Secret Service testimony probably another meaningless sideshow

July 10, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There may be less than meets the eye in the legal struggle over whether Secret Service agents shall be required to testify in the Monica Lewinsky case.

The decision by the three federal appeals court judges supporting special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is likely to be appealed by the Department of Justice with the blessing of the White House. But legal experts believe there is little substance to the claim that the protective function of Secret Service would be compromised by denying such a privilege. The three-judge panel suggested how thin that claim might be when it suggested that if such a privilege were needed, the answer would be to get Congress to write it into law.

The only inference that makes sense from the language in the decision is that an appeal would be another case of the White House trying to stall for time.

The delay could be significant. Even if an appeal could be made to the full U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on an expedited basis, the expectation is that the White House -- again acting through the Justice Department -- eventually would take its case to the Supreme Court. And that means it could not be considered before the high court meets again in October and perhaps not for weeks after that.

In short, it seems plain that the White House has lost the legal argument but still has sound political reasons to let the appeals play themselves out.

There are legitimate questions that can be raised about Mr. Starr's reasons for pushing for the testimony. The presumption has been that the agents he wants to question could testify about Ms. Lewinsky's visits to the White House and, particularly, with President Clinton. There has been no suggestion any of them actually witnessed a sex act.

But if all the leaks on both sides are to be credited, Mr. Starr already has evidence of Ms. Lewinsky visiting the White House repeatedly, even after she was exiled to the Pentagon by the White House staff. Among other things, the visitor logs provide just such evidence. And no one in Mr. Clinton's camp has denied the fact that the young intern was there.

Put another way, it already has been established that there was opportunity for a sexual relationship that the president has denied and Ms. Lewinsky apparently denied in her original affidavit. That is not, however, the issue on which this investigation is supposed to be centered. Instead, Mr. Starr is seeking to prove whether the president or his representatives took steps to cover up the relationship by either committing or suborning perjury, or both.

That is not a question one would expect the Secret Service to be in a position to answer. So the question arises once again as to whether Mr. Starr is on a fishing expedition, searching for information that would corroborate the things Ms. Lewinsky reportedly told Linda Tripp in the infamous taped telephone conversations.

PTC The point in all this is that, once again, a legal sideshow is being taken more seriously than is justified. Again, the basic question is what it has been ever since the case opened six months ago: Did Mr. Clinton or intermediaries acting in his behalf offer Ms. Lewinsky a job in New York if she would deny there had been a sexual relationship?

So far Ms. Lewinsky has made no such claim in any legal forum. And unless such a claim can be made and supported, Mr. Clinton can be accused of nothing more serious than bad taste and lousy judgment.

The bottom line, as it has been for months now, is Monica Lewinsky's story and whether it stands up to close examination. We may watch Linda Tripp going in and out of the courthouse and we may speculate about what some Secret Service agent saw or even surmised. But these are sideshows that divert the news media while telling us nothing about the president's guilt or innocence. It is small wonder that most Americans have tuned out long ago.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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