Administration scrambles to explain why ambassadors were turned away from White House reception
Several foreign ambassadors were shocked Tuesday night when they arrived at the White House for the annual "Chiefs of Mission" reception but were denied entry by security staff. Several threw up their hands and went home. Ambassadors from Oman, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and several other countries were held at the door, while European ...
Several foreign ambassadors were shocked Tuesday night when they arrived at the White House for the annual "Chiefs of Mission" reception but were denied entry by security staff. Several threw up their hands and went home.
Ambassadors from Oman, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and several other countries were held at the door, while European diplomats from France and Finland were allowed in. This led several ambassadors to speculate that it was an alphabetical problem — countries with names in the latter half of the alphabet were somehow affected by a registration error. Neither the administration nor the State Department would provide a full list of the countries affected by the SNAFU.
The Cable tracked down what happened. One administration official told us that many of the foreign ambassadors and chargés d’affaires, when supplying their personal information in advance to get access to the White House grounds, used the European style of dates (DD/MM/YY) instead of the American style (MM/DD/YY) that the White House is accustomed to.
So, for example, your humble Cable guy was born on Dec. 31 (yes, New Year’s Eve), but if the date was given to the White House as 31/12/19XX (the year is classified), that wouldn’t match their official identification and entry to the White House would be denied, the official explained.
But multiple ambassadors who tried to attend the event told a different story.
"That’s rubbish. None of the ambassadors had done that," said one ambassador who eventually left after waiting for more than 45 minutes. He said that the State Department called him Wednesday morning to explain that the mistake was the administration’s doing, and that the problem had been created when someone entered the date of birth wrong in an Excel spreadsheet.
"The apology they gave to us was that it was a technical fault on their end and they explained that whoever was punching the information in entered the information wrong," this ambassador reported.
He pointed out that the birthday errors were always with the year of birth, not the month and day. Besides, these diplomats visit the White House enough to know how to submit a date of birth.
The State Department was all over the damage control Wednesday. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had the various assistant secretaries of state for the regional bureaus call up the ambassadors affected to apologize. White House spokesman Ben Chang also issued this apologetic statement:
"At the start of the reception for Chiefs of Mission and Charges d’Affaires (Tuesday afternoon), a few guests were delayed at the entrance to the White House due to an error in processing their personal data. While eventually resolved, we regret that some departed due to the delay and apologize to those inconvenienced."
CNN reported that as many as 30 diplomats were initially denied entry. Omani Ambassador Hunaina Sultan al-Mughairy was the first to leave the premises in frustration, our sources report.
This was the second annual "Chiefs of Mission" reception, following the inaugural event last summer. President Obama started with a speech after which each country’s representative took their turn shaking his and First Lady Michelle Obama’s hands, conveying whatever message they were able in the few short moments they have his ear.
For those who did make it into event, they said it went very well and were pleased with the experience.
"They always put a lot of effort into it. It was a really nice event," said one ambassador, who had no problems getting through security. "We all appreciate that the White House makes a special effort for us."
But for those who were initially turned away, there is some lingering disappointment.
"It’s an example of how a little thing can become a bigger deal," said one ambassador who was denied entry. "Most of the ambassadors took it in stride but some of them really got offended."