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December 16, 2009

Accidental tourists enjoy breakfast with the Obamas

     Washington: A retired couple from Georgia travelled to Washington for a tour of the White House and ended up having breakfast with President Obama and US First Lady Michelle Obama. What should have been an amusing holiday anecdote to tell grandchildren, however, has raised further questions about White House security, specifically how people not on an event guest list wind up in the presidential mansion anyway. According to The Times, the improbable adventure of Harvey and Paula Darden took place two weeks before Virginia socialites Tareq and Michaele Salahi infamously crashed the Obamas' state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Dardens mistakenly showed up a day early for a tour scheduled through their congressman. The White House and Secret Service both said the Dardens went through the appropriate security screenings and were allowed into the breakfast as a courtesy because there were no public tours the day they arrived. That explanation was news to Harvey Darden, 67, a retired pharmacist, who said he and his wife never were told about the breakfast. They thought they were simply starting their tour until they were ushered into the East Room, offered a buffet spread and told they would be meeting the president. Darden said: "The further we got into the White House, the more surprised we were. My wife looked at me, and I looked at her, and I said, 'You know, I don't know if we're in the right place'." They approached a White House aide with their concern that they had veered off course but were told to "just go with the flow," he added. "I felt kind of funny because I was the only man in the room that wasn't dressed in a coat and tie," he said. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said agents performed the same screening procedures on the Dardens that were used for other breakfast guests. They checked the Dardens' names and did a criminal background check - steps that were not taken for the Salahis at the state dinner on November 24. Because the Dardens were able to pass Secret Service vetting, they were allowed to attend the breakfast for veterans as a "nice gesture", White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said. He added that it is not unusual for White House staff to take people who are cleared in for tours to other events if there is space, including Marine One arrivals, East Room events and Rose Garden ceremonies. Shapiro said the White House Office of Public Engagement, which Obama created to engage citizens in White House activities, was responsible for clearing in the Dardens, as well as the other breakfast guests. Darden said it was "quite a treat" to meet the Obamas and the Bidens.
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