Rep. King Presses Desiree Rogers for Answers

After failed subpoena attempt, House Republican sends letter with 15 questions.

December 3, 2009, 7:43 AM

Dec. 10, 2009 — -- The top Republican on the House panel investigating the Nov. 24 White House security breach has renewed calls for White House social secretary Desiree Rogers to answer questions about her role in the incident.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., sent a three-page letter to Rogers Thursday seeking answers on 15 questions he deems "essential" for a full understanding of how Tareq and Michaele Salahi managed to masquerade on White House grounds without an invitation.

King's interest in Rogers' testimony has centered on the administration's decision to break from precedent and not to have a staff member assist Secret Service agents checking-in guests at entry points.

The White House has cited separation of powers in refusing to allow Rogers to testify.

"If we are to get the full picture of that evening, we have to know why the decision was made. What prompted the social secretary's office, after so many years, not to have people there that night," King said at the House Homeland Security Committee hearing Wednesday.

"We are not looking for constitutional confrontation. If the White House would reach out and try to find some sort of compromise, we would certainly be amenable to considering that." King admitted attempts to reach such a compromise have so far been futile.

King's attempt to subpoena Rogers failed in a party-line vote Wednesday after Democrats argued Rogers' role at White House events is outside the committee's purview.

Committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has said the Secret Service alone bears responsibility for White House security.

The committee overwhelmingly passed separate resolutions compelling the embattled White House "crashers" to testify Jan. 20, 2010, to explain why and how they managed to attend the Nov. 24 state dinner without an official invitation.

In a statement through their lawyer Tuesday, the Salahis warned they will exercise their Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to answer questions, saying the committee should not bother to summon them.

"We respectfully request that the Committee on Homeland Security accept the Salahis' declarations in lieu of summoning them to appear at a public hearing or any other setting," the letter reads. "Requiring the Salahis to personally appear for the sole purpose of invoking their Fifth Amendment privilege will result in an unnecessary media spectacle from which no facts relevant to the committee's inquiry will be determined," their lawyer wrote.

Thompson: Salahis' Request to Not Appear Before Committee 'Irrelevant'

Thompson sharply responded to the Salahis' letter, saying, "the grounds cited by the Salahis for their refusal to testify are irrelevant and have no bearing on the oversight activities of the House of Representatives."

Thompson said that by Jan. 20, the Salahis, who have insisted they were invited to the White House, will know whether criminal charges have been filed, suggesting their justification for pleading the Fifth may then be tenuous.

However, if the Salahis do plead the Fifth, Thompson told ABC News last week, there isn't much else the committee can do.

"This is America and self-incrimination is left up to the individual," he said. "If they choose that, so be it. But we would have discharged our responsibility as members of the Homeland Security Committee to get as much of the facts around the situation as possible."

Last week, the Salahis declined the committee's invitation to testify voluntarily at a hearing on the security breach. White House social secretary Desiree Rogers also did not appear.

U.S. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told the committee Dec. 3 that his agency bears full responsibility for mistakenly allowing the Salahis inside the White House complex. He rejected any suggestion that the White House was partly to blame.

The Service has acknowledged proper procedures were not followed at the checkpoint that night, where at least one agent actually checked a guest list for the Salahis' names and, not finding them there, still allowed the couple to proceed to the next checkpoint inside the White House complex.

"Human error occurred in the execution of our duties," Sullivan told the committee. "A mistake was made. In our line of work, we cannot afford even one mistake."

Three agents have been placed on paid administrative leave while the investigation is pending.

But Sullivan's explanation and acceptance of responsibility has failed to placate many Republicans who insist the White House staff bore some responsibility too.

Rep. King: White House Is 'Smacking Congress in the Face'

On "Good Morning America" Dec. 4, King said the White House refusal to let Rogers answer questions, on the basis of separation of powers, amounts to "smacking Congress in the face."

"I think she should come up and explain what happened," King told ABC News' Bill Weir. "All I'm saying is they owe it to the Congress, they owe it to the American people to explain why for the first time in 20 years she decided to have no one from her office working with the Secret Service."

Prior to the Nov. 24 gala, the Secret Service and White House staff agreed that agents would solely control the guest list at various entry points – a break in protocol from previous administrations.

The White House has since reversed course in a tacit acknowledgement that the staff might have helped prevent the breach.

Deputy White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina has instructed Rogers' office to abide by precedent and have a White House staffer present at checkpoints during future official events.

"After reviewing our actions, it is clear that the White House did not do everything we could have done to assist the United States Secret Service in ensuring that only invited guests enter the complex," Messina wrote.

Still, committee chairman Thompson has said that, regardless of whether a White House staffer was present, the Secret Service bears full responsibility.

"The social secretary, they plan parties," he said. "They don't provide security. And I think, to try to say somehow that individuals who plan parties have the primary responsibility for security is a stretch."

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