Lewinsky replaces Ginsburg with two veteran D.C. lawyers Starr asks high court to order testimony by Secret Service agents

June 03, 1998|By Lyle Denniston and Susan Baer | Lyle Denniston and Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Saying that only the Supreme Court can decide "a sensitive, life-or-death issue" about protecting the nation's presidents, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr asked the justices yesterday to order Secret Service agents to testify about their private observations of President Clinton.

As Starr stepped up his battle with the White House in the Monica Lewinsky matter, the key figure in the case -- Lewinsky -- replaced her outspoken and often criticized lawyer, William Ginsburg, with two powerhouse criminal defense attorneys.

Lewinsky's hiring of the veteran Washington lawyers -- Jacob A. Stein, a former independent counsel, and Plato Cacheris, who represented Fawn Hall in the Iran-contra case -- was seen as a sign that the former White House intern wanted a stronger defense against a possible indictment.

Her switch in attorneys appeared to shift the dynamics of the investigation. Ginsburg's relationship with Starr broke down early on. And recently, Ginsburg was dealt a setback when a judge ruled that Lewinsky had no immunity deal with prosecutors, as Ginsburg had contended.

It is possible that Lewinsky's two new lawyers could revive negotiations with Starr that could lead to immunity from prosecution for Lewinsky in exchange for her cooperation.

Saying they had just entered the fray, the new lawyers had little to say about their strategy yesterday but hinted that an immunity deal could be considered again.

"We hope we have a lot to bring to the table," said Cacheris, who has represented such high-profile clients as CIA spy Aldrich Ames.

Among the rapid-fire developments surrounding the scandal yesterday, Starr pressed on with his request that the Supreme Court rule before summer on the claim that Clinton is making -- a right of attorney-client secrecy -- to limit grand jury questioning of a trusted presidential adviser.

Although Clinton dropped a separate claim Monday that his aides were shielded from testifying by executive privilege, the remaining claim of attorney-client confidentiality means "the president . . . has directly challenged the ability of the federal grand jury to obtain evidence of possible criminal acts by the president and others," Starr said in the court papers filed yesterday.

Except for the executive privilege fight involving President Richard M. Nixon in 1974, Starr said, Clinton's challenge "is without parallel in the history of the republic."

Speed in the courts is necessary, the prosecutor said, because "the nation has a compelling interest that this criminal investigation of the president of the United States conclude as quickly as possible."

'Grave set of circumstances'

The independent counsel is arguing that the criminal scrutiny of the president amounts to "a grave set of circumstances" that threatens the security of the nation. Starr is thus leaving no maneuver untried if it has a chance to speed his inquiry.

Since January, Starr has been leading a grand jury inquiry into a possible sexual relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky. In their sworn statements in the now-dismissed Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case, both denied that such a relationship existed, but Starr reportedly has tape recordings in which Lewinsky says that it did.

The sworn statements by both are at the center of Starr's inquiry into whether the president lied under oath and whether Clinton or his associates tried to persuade Lewinsky to lie or tried to thwart the grand jury investigation.

In the latest issue that Starr asked the court to take up on an expedited basis, he is demanding that two Secret Service agents answer grand jury questions about what they have seen the president do and say privately. Starr also wants to question a Secret Service attorney about what the agents told him about their observations.

The Secret Service, with the support of the Justice and Treasury departments but supposedly without involvement by the White House, is strenuously resisting such grand jury appearances.

In a sworn statement given to a lower court, the Secret Service director, Lewis C. Merletti, said: "I firmly believe that allowing this testimony to go forward will compromise the entire protective fabric enveloping a president, whether at the White House complex or on the road."

If presidents or their families know that Secret Service agents may later be summoned to testify about their observations, Merletti contended, the agents will be pushed away "to ensure privacy and confidentiality."

U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, however, ruled last month that the Secret Service has no legal basis for barring its agents and lawyer from testifying. She said there was no connection between compelled testimony and the nature of protection of the president and his family.

Starr notes concerns

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