Monday, March 01, 2010

White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers Goes On The Record About State Dinner Crash

Rogers says she followed protocol and is not to blame for the dinner intruders; Secret Service apologized to her
It's worth noting that White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers was allowed to announce the news of her own resignation on Friday to reporter Lynn Sweet, in advance of a formal announcement from the White House. This came hours later, when President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama issued a statement thanking Rogers for her 14 months of service.

The White House helped Rogers ensure that her own words about her resignation got into the historic record, and accurately, by letting her deliver the news to Sweet. As Washington Bureau Chief for Chicago Sun-Times, Sweet is a "hometown" reporter who has been covering Rogers since the days when both lived and worked in Chicago. Sweet is also the longest-standing Obama historian in the dedicated White House pool, having followed President Obama since his earliest days in politics. Rogers giving Sweet the news of her departure ensured that the information would be appropriately dealt with.

Now, Rogers is for the first time telling the real story about the night of the State Dinner crash, by going on the record with a different reporter. Rogers has had negative media scrutiny for months, as she's been blamed for the security breach at the November State Dinner, when reality TV aspirants Tareq and Michaele Salahi entered the event without an invitation. The Secret Service ultimately took full responsibility for the security breach, but that hasn't stopped many people from blaming Rogers, and calling for her resignation. Rogers was not allowed to defend herself publicly, and she wasn't allowed to testify before the House Committee on Homeland Security, which convened a hearing to investigate how the Salahis got so close to President Obama that they could have theoretically done him bodily harm. (Above: President Obama with the Salahis in the State Dinner receiving line; they made it into the outdoor dinner tent, but left before the dinner was served.)

To set the record straight, Rogers chose a reporter from her other hometown, New Orleans, where she was born and raised--and still has family ties. In a new interview with Jonathan Tilove of the Times-Picayune, Rogers defends herself against her many critics.

"Everyone is saying the same thing, and it's wrong," Rogers told Tilove. She said that the Social Office followed established White House protocol to the letter on the night of the State Dinner, and reports that her office was not monitoring the gate when guests arrived at the White House are "just wrong."

Rogers said that in keeping with established practice, a member of her staff of five was at the main entrance to the White House all night. According to White House procedure, she said, the first point of contact arriving guests had was with the Secret Service, who would check names against the guest list.

If anyone arrived who was not on the list, it was the responsibility of the Secret Service to call that to the attention of a staffer from her office, who could then check to see whether the individual in question was supposed to have been on the list, and whether, if security information checked out, the guest should be admitted. Rogers noted that the Secret Service did not relay any information about the Salahis or anyone else not being on the list to any representative from her office, and the Salahis got past the first and toughest security checkpoint. (Above: Rogers at the State Dinner.)

Rogers also added that the idea that she was personally supposed to be at the door or gate checking guest IDs is "hogwash." Her primary responsibilities on the night of the State Dinner were, she said, to see to the protocol needs of the President and First Lady.

Rogers said she didn't know anything about Tareq and Michaele Salahi being at the State Dinner until the next day.

"It was brought to my attention the next morning when the Secret Service came to my office to apologize, and I said, 'What are you guys talking about?'" Rogers said. "They knew immediately who the woman (Michaele Salahi) was."

Following the State Dinner, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina issued a memo with a change in procedure for security checks for future White House 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. "White House staff were walking back and forth outside between the check points helping guests and were available to the Secret Service throughout the evening, but clearly we can do more, and we will do more."

Rogers told Tilove that the new element in the Messina directive is that the White House staff would check visitors against the guest list first, before they went through the Secret Service check.

Rogers added that this was definitely a new procedure, not a return to procedures that had been in place during the Bush years, which a former Bush staffer who had quit when Rogers became Social Secretary had told members of the media. Rogers added added that the new procedure makes sense in an era of "reality television and people trying to make a name for themselves."

"There's such interest in this president," Rogers said. "I think people are crazier than ever. Maybe we didn't need it [the protocol] before, but we certainly need it now."

In her exit interview with Sweet, Rogers said that "The incident at the State Dinner was not a deciding factor" in her resignation. But she added "it did show me a side of the job and of Washington that I had not seen before."

Rogers is returning to private life after helping establish the framework for the White House as 'The People's House," a project that has now touched the lives of thousands of people.

Julianna Smoot, who until last week was Chief of Staff for US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, will replace Rogers. Smoot was critically responsible for fundraising operations for candidate Obama during his presidential bid, responsible for raising the millions of dollars that put him on par with Hillary Clinton and made him a viable candidate. Before even spending a full day as Social Secretary, Smoot was already coming under fire, over the weekend, for perceived conflict of interest, by reporters worried that wealthy donors will now have privileged access to White House events. The White House has pointed out that Lea Berman, a former Social Secretary for George W. Bush, was also a fundraiser.

Related: A look back at some of Rogers' negative press is here. The Salahis were called before the House Homeland Security Committee to testify about the security breach on Jan. 20, but they plead the fifth.

Photo at top: President and Mrs. Obama with Prime Minister Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur/Obama Foodorama; Other photos by AP