a contract with the network limiting their television appearances. And according to a booker at a rival network, an NBC staffer has admitted that Bravo prevented the Salahis from giving their initial exclusive interview to anyone other than NBC News, which is under the same NBC Universal corporate umbrella as Bravo." So to borrow a phrase, it depends on what the meaning of "paying" is. Gawker did get comments from NBC and Bravo spokespeople, who equivocated while denying that Bravo played a role in the booking on The Today Show.
Equally mysterious is why the Obama White House has been deceptive about who approved their entry into the White House itself.
Roxanne Roberts, who writes The Reliable Source column in The Washington Post. appeared on MSNBC's Hardball program to say that she had recognized the Salahis when they appeared at the White House, checked her guest list to see if they were on it, and discovered they were not. She then approached a White House staffer, and a little later, an aide to Michelle Obama, asking what these people were doing there, and why their names weren't on the guest list. Roberts said that neither of them knew offhand, and both said they would look into it, but she never heard anything further about it. Asked their names by Matthews, Roberts said they were Courtney O'Donnell and Katie McCormick.
These officials should be subpoenaed to find out what they knew and when they knew it. Did they communicate with other White House officials?
Later in the week, Roxanne Roberts appeared in an online chat on the Washington Post website, and was asked about her encountering these two staffers. She was a bit more expansive, and forgiving: "I asked two staffers early in the evening to verify the Salahis identities and tell me why they weren't on the list. I've covered plenty of state dinners, and that seemed really odd to me---especially since I knew the Salahis backstory with the reality show. The staffers were both responsible for dealing with the press, busy with their own responsibilities, and I'm sure they assumed that the Salahis were there because someone said it was okay for them to be there. And remember, it was their first state dinner."
What the Emails Show
The Salahis, through their attorney, released a batch of emails that they sent to and received from Michele S. Jones, special assistant to the secretary of Defense and a liaison to the White House.
Most media reports have emphasized Jones official statement, as reported by the Washington Post: "I did not state at any time, or imply that I had tickets for ANY portion of the evening's events," Jones said in a statement released by the White House late Monday. "I specifically stated that they did not have tickets and in fact that I did not have the authority to authorize attendance, admittance or access to any part of the evening's activities. Even though I informed them of this, they still decided to come.
"Reached by phone at her office at the Pentagon early in the day and asked about the e-mails, Jones said: 'I am not going to say anything at this point at all. Oh, my goodness.' Asked how she knows the Salahis and why she would have tried to get them into the White House, she said: 'I am not going to say anything at this point at all. In fact, I am going to terminate the call right now because I am not sure what in the world is going on here.'"
This statement has all the earmarks of a panicky official not sure of what the White House line is supposed to be.
The panic is understandable because a close reading of the emails suggests that the Salahis had plenty of reason to believe that they could attend. In several emails, Jones said she was still working on getting them tickets, both for the arrival ceremony and the dinner. While she also said dinner tickets were not too likely, she kept giving them encouragement. On the morning of the event, a Jones email said that because of the weather, they were moving the arrival ceremony indoors, and there was very limited space. But she added, "I am still working on tickets for tonight's dinner. I will call or email as soon as I get word one way or another."
This seems to account for the Salahis actually showing up and getting in. Otherwise, why weren't they told to go home? The most unlikely scenario is that a Secret Service agent would on his own wave people through, even though they were not on the list.
After the event, Michaele Salahi wrote Michele Jones and thanked her. She said that they had gotten in and their names had been on the list. It was signed, "With Love, Tareq and Michaele Salahi." Michele wrote back and said, "You are most welcome!," and signed it "Much love, Michele"
A fair reading of this exchange backs up the Salahi account that their attendance was likely approved by the White House and that Jones shouldn't have been surprised that they were coming. But what officials in addition to Jones were involved?
Can They Handle the Truth?
For obvious reasons, the committee should subpoena Michele Jones, to find out who she was asking about tickets, and what was the reason for the delay on getting an answer. And how close was she to the Salahis to write, "Much love" at the end of her note?
However, it appears that chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson is being told in no uncertain terms that the White House does not want the truth to come out.
When he announced a hearing by his House Homeland Security Committee, the Obama White House decided for the second time in less than a month to stiff a Democratic controlled committee. The White House had previously refused to cooperate when Sen. Joe Lieberman held hearings on the Ft. Hood murders.
This shocking display bothered some of Obama's normally loyal media backers, such as CNN's Anderson Cooper and David Gergen. Cooper played video clips of Obama saying, "Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known;" and as a candidate attacking President Bush: "There's been a tendency on the part of this administration to -- to try to hide behind executive privilege every time there's something a little shaky that's taking place. And I think, you know, the administration would be best served by coming clean on this."
During the same segment, CNN reporter Ed Henry noted that the refusal to cooperate comes from "a President who promised to shake up the system, rather than looking out for friends from Chicago."
Gergen, who has generally supported Obama, added, "I think the White House would be far better off to say, of course, DesirÃ©e Rogers is willing to sit down with members of Congress or members of staffs up there. Yes, we have executive privilege. We have the right to say no. But many presidents who -- have said, OK, I reserve the right to say no, but I'm going to go ahead and voluntarily send my people up there. It happens regularly...he -- the president -- this is full of contradiction. That is clear. The President ought to go back to where -- his original position, and have her go there and testify or just meet with the staff."
But the White House wouldn't back down. They did release a memo changing their tune, which had been that it wouldn't have made a difference if social secretary DesirÃ©e Rogers or one of her staffers had manned the checkpoint with the Secret Service. Now they were acknowledging that it would have made a difference, and that in the future they would have someone at the gates or checkpoints.
But none of this explains how the Salahis got in.
Chicago Tribune Calls for the Truth
The Chicago Tribune, hometown newspaper of the Obamas and Rogers, editorialized that she should testify in order to shed "light" on the whole matter. It said, "Obama is wrong to refuse to let her answer questions.
The paper added: "White House staffers in past administrations have given testimony on Capitol Hill on numerous occasions. True, many presidents have barred advisers from testifying on sensitive matters -- citing executive privilege, which is supposed to protect the confidentiality of discussions between the president and his aides.
"But it's hard to make the case that it applies to Rogers...If Rogers was not at fault, she shouldn't mind telling her side of the story. If she was, Congress and the American people deserve to know."
But is Rogers at fault? Or did she wave in the Salahis at someone else's request. Rogers has made some comments that could put her in an awkward position. Last June she was interviewed before a large group of people from the Creative Coalition, and was asked how she handles event crashers. Her answer then could give her problems today. "Rogers replied (to much laughter)," reported BizBash, "that she's begun adding an extra table, row, or bench to every event she produces, as each time she found extra people would show up in hopes of gaining entrance. 'Lots of people just come anyways, they won't take no for an answer,' she said. 'Finally I just said, 'Alright, come on in, it's no use kicking you out.'"
The New York Post reported these remarks and contacted the White House for comment. An administration official told the Post that Rogers was making a tongue-in-cheek comment about White House staff who should be allowed entry and not the general public.
But that attitude could well explain how the Salahis were indeed allowed in to the state dinner. They were not White House staff but clearly had White House connections.
Hearing Bogs Down
The House Homeland Security Committee hearing started out rather slowly on December 3 because Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said that a criminal investigation was ongoing and he couldn't be too specific about what happened at those checkpoints.
But as the hearings rolled on, there were some definite fireworks, though largely ignored by the media. Rep. Chris Carney (D-PA), thanked Secret Service director Mark Sullivan for his courage and his willingness to personally take the blame for what happened. Then he added, "I'm at a loss to understand why the White House didn't send somebody to discuss this as well. Or to give us a better sense. Certainly not a profile in courage. Certainly for a White House that touts transparency we would expect someone to be here."
Rep. Carney was also troubled by one of the emails written by Tareq Salahi. In one of his emails to Michele Jones, on the day before the state dinner, he wrote:
By the way - I know for a fact these persons are unable to attend the state dinner & the reception portion:
A number of the congressmen commented about this particular email, and were very troubled by it. Rep. Carney summed up their feelings. He said that the fact that Tareq Salahi wrote an email with a list of those not coming, along with explanations, was an "extremely troubling" security breach.
"The revelation of that email," said Carney, "requires us to do a very thorough investigation into who knew what, when, why and how they got that information. That was extremely frightening to me. That apparently Mr. Salahi sent this email and how he was able to come up with the guest list and not who was going to be there, but who was not going to be there, and apparently why. That is exceptionally troubling and that is a clear security breach that really needs to be understood. And it may not be Secret Service's, and in this case it is probably not Secret Services' fault. I don't think it is."
Another congressman who was upset was Rep. Al Green (D-TX), former head of the NAACP in Houston, who said that because this was such an embarrassment to the Secret Service, the agency might not be as eager to publicly reveal what happened and prosecute people who violated the law. He said if the facts show there has been a breach of the law, people will want the Salahis prosecuted. But he then added that, "If there are other persons who conspired or worked in some way that is antithetical to law, will you assure us that you'll properly prosecute anyone who may have broken the law? Proper persons, after thorough investigation if the facts merit it?
Director Sullivan assured him that he would.
Democratic Chairman is Warned
However, one day after the hearing, a message went out loud and clear to committee chairman Bennie Thompson-that he is the one who will be investigated, and that he better watch out because his political career is in jeopardy. The House Ethics Committee suddenly opened an investigation to determine if Thompson accepted financial contributions from credit card companies that amounted to bribes, in exchange for watering down new credit card legislation.
Without sounding too conspiratorial, was the timing of the announced investigation a warning to Thompson? Was this a message from the Democratic powers-that-be and the White House that if he probes too deeply into this White House scandal, he will be embroiled in a scandal of his own?
One thing is certain: As Obama works feverishly to pass health care legislation, the White House doesn't want a growing scandal involving the President's staff to occupy the attention of the media and Congress.
The Democrats who control Congress can be expected to fall into line. These are times that demand an investigative press unwilling to play lap dog to the White House.